When I tell you that Dennis Gruenling is one of the best harmonica players on the planet, it’s not just typical show-biz hyperbole. Dennis is a star in the blues world and has the press clippings and awards to prove it. Blues411.Com just named Dennis their top harmonica player for 2013 in a competition that included all the best in the business including Kim Wilson.
And the musical partner Dennis prefers is Doug Deming, the great singer and guitarist who fronts the Jewel Tones. Doug first brought Dennis to the Palladium two years ago and it was a magical night of music.
Dennis, Doug and the band are playing Saturday night in the Side Door, then headed out on a cross country tour from Florida to California and back. Catch ‘em at the opening of the tour this Saturday. For tickets visit www.mypalladium.org.
And I’ll see you there. I’m celebrating my birthday with the band in the Side Door that night and it’s going to be a great party.
Here are some press clips about Dennis and a story from Blues Blast Magazine:
“Dennis is the ‘The Real Deal’ – one of the best harmonica players in the world today” – WORLD OF HARMONICA
“Like World Champions…musicians Dennis Gruenling and Doug Deming are individually great talents who are even better when they come together as one of the most prolific duos on today’s contemporary American Blues scene” – MUSIC NEWS NASHVILLE
“Gruenling shows why he is considered one of the top harp players on the planet” – BMAN’S BLUES REPORT
“(Gruenling) and Deming aren’t riffing bygone pages to get the flavor, they’re writing more chapters in the book” – FAME
“(Doug Deming & Dennis Gruenling)…one of the great tandems in blues music today” – BLUES JUNCTION
“Dennis Gruenling is a leading light among a new generation of harp players…a true innovator…Gruenling stands poised to claim a spot in the pantheon of blues harp greats” – BLUES REVUE
“Dennis Gruenling has become the new harp players’ harp player…one of the most critically acclaimed of his generation” – JUKE JOINT SOUL
“Even with most capable pals Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin and Steve Guyger, it’s Gruenling’s blowing that makes for the standout stuff on this exceptional set (Tribute To Little Walter)…His command of technique and sense of groove are ideally suited to celebrating the man who blues harmonica to the next level” – JAZZ & BLUES REPORT
“Gruenling is a spectacular harmonica player, easily one of the best recording today, and proves to be an accomplished composer, arranger, and producer as well” – BLUES BYTES
And if you want to know more about Dennis, check out this story from the Nov. 29, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine, written by Mark Thompson, a blues fan and Suncoast Blues Society board member:
Many musical careers started with a gift that sat wrapped under the Christmas tree. Most kids yearn for their first guitar, drum kit, or keyboard.
All Dennis Gruenling wanted was a harmonica.
“I didn’t really go after playing harmonica. I had an uncle who played one as well as guitar and banjo. One Christmas, he asked me if I was interested in learning how to play the harmonica. I said sure – didn’t really think much of it. I thought it was cool because I had heard some rock & roll guys play harmonica and thought it was something that you could easily carry around with you. I didn’t really go after it as I’m going to play harmonica. It just kind of happened.”
So, at the age of eighteen, Gruenling was about to get his first harp. He was already an avid record collector. “I’ve been into music as long as I have been breathing. I was into rock and other stuff and knew where to buy records that you couldn’t get a normal record store. So in exchange for the harmonica, my uncle asked me to get him this blues album that he wanted.”
So Gruenling ordered a copy of Harp Attack, the Alligator Records title that featured James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch. On Christmas morning, he found himself, harp in hand, staring at an album with four harmonica players. “I made my uncle play the record for me and I was blown away by what I heard. I hadn’t heard real blues players before – or real blues music in general. I was knocked out by the music and the harmonica playing.”
That revelation sent Dennis on a quest to find more records by Cotton and Wells, leading him to other legendary players like Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. He was buying records every week as the music took hold and refused to let him go. That led him to his next revelation.
“I had been practicing and really getting into it for the first six months. Then I realized that I was going to have to work a lot harder at it than I thought. Most people think that playing a little harmonica can’t be that difficult. I learned some simple things like playing single notes but couldn’t get anything like the sounds that I was hearing from all of these great blues players that I was now listening to.”
Having dropped out of school, Gruenling decided that he needed to devote at least a year to serious practice if he was going to master his instrument. Not long after that, his girlfriend at the time was offered an internship in New Orleans. The couple made the move and soon Dennis was practicing in their apartment for up to twelve hours every day.
“That was a big turning point in my musicianship. I made myself do it, learning to play my instrument every day. I took a few lessons during that time but no one that I tried to learn from really knew how to teach. So I was left on my own to really figure out stuff. I learned from listening to records. It was frustrating at first but as I started to put things together piece by piece, it got more exciting as I built my skill set on the instrument.”
Returning to New Jersey, Gruenling started playing local gigs in the New Brunswick area and began teaching others how to play. He had been playing for two years but was working hard and setting goals for new areas of learning that appealed to him. At various times, he was a member of bands like Bob White & the White Boys, the Weepers and the Fins. He later played with Filthy Rich & the Poor Boys, a band good enough to back touring blues artists like Homesick James and the legendary Pinetop Perkins.
In the late 90’s, our intrepid harp player decided it was time to start his own band.
“I had played mostly Chicago-style blues with these other bands. I had always had an interest in the jump, swing, and big band aspects of the blues. So I put together an unofficial band of my favorite players that focused on the jump blues style. We recorded my first record, Dennis Gruenling & Jump Time. I had a great sax player in the band, Joel Frahm, who is big into the New York jazz scene these days. There was a time when I had two bands – Jump Time to play the boogie-woogie and jump blues styles, and then a stripped-down band with a guitar player and rhythm section that focused on Chicago style stuff. If I had a gig that paid more, I’d use a six or seven piece version of Jump Time with a horn.”
Gruenling was influenced by a variety of players, starting with that first album. “Cotton and Wells in particular really got me going. They both had very unique styles and phrasing. Once I uncovered Little Walter, he has been a main influence ever since, along with George “Harmonica” Smith for his playing on the chromatic harmonica. Another master virtuoso of the instrument was Papa Lightfoot. He was very under-recorded but he had a raw sound and he had a unique swing, R&B horn sound in his playing. I loved that combination of those two elements.”
“And when I finally realize that there were blues shows on the radio, I heard Rod Piazza on the very first blues radio show I listened to. Not too long after that, I heard something by William Clarke, around the time his Blowin’ Like Hell record came out. I was knocked out by both of those guys and got to George Smith through them. Their west coast style is really 1940’s R&B and swing influenced into the traditional blues band.”
Whenever Piazza or Clarke were in the greater New Jersey area, Gruenling made it a point to be at their shows to continue his education process. He was easy to spot with his long hair and he showed up so frequently that Piazza began to worry that this “hippy kid” was stalking him. After a show, Gruenling proudly presented Piazza with a copy of his latest recording. Piazza took it home and left it in his garage.
Sometime later, he was working on his car, spotted the disc and decided to give it a listen. When it was done, Piazza went into the house and told his wife, Honey, that the “hippy kid” could really play! They have been friends ever since.
About 2005, gigs in the greater New Jersey – New York area became much harder to come by and the economics of keeping a band bigger than four pieces working became very difficult. “I fought it as long as I could because Jump Time was a big part of my musical vision. I began to work with other bands like Peter Karp and Dave Gross with Gina Sicilia. I took a break from working on my own stuff for a while.”
In 2007, Gruenling started work on a new project. “I had always wanted to do a string of tribute albums. Little Walter was the obvious first choice. He was the most influential harmonica player ever and a very influential artist for all blues musicians. There hadn’t been a tribute album for him since the year he died, so it seemed like a no-brainer as a project. It allowed me to work with some of my favorite harp players – Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin and Steve Guyger – plus Rusty Zinn on guitar.”
Even more important, when it came time to book tours to support the project, Gruenling decided to work with Detroit guitarist Doug Deming. “Doug and I were just starting to get to know each other. I felt a musical connection with him, so we went on the road together.” Their relationship grew from there, leading to a decision several years ago to form a partnership that allows them to release recordings under their own names while touring together with Deming’s band, the Jewel Tones – Andrew Gohman on bass, Devin Neel on drums – in support.
Deming is quick to sing the praises of his friend. “What makes Dennis unique is that he is so versatile. He can sound like a horn or even a horn section on one song, then do a lowdown dirty blues on the next number. And he really adds an element of swing to our sound, which is vital to a lot of the musical styles that I like to play.”
When they hear Gruenling play live, people regularly comment that he often sounds more like a horn than a harmonica. Part of that sound stems from his explorations into jazz music.
Gruenling’s solos always swing but also incorporate the best elements of jazz improvisation that make each excursion a memorable experience as he turns melodies inside and out. For that, he had a very good teacher.
“I work hard on being a good harmonica player. But I also have been driven to be a good musician. I’ve always been a fan of swinging, rocking tenor and baritone saxophones players like Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Red Prysock, and Gene Ammons. The jazz stuff with a strong blues sensibility really appealed to me. I learned to tailor my playing to the song instead of always doing the same style.”
“I got turned on to an album by a group called Soprano Summit. The co-leaders were Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. They both played soprano sax, clarinet and several other horns. Kenny grew up playing blues in strip bars as a teenager in New York City. I was blown away by the feeling he expressed on the clarinet. Shortly after that, I kept seeing this same name listed almost weekly for a gig at a roadhouse not far from me. I thought it was kind of weird that a guy with the same name as the one on my record was playing in my area.”
Dennis finally gathered up some courage and headed out to the see if this was the same Kenny Davern.
“It was him. He was playing traditional jazz on clarinet and swinging his ass off. They didn’t want to let me in the bar as I was still underage. I introduced myself to Kenny as a fan and asked him about jazz musicians like clarinet player Pee Wee Russell. We talked for hours until they finally kicked us out. We became friends and I learned a lot from him about being a musician and music in general. The greatest lessons he taught me were to not be narrow-minded in my approach to music and to know you instrument so well that you can fit into any musical environment and sound like you belong, even when improvising. Do your homework and find your own voice.”
Dennis is very excited about the future with Doug Deming. “He is a rare breed of guitar player, not only because of how good a player he is, but he also understands how to back up a harmonica player. He plays the traditional and the swing blues as well as any guitar player I have ever played with. We can play the jump blues and do it justice without a sax or a boogie piano player because the whole band knows how to swing.”
“ It has been really exciting to be out there touring and I feel the band has been kicking butt playing the songs from our two recordings on the Vizztone label. We collaborated on each other’s project and each one has a slightly different vision. New material has been pouring out of me lately because of my excitement about the chemistry between us. I am writing with this particular band in mind, which hasn’t been the case since the Jump Time days.”
To fill his spare time, Gruenling has a collection of vintage harp microphones that is in a constant state of flux as he buys, sells and trades with other harmonica aficionados. He supplements his income by giving private lessons to students locally and on-line. And even though he quit listening to radio several decades ago, he has had his own program, The Blues and the Beat, for the last ten years every Thursday afternoon on WFDU 89.1FM from Farleigh Dickinson University (http://wfdu.fdu.edu/dennis.html).
Despite being recognized as one of the best blues harp players in the world, gigs are still hard to come by in the NJ/NY area when Gruenling is not teamed up on the road with Deming. He recently took up meditation, which has helped him deal with the stress of life but also seems to have freed up his creative inner being. “I think I have more than enough material ready for the next project. Now it’s just a matter of working the songs out with the band and figuring out when we are going to go into the studio. And I’m still exploring all the possibilities of sound that can be created by my techniques on the harp and how the microphone works with the amp as well as how you use your hands to change the sound, tonal nuances and textures. I have always loved sounds and I always go after the sounds I hear in my head!”
For more info on Dennis visit his website at http://dennisgruenling.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!