Jay Gaunt
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Jay Gaunt

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If you're a 14-year-old harmonica player from Mahwah — even one who's gifted enough to play New York's top clubs, and get praised by top musicians — how do you learn, really learn, about the blues?

Jay Gaunt could not reasonably be expected to work in a penal farm, hop a freight train, shoot someone in a bar over a Stetson hat or have his wo-man leave him. "Well, the latter kind of did happen," says Gaunt, a ninth-grader at Saddle River Day School (he's vice president of his class).
But Gaunt has found other sources of inspiration.
He's inspired by blues harp players like Little Walter, James Cotton, Kim Wilson, Sonny Boy Williamson II and his favorite, Jason Ricci. "He's the greatest musician who ever walked the earth," Gaunt says.
He's also inspired by what inspired them.

In June, Gaunt made a pilgrimage to Mississippi and Tennessee with his mother, Jane Bidwell, a retired social worker and human rights activist who has actively promoted her son's career (he's played Terra Blues in Manhattan, B.B. King's in Manhattan and Memphis, Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Miss., Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco and numerous festivals).

Down in the Delta where it all began, the teenager saw some things that will, no doubt, add new notes of rawness, pain and power to an already-fiery harmonica style.
"He was already connected to the music, but I just saw the beginnings of a recognition down there, of where the depth of the music comes from, by being out in the fields and seeing those workers," Bidwell says.
It was the support — emotional and financial — of Bidwell and Gaunt's father, John Gaunt of Allendale, that has enabled the teenager to release his first album, "Blown Away." The album, which includes such blues standards as "Big Boss Man," "The Thrill Is Gone" and "Cissy Strut," came out this month.
At 5 p.m. today, Gaunt will celebrate with a CD release party at Mexicali Live in Teaneck. The Steve Johnson Blues Band will provide backing; all proceeds go to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children).
"I'm very excited," Gaunt says. "The musicianship is going to be extraordinary."

Though Mom and Dad foot the bill, "Blown Away" is not just the vanity project of stage parents.
Gaunt has gotten glowing notices from other blues musicians — not least from Ed Ivey, a West Coast bandleader and producer who heard the teen play when he came out to San Francisco two years ago. When Gaunt returned a few months later, Ivey not only suggested making an album, but offered to produce it.

"From the very first note that he played, there was a maturity and authoritative delivery there that you only encounter in pros, and only in the upper rank of professional harmonica players," Ivey says.

He's not the only pro to look on Gaunt as a colleague. The teen, who has lately been branching into funk and jazz, has shared the stage with Ricci, the James Cotton Band, Michael Powers, Bob Margolin and other pros who are three and four times his age.
"At first it was kind of nerve-racking," he says. "It was like, 'I can't mess up, because these people really know what they're doing.' But now, playing with adults is kind of comforting. With adults, you really know that 99 percent of the time, they're going to be good musicians."

Why the blues? Gaunt isn't quite sure, though he grew up in a household where Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were part of the soundtrack.

He was playing clarinet in the school band when he stumbled onto a British music magazine with an attached CD called "The Roots of Hendrix." Voila! Albert King, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters — heaven.

"It's so raw and emotional, I think that's a part of it," Gaunt says. "But there's almost a certain kind of precision and elegance under that rawness."
Needless to say, Gaunt traded his clarinet in for a harmonica. "I never really connected to the clarinet like the harmonica," he says.

"My mom would always make me practice playing clarinet. Now she makes me stop practicing harmonica."

Also needless to say, he was rarin' to play out. His first experience was in some ways his most memorable: It happened at a Blues Brothers show in Nyack 2 1/2 years ago, featuring a potpourri of musicians hosted by none other than Ellwood Blues himself, Dan Aykroyd.

"He was in the lobby at intermission, I was getting an autograph," Gaunt recalls. "My mom said, 'Jay plays harmonica.' And he was like, 'Oh really? Do you suck or blow?' "
But then, after intermission, Aykroyd surprised Gaunt and his mom by announcing in front of an audience of about 200, "We have a harmonica player in the audience, Jay from Mahwah — come up, Jay!"

"He probably should have had me play for him first," Gaunt says. "Honestly, at the time I was pretty horrible. … I'd been playing for a month or two."

He's learned a lot more since then. Not least of all during the past summer, when he went to see the place where the blues began.
He went to Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi penal institution that has figured in countless blues songs ("I'm gonna be here for the rest of my life/And all I did was shoot my wife.").
"The prisoners' uniforms are all color-coded," he says. "I think red was the worst — the killers and the rapists. Once, we drove by a group of those prisoners. And the looks they gave me were pretty creepy."

And, of course, he visited the Lourdes of the blues. That's the intersection of routes 61 and 49, the famous crossroads where Robert Johnson — so they say — sold his soul to the devil.
Gaunt, at this point, isn't prepared to sign anything except a record contract.

"I just kind of got out, marveled at it for a bit and took a few pictures," he says.

- The Record: November 23, 2008


Discography

BLOWN AWAY
1. Jay’s Jam 2:52
2. Queen Of TheTenderloin 3:57
3. Sad Hours 4:00
4. Big Boss Man 3:51
5. Sixth & Market 2:33
6. Deep fried Turkey Blues 4:52
7. Don’t Lose Your Cool 3:13
8. My First Plea 4:07
9. Life Is Hard 6:01
10. Cissy Strut 5:25
11. Big Legged Woman 4:34
12. Don’t Get Me Started 3:58
13. Rollin’ & Tumblin’ 4:11
14. The Thrill Is Gone 6:04

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Bio

Jay Gaunt began playing blues harmonica just as he turned 12. Inspired by the same blues men who influenced his favorite rock and rollers, Jay began to play along with the music of the Blues Brothers movie. Jay went to see Dan Aykroyd when he was hosting Chick Willis & Dwight Edwards at the Opus Theater in New York (June 2006). Dan called Jay up to sit in on the encore. Soon after, Jay sat in with Sweet Georgia Brown at both the Lenox Lounge in Harlem and in Central Park. It was during these early performances that Jay realized how much he loved to play blues and that he wanted to study blues music and harmonica.

Jay’s passion for the blues fuels him to listen to blues music, learn blues history and play blues harmonica – constantly! While Jay’s favorite music is the blues and he feels most comfortable playing it, he is not limited to just one genre. He is also interested in playing jazz, funk, and rock.

Jay is influenced most by Chicago legends -- James Cotton, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Junior Wells, George Harmonica Smith, and Howlin’ Wolf.

He is also greatly influenced by modern harp players -- Jason Ricci, Jon Paris, Dennis Gruenling, Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Chris Michalek, William Clarke, Mark Hummel, Michael Peloquin and more.

Jay met his first harmonica teacher Jon Paris when he sat in with him at Lucille’s Lounge at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Times Square in NYC. He began studying with Jon on both blues harmonica and blues guitar. In addition to weekly lessons with Jon Paris and Dennis Gruenling, Jay has also studied with: David Barrett, Jason Ricci, Chris Michalek, Adam Gussow, Mark Hummel, and Michael Peloquin.

Jay has shared the stage with, among others, the James Cotton Blues Band, Jon Paris, Jason Ricci and New Blood, Bob Margolin, Eric McFadden, Mark Hummel, The Hudson River Rats, Michael Powers, Richie Canata, and LD Miller.

He has played at such venues as BB King’s in both New York and in Memphis, Terra Blues, Ground Zero Blues Club, Biscuits and Blues, The Cutting Room. He has also played The Greeley Blues Fest (2008), and Blues from the Top, (2008) in Colorado. He will play both Blues Fests again in 2009.

In the spring of 2008 Jay recorded Blown Away with producer and musician Ed Ivey in San Francisco. The CD was released on November 23rd, 2008.

In addition to studying blues harmonica and guitar, Jay is also learning bass, saxophone and piano. Residing in New Jersey, Jay is an honor student who plays basketball and is VP of his class.