Corky Siegel: “The Future Is an Unopened Present”

By Louise Frank |

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Corky Siegel holding a harmonica

Corky Siegel (Photo: Marc Hauser)

Corky Siegel is one of the world’s great Blues harmonica players. He is also a composer, pianist, singer, bandleader, teacher, and author whose curiosity about classical music and American blues has inspired much of his distinguished half-century career. In the good company of the groundbreaking Siegel Schwall Band, and in his ensemble Chamber Blues, Corky has created music inspired by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Roland Kirk, William Russo, Mozart, Indian Carnatic percussion, and virtuosity from many people and cultures. The ebullient musician, inveterate punster, and longtime friend of WFMT was born in Chicago on October 24, 1943.

Corky, age 5, in front of his childhood home at 8000 South Euclid Ave in Chicago (Photo courtesy of Holly and Corky Siegel)

WFMT: You’ve been known to quip that your memory “is a thing of the past.” Take us way back.

Corky Siegel: Once upon a time, a long, long time ago I was a tiny one. But I remember. I never just “looked” at a painting. I went inside the painting and walked around — mesmerized and ecstatic.

The best one was on a placemat we had and I never knew the name of the painting, but later I learned it was Stone City, Iowa, 1930 by Grant Wood. When I was a kid, I would go inside this painting and get mesmerized by it and then all of a sudden — fzzt! Breakfast was served! I have a whole story of it that I wrote.

The music of sound (birds, rain, thunder, babble) and the sound of music surrounded me. It pervaded every cell of my body and filled every space inside and out. I just wanted to keep diving in there and that’s what I’ve been doing for 75 years.

Ellis, Joy, Brave, Corky, and Bernice Siegel, c. 1950s (Photo courtesy of Holly and Corky Siegel)

WFMT: What was family life like? You once said that your mother loved whimsical popular tunes from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s, songs like “Mairzy Doats” by The Merry Macs.

Siegel: My family life was filled with music. Mom Bernice, Dad Ellis, and Sis Joy, all sang constantly. They sang with incredible enthusiasm and sweetness and it didn’t matter that they were completely out of tune. I would say “painfully out of tune,” but it wasn’t painful. It was beautiful. They also played recordings on an old record player. In fact, you could actually make records on it. You put a different needle on there and it carved the acetates. My first recording was “I wanna hear my voice already!” I was whining and crying. They listened to music on the radio, music like the Grand Canyon Suite, Peter and the Wolf, and Carnival of the Animals. My dad liked fiddling around on the piano and taught me to play clarinet a bit.

WFMT: The name on your driver’s license is Mark Paul Siegel. Where did “Corky” come from?

Siegel: From Skeezix and Gasoline Alley. There was a little baby in the cartoon, and my sister named me Corky when I was born.

Jim Schwall and Corky Siegel, c. 1966 (Photo: Rick Sullo)

WFMT: How did you go from studying classical saxophone at Roosevelt University to such a successful run with Jim Schwall and the Siegel Schwall Band? Did it occur to you that you could lead a life in music?

Siegel: I never was confident! Jim and I, we were musical soulmates. All we wanted to do was play music. There was no ambition attached to it. The very first place we walked into, Jim and I, we walked into a coffee house where we just wanted to play some songs we had learned. And we walked into a place with two customers in the back, you know, having a coffee or whatever. And we asked the owner, is it ok if we play? And he said, “Yeah, sure!” Then the next place we walked into was Peppers with all the bluesmen. We didn’t know that! And then the next place was Big John’s, and then all the record companies, and then Joni Mitchell who asked us to produce her first demo tape.

WFMT: How did you meet Jim Schwall?

Siegel: At Roosevelt University. We were in the jazz band. He was on one side of the stage, I was on the other. I played saxophone, he played guitar. And one day we walked into the elevator at the same time. I said, “Do you play blues?” He says, “Well, a little bit.” “Well, come on over. I don’t live far.” And then, boom! He played for me. That was it. Love at first sight.

WFMT: Love at first sound!

Siegel: Exactly.

WFMT: Many impassioned blues fans fell in love with the music scene that flourished on the south side of Chicago in the early '60s. What was it like for you and Jim Schwall to immerse yourselves in the sounds and experiences of that time and place?

Siegel: I myself fell head-over-heels in love with the blues. It might have been as early as ’64 when I was probably 15 or so, but I heard it before then. I had three albums by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed. I played these records and danced around my parents’ home in ecstasy. Met Jim Schwall in '64 and plunged with him into a musical symbiosis from that point on. Siegel Schwall got hired at Pepper’s on 43rd and Vincennes to play from 9pm till 4am every Thursday and host the blues masters like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Otis Spann, and all the Little’s, Big’s, Shorty’s who all showed up to sit in with us and take us under their wing. When asked back then, as a naive youth, what it was like, I would say it was really cool. But now in retrospect I realize it was an outrageous and mind-boggling, heart-blowing experience. I not only got to hear the great blues masters just about every night, but also to play with them once a week. Wow!

You have a very distinct sound when it comes to vocals, and harmonica and piano playing. How did you develop your personal style?
My first love was Roland Kirk. Playing saxophone in college, all my saxophone playing friends are learning all these solos of all these players, and I’m working on Roland Kirk. I’m like a few measures into the song — which only took me a month! And there was a point where I realized, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel here for me. But I love music! I knew that the academic aspect of music wasn’t for me. I wanted to get down and play something now and find a way of feeling it. So for me, expression was always the first thing. If I could have been Howlin’ Wolf, if I could have imitated him to a T, I would have done that. And I tried! But there was no way I was going to be Howlin’ Wolf or anyone else. So I just would pick up a little bit of the music, and it was, how do you say, deductive, I wasn’t conscious of it. What I was conscious of was trying to learn what other people were doing, but that was not one of my skills. And what came out was something that certainly was influenced by all the players and singers. I understand that people say, “Oh, you have a really original style!” I wasn’t trying to develop an original style. In order for me to play a piece, I took elements, and that’s how it had to come out.

The Siegel-Schwall Band, c. 1966 - Jos Davidson, Corky Siegel, Jim Schwall, and Russ Chadwick (Photo courtesy Holly and Corky Siegel)

WFMT: So you and Jim Schwall were in your twenties and performing all over the country. And then, one summer evening in 1966, as the Siegel-Schwall band played your weekly gig at Big John’s, everything changed for you. A fan introduced himself with an invitation to collaborate: “Would your band like to sit in with my band?”

Siegel: The man was conductor Seiji Ozawa who, at the time, was serving as Ravinia’s first music director. Of course, Seiji was one of the top conductors in the world and was guest conductor with his “band” — The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Corky Siegel, William Russo, and Seiji Ozawa at Ravinia, c. 1968 (Photo courtesy of Holly and Corky Siegel)

WFMT: That’s when you met another son of Chicago, composer William Russo. He found a way to bridge the gap between the blues and classical music. How did Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra, and later, the harmonica concerto, Street Music, come about?

Siegel: Seiji held the idea and the desire to do it and I was just asked for suggestions throughout the process, Bill wrote the piece, Siegel-Schwall band performed it with the Chicago Symphony and Seiji. The blues music and classical music just had a ball. The differences in classical music and blues are nothing but gifts to any composer wanting to do something “different.” And the blues and classical just naturally flow together, as a loving couple does with very different backgrounds. The gap is perceived almost entirely from sociopolitical images and ideas that have nothing to do with music. So it’s a surprise how well the two forms work together – but it really shouldn’t be a surprise.

WFMT: You have dedicated your creative life to exploring this cross-genre musical relationship. How would you describe your longtime ensemble, Chamber Blues?

Siegel: Chamber Blues is a compositional experiment that intertwines classical and blues styles while maintaining the singular character of each. The ensemble is a classical string quartet, Indian tabla, and blues harmonica, piano, and sometimes vocals.

WFMT: What are some of the “secrets” behind your 50-plus years of music-making?

Siegel: There are indeed secrets – not because I won’t share them, but mostly because people won’t listen. LOL! First, dynamics can get you through most musical challenges. Kindness can get you through the rest.

WFMT: In your book, Let the Music Soar, you explain that dynamics are the key to a strong emotional connection between performer and audience. What do you mean by that?

Siegel: When I speak of emotional connection, I really mean the connection to expression. I didn’t mean a connection to the audience. I think we are already connected to the audience. There are ways we can disconnect. One way to disconnect is by not being connected to our own heart. The book is about a mechanical technique that can do that easily.

An array of harmonicas organized by key

Some of Corky Siegel’s many harmonicas (Photo: Charles Osgood Photography)

WFMT: Some of us may have the image of a harmonica being a convenient instrument because you can pop one in your pocket and be on your way. The truth for you is more interesting and more complicated than that. How many harmonicas do you have? What kind are they? And why is it important to have so many?

Siegel: Yes yes yes. The harmonica is an inconvenient truth. It’s a toy. It also wasn’t meant to be played the way it is played now. Blues is very stressful on the harmonica. It needs to meditate more. But it doesn’t. The reeds can go bad at anytime and you need to quickly replace the instrument sometimes in the middle of a solo in Carnegie Hall. But in some ways it’s very convenient. For instance, if you can breathe, you can play the harmonica. In fact, the harmonica helps you breathe. It is used in therapy for that reason. I have hundreds of harmonicas. I use Hohner Special 20. I will let you do the loose math. For instance If I use 12 major keys and 12 minor keys that’s 24 harmonicas. But because they can go bad so easily I need to store maybe 10 of each. That’s already 240 harmonicas. And I need to take at least 40 with me on the road. Not so convenient.

WFMT: After all these years as a Chicagoan, what is your tolerance for cold weather?

Siegel: My tolerance for cold weather is below zero!

WFMT: For many years you’ve meditated and practiced yoga. Do you believe in reincarnation?

Siegel: No. Not at all. But I did believe in reincarnation in my last life.

WFMT: As you approach your 75th birthday, what words of wisdom can you offer to young musicians embarking on their journey?

Siegel: Don’t follow your dream. You will be sleepwalking off a cliff. Wake up, follow your love of music. Then from there you will be in the right place. Be kind. Then you will be in the right mind. You are already connected naturally to the world, to art and music, to humanity. For instance, there is no separation between music and politics. Politics offers a special way of spreading kindness to the world. Of course, it can be used to undermine kindness. But by not expressing our love through politics we are neglecting one of the ways we are already deeply connected to our audience and to humanity. I’m not going to say any more. Just think about it, my dear collaborators.

Corky Siegel then and now. (1970 photo by Colin Johnson, 2018 photo by Charles Osgood Photography)

Corky, his ensemble Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues, and violinist Rachel Barton Pine visited WFMT for an Impromptu. Enjoy a video excerpt of their program, and listen to the whole program here.

And enjoy a playlist of Corky's music and some of the music that inspired him!

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