Jean-Jacques Milteau started to be serious about playing the harmonica after his guitar was stolen when he fell asleep in Dover while on a backpacking trip. He was 15.
Now 55, he has never replaced it, because, “the harmonica was fun to play, it was cheap, and you could put it in your pocket. I started off taking my harmonica with me," he said. “Now the harmonica takes me."
Although he is a big name mainly in Francophone countries, he travels well, and the pocket harp has taken him all over Europe, and on tours to Asia, China, and Africa. “Milteau can play!" exclaimed the Botswana Gazette, in July, 2001. “He rocked the crowd, which was hand-clapping, finger-snapping, toe-tapping, and humming bass lines along with Milteau’s guitarist Manu Galvin."
Milteau’s quintet will be doing two shows a night at the Sunset club in Paris for 12 nights between March 2nd and 19th . Their guest star, the Texan singer Michelle Shocked, is also featured on Milteau’s latest CD “Fragile" (Universal). Shocked, who has performed with Tower of Power, Doc Watson, Pops Staples, and Gatemouth Brown, defines her milieu as “wide open." Her territory includes rock, country, blues, folk, and swing music. Milteau summed her up by saying: “She has a good groove."
His bluesy interpretation of “L’Internationale" on the final track of “Fragile" is an alternative anthem, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’s “America The Beautiful." The album’s concept, Milteau said, was to “concentrate on the word ‘fragile,’ including Sting’s song by that name, of course. The harmonica is the paragon of fragility - all of those tiny breath-activated reeds. It is necessary to be conscious of fragility. When you know that something you love is fragile, you are sure to take care of it."
An early spell in America had hooked the young Milteau on Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson, and on the blues in general. There was a big blues revival at the time, and the harmonica was a big part of it. Back home in Paris, he turned professional, and soon found himself in demand with popular singers like Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour, who wanted to sound more bluesy.
His first album as leader – “Explorer," in 1992 – won a Victoire de la Musique, the French version of a Grammy. He has written a harmonica method book that has sold in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies. He teaches the instrument, and the blues, to disabled children. A recent edition of his radio show at 7 PM on Saturday nights on the Parisian FM jazz station TSF was dedicated to the late Wilson Pickett. Hohner, the harmonica manufacturer, designed a model in his name.
He plays the diatonic harmonica - you need a different one for each key. Recent virtuosos like Larry Adler, Toots Thielemans, and Stevie Wonder have all played sophisticated chromatic instruments. Although Milteau included Adler’s ‘Body and Soul’ with Django Reinhardt in a harmonica compilation he put together for Universal/France, he said: “This is not the kind of sound I have in my ear."
“I like a more traditional sound. More emotion, not so much technique." He illustrated by pulling a Hohner out of his pocket, and playing a few breathy measures of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot." His throat vibrato was emotion objectified. “You carry it in your pocket," he continued. “The harmonica is an instrument for poor people. I’m not going to make it something it’s not.
“The harmonica was a key part of the music that most marked the 20th century – the blues," he said. “It became a kind of counter-cultural emblem. Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young play the harmonica. True blues originates from the deep south of the US. One reason I love to play it is because you can express yourself with very few notes. Sometimes I’ll weave French tunes into blues standards; let people know that I’m French. I don’t play it straight."
Recently, Milteau found a Japanese distributor, who has since sold a total of something like 3,000 CDs in that country. A musician for whom modest sales figures are good news – his albums sell about 30,000 copies each - has to find his own distributors these days. The record-business-as-we-know-it has been slowly disintegrating from the bottom up.
Warner Music Group has just announced that that profit from digital sales almost doubled in its first quarter.
Downloads to computers and hand-held devices are turning out to be more profitable than sales of CDs.
Describing how record industry suits have been slow to understand 21st century technology like downloading and peer-to-peer exchanges on the internet, Milteau said: “The people who exchange the most music are also the people who buy the most music. You have to keep your perspective."
“With the music business today," he continued: “I have the impression that it’s like the Roman Empire has just fallen, the Barbarians have taken over, and now they are offering us feudalism. ‘Camp next to the chateau,’ they are saying. ‘The king will protect you.’ That’s not what I want. I want democracy without having to wait 11 centuries."
Asked if he resented being forbidden to stay in many of the hotels in which he performed, Duke Ellington replied: “First I thought about the energy required to pout, then I wrote a blues."