Bio – Finding the music. Healing the soul.

Beth and Willy Empress Theater

Here’s the longer story. You don’t have to read it unless you’re really curious.

I grew up in South Portland, Maine, in a small house at the end of a dead-end street surrounded by fields and lots of trees to climb.  When I was seven I fell in love with the old piano in our neighbor’s basement.  When my parents realized I was falling asleep  playing “air piano” on my pillow a little Baldwin arrived and lessons began.  When I wasn’t climbing trees and running in the fields I was playing the piano.Flo and Cynthia

When I was twelve a new job moved our family to Pittsburgh, Pa.  Within six months we suddenly lost my Mom. There was no such thing as grief therapy in those days.  I found release in my piano – thundering out the Warsaw Concerto and filling the neighborhood with the slow deep notes of the Moonlight Sonata. Neighbors remarked to Dad that they had never heard such sad music.

At sixteen I was chosen to study piano with the head of the music department at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.  Mr. Harry Franklin seemed to know what my grieving soul needed and taught me how to play Bach slowly – in the dark – and to try to fill the room with sound where each harmonic change was so beautiful you could almost taste it. When I finally succeeded it was immensely satisfying and eased my heart.

At seventeen, with braces on my teeth, my cousin Mike took me to hear the Modern Jazz Quartet live at the Hungry I in New York City.   I had never heard live jazz before. Their slow echoing counterpoint was so close to my Bach-in-the-dark I felt like laughing and crying at the same time. They filled the room with such feeling and magic. It was huge for me.   I kept the memory forever.

In college at Syracuse I studied Literature, Painting, and Music and also played harmonica in a zany jug band to let off steam.   After graduation I flew to Alaska seeking work and adventure away from home.  There I met Michael, married him, and raised three kids in a yellow farm house on Puget Sound in Washington state. I played piano for the kids with a harmonica attached to an old metal neck brace. They laughed and danced and jumped around while the rain poured down outside.

However the failing economy in Washington was like a wind seeping into the cracks of our lives. Soon it became so strong it blew our little family to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of ‘something else’.

In the Bay Area we found jobs and Michael went to grad school but the economy made survival tough. I began playing gospel harmonica and piano in a little church for soul’s ease. Beth and Son Jed

Beth with Son Jed

By 1998 the kids were grown and I was playing harmonica and keys in a folk rock band.  What I really wanted was to play blues harmonica. In search of a teacher I went to a Harmonica Convention in Detroit and met Joe Filisko from Chicago.  Joe introduced me to the deep harmonica blues of Big Walter Horton.   I couldn’t get enough of Big Walter’s sound and depth of feeling.

I spent the next two years in my practice room actively listening to Big Walter, deepening my tone and vibrato,  and being sent rare musical gems from Joe in Chicago and his friend Dennis Gruenling in New ‘Joisey’.   I also worked on tone and pitch with Winslow Yerxa here in San Francisco,

The process of absorbing Big Walter’s blues brought back my years learning Bach on the piano.  I played Big Walter’s rifs slowly – in the dark – the way Mr Franklin showed me on piano.  When I finally started to fill the room with deep tone and magic it felt so wonderful I could taste it.

You might ask ‘Why play someone else’s music?’  And I’d answer “When I fell in love with Bach, was I copying his music? Would you call playing Bach derivative?  No, of course not!  When I played Bach’s classical counterpoint it was my music and my soul surrounded and lifted by his.  For me it’s the same with Big Walter.  Why not learn from the person you most deeply love and relate to?  That’s what’s called having a musical hero.”

It was the year 2000.  I had spent 2 years in my practice room.  It was time to find people to play with.  For several  months I went to local I blues jams ready to play and found myself going home without being called up to the stage.  “Sorry, we ran out of time.”  I noticed that most women on blues stages were singers.  In those days women who played instruments were rare in the blues world and the guys running jams didn’t seem to know what to do with us.  They solved the conundrum by basically ignoring us.   After I quit being sad and mad and frustrated I started to think.   “If they won’t let me join ‘em I’ll have to find a way to work around ‘em.”

Years later I shared these early experiences with a woman bass player who was so good she played bass for Cirque de Soleil. As an unknown musician  she had had the same experience when she showed up at jams.  We called it  “The invisible woman syndrome”.

So, back to finding another way …

One day I heard that Steve Freund, the last guitarist to play with my hero Big Walter, actually lived up the road in Vallejo and often played locally at the Ivy Room. So I made a plan.   With hopes that someone who loved Big Walter as much as I did might accept me as a musician I recorded a tape with me playing three Big Walter harmonica tunes with no backing but my foot.  Then I took that tape to the Ivy Room.

During the band’s first break I walked up to Mr Freund intending to introduce myself  —  and stopped dead, holding the tape out, struck dumb by the enormity of what I was doing.  But Steve looked down kindly at the paralyzed short person holding out the tape and said  “What – you want guitar lessons?”   To my surprise he sounded like my uncles and cousins. So I relaxed and said  “No, I want to learn how to play harmonica with a real  blues guitarist.”   Steve graciously took my tape.  Three days later he called and said “You’re on”.

For the next three months I drove to Steve’s studio and played harmonica while Steve backed me on guitar,  gave feedback, and told Big Walter stories. He also introduced me to the music of my second musical hero, Otis Spann.  During about the twelfth lesson Steve sat back and said,  “You just brought the old guys into the room.  Come sit in with my band”.   And the world took another turn.

The first time Steve invited me up to his stage at the Ivy Room the women in the audience all rushed up front,  jumping and hooting and cheering. “Whoa I said to myself.   I guess it’s really a big thing to see one of us up here playing. Cool!”  And away we went!

As a regular guest on Steve’s stage I got a chance to meet and sit in with world class blues artists Rusty Zinn,  Wendy DeWitt, Barrelhouse Chuck, RJ Mischo, Bob Welsh, and many others.   It was an honor beyond my wildest dreams. And I made lifelong friends.

In the spring of 2003 Steve went with me to Fantasy Records to make  a short demo CD along with Wendy DeWitt, June Core, and Randy Bermudes.

Recording studio, Knee Action

Beth in the recording studio

When the CD came out,  the following review appeared in “Harp-L”, the online harmonica player’s discussion forum:

“Beth Kohnen … a white female from California putting out a harmonica tone that seems surprisingly out of context with appearances. My brain immediately registered 100 when the notes hit my ears.  As an old goof who has heard more than his share of old masters when they were STILL 98.6 and breathing, I personally feel that THIS KID GOT IT.  I have no idea what kind of life she has led or what possible pain, agony, heartbreak, etc. she may have gone through, but some have it and some don’t.  I am sitting here listening to her stuff and it is just great.  I expect to see a LOT more from her.” –Smoky Joe, 2003

With the CD I was able to put a band of excellent musicians together. We begin to play in venues all around the Bay Area including Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco.  I also started to book solo at Farmers Markets with three hours of elegant recorded guitar backing made for me by Rusty Zinn.  Playing solo started out as a sort of meditation in filling a space with beautiful sound at just the right volume.  People loved it.  My tip jar overflowed. And I’m still doing it years later.

Plus now when I show up at blues jams they are generally more accepting of women musicians and we all get to play.  (‘Bout time!)

Finally, in the light of Smoky Joe’s comment about finding someone unexpected behind the music,  let me end with a funny story:

A while back  a young black man walked into an outdoor farmers market, drawn in by the mellow old  harmonica blues filling the air.  Strolling down rows of flowers and vegetables he came to a stop in front of the source of the music.   And stood there looking confused.    The musician was a small white woman.   Finishing her song and having a hunch about his mental state, she raised an eyebrow and said   “You were expecting…?”

“A Brother.” he said, shaking his head, “I came all the way into the market to find him.”   Her face broke into a big wide grin.   “Thank you,” she said, sticking out her hand,

“My name’s Beth”.


Solo Gig at El Cerrito Farmers Market

Solo Gig at El Cerrito Farmers Market