By Kat Bein
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Sugar Blue is not one to dwell on the past. Practically raised in Harlem's famed Apollo Theater -- his mother was a singer and dancer there -- he doesn't care to relate any stories, drop any names. Only when pressed about a rumored meeting with Billie Holiday does he unlock the memory trunk for a quick glance. "I didn't meet her," the harmonica virtuoso corrects in a weary, yawn-stretched tone from his home in Chicago. "I was passed to her. And I sort of redecorated the shoulder of her dress. I was about six months old as I understand it." So much for sentimentality.
If Blue is blase about his past, perhaps it's because the 44-year-old harp technician has new ground to tread, including an ear-popping disc on Alligator Records. The aptly titled Blue Blazes A as in "Where in the blue blazes you been, man?" and the obvious fact that, well, Blue blazes -- represents his first U.S. release. He's had product out in Europe, and truth be told, Blazes actually was recorded originally for a Japanese imprint, then distributed stateside by Alligator.
Like other musicians better appreciated abroad, Blue spent many years in France, where he hooked up with the Rolling Stones. That's Blue's harp driving "Miss You," soulfully reinterpreted on his new CD, and "Some Girls." He also lent his chops to Emotional Rescue. But as with his Harlem days, Blue is taciturn about his turn with the band that gave his name resonance among rockers, claiming he was simply in the "right place, right time." When asked if he still keeps in touch with any of the Stones, he evades the question diplomatically, leaving little doubt: "It was sort of like a job. You know, you do it and move on. It was fun, but it was. It's history."
Apparently, though, he does keep track of the band's new material. He replies, with no animosity, to the question of why the Stones brought him aboard when Mick Jagger could have played harp by saying, "Listen to Voodoo Lounge and you'll know why."
Flashy and lightning fast, Blue cherry-picks clusters of notes while exploring the upper harmonic reaches of his instrument. Having played both the Apollo, infamous for its hard-to-please audiences, and New York City street corners, Blue displays an intense, attention-grabbing style no doubt shaped by such experiences. But the harpman is quite defensive about that point. "The reason I played the street was to grab enough money to put food in my mouth so that I could survive. Purely subsistence, survival. Not like a clown and gag and grin," he sputters angrily, momentarily forsaking his usual eloquence. "What other people may think of it is neither here nor there, but for me it was a question of survival." Still, one need only compare his style with other street practitioners such as Blue's main harp influence, Little Walter Jacobs, or Satan and Adam, to see that he protests too much. You want to eat, you better damn well hold people's attention.
Some folks who paid attention to Blue include blues masters Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Roosevelt Sykes, Willie Dixon, and Johnny Shines, all of whom shared stages and recording studios with the young prodigy. But blues weren't the only records the harmonica man was spinning. "I was into Parker and 'Trane," he says of the saxophone colossuses he studied, heeding the advice of older bluesmen who told him to listen to anything but other harp players. "I don't think anyone informs your style. I think you have a style or you don't. It's a question of character and how you learn to express that character. I don't think it's something you develop in a darkroom, you know?"
As for his straddling the blues and jazz worlds -- he's played with Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton, and Stan Getz -- Blue once again becomes testy. "Jazz, blues, it's all the same family, man. Without blues there wouldn't be any jazz.
To divide jazz from the blues would be like trying to rip a child from the womb of its mother before it's born and then call it life. It ain't." Disallowing any discussion of stylistic departures between the two musics, he fairly hisses, "They're all the same because they're all... great...black...musicians. I'm not about pigeonholing.... That disgusts me because it means the people that are talking about this music don't understand it."
Now residing in the birthplace of modern blues, Blue repatriated from Paris to Chicago on the suggestion of the late pianist Memphis Slim. Club dates keep him busy, and a new set of sides, titled In Your Eyes and guesting Pinetop Perkins on piano, has been wrapped and awaits label pickup (apparently Alligator was a one-time shot, although Blue allows he wouldn't mind if it were to be released by 'Gator). And Paris, like the other pieces of his past, has been unsentimentally set aside, despite his regal treatment there. "It was just because I was an American musician in France," he explains. "Basically, when it comes to racism, things don't change anywhere, anytime." And as for Parisians' much-vaunted colorblindness, he discounts it with this: "There's not 25 million of 'em living in [their] back yard. I hate to be straight-up, but that's the way it is, man."
Sugar Blue performs Thursday (tonight) at 8:30 and 10:15 at the Musicians Exchange, 729 W Sunrise Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 944-2627. Admission costs nine dollars (buy two, get one free).