By Kevin Coughlin
Mouth organ. Blues harp. Tin sandwich.
The humble harmonica goes by many nicknames.
Rob Paparozzi can add “Passport” to that list. The instrument has been his ticket to Broadway runs, recording gigs with the late Whitney Houston, and even TV jingles.
On Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, Rob and his bag of harmonicas will land on the historic Morristown Green, where he will star with his band, the Hudson River Rats, in the Third Annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival.
“That little instrument has taken me around the world,” says Rob, also an accomplished singer who has fronted for Blood, Sweat and Tears and toured with the Original Blues Brothers Band.
The Festival is free and runs from noon to 10 pm. The lineup includes the Jazz Lobsters Big Band, jazz giant Bucky Pizzarelli (with Frank Vignola and Ed Laub), teen sensation Quinn Sullivan and guitar wizard Johnny A.
Rob and the Rats take the stage at 4 pm; they are back by popular demand from last year.
“What I like about the Festival is that it’s on the Green, and people can just walk up…it’s loose and open, very accessible. And it’s not just local garage bands. It’s giving people good-quality jazz and blues. It’s a bona fide festival,” says Rob, whose band mates include Yankee Stadium organist Ed Alstrom, known locally as former music director of Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
FROM BEATLES TO BUTTERFIELD
Rob’s introduction to the harmonica came during the ’60s, from his boyhood radio. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Stevie Wonder all wove harmonica trills into their music.
Rob’s older brothers, both guitar players, pointed him to a $2 Hohner Marine Band harmonica (key of C) gathering dust on a shelf of their Linden home.
What really hooked Rob, however, was records by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band from Chicago.
“When I heard the harmonica in that context, it was more like a horn or saxophone,” Rob remembers.
The Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival
Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013
Noon to 10 pm
Noon: Jazz Lobsters Big Band, 2 pm: Bucky Pizzarelli,
4 pm: Rob Paparozzi & The Hudson River Rats,
6 pm: Quinn Sullivan, 8 pm: Johnny A.
He began playing blues, first on basic 10-hole “diatonic” blues harps. You need a different one for each of the 12 keys. From there he progressed to a chromatic harmonica, with a button that enables playing in any key.
Delving deeper, Rob studied with Robert Bonfiglio, dubbed “the Paganini of the Harmonica” by The Los Angeles Times. He discovered the harmonica’s tremendous versatility extended from jazz to Mozart.
Along the way, he learned to read musical notation. That ability–combined with his considerable talent–opened doors.
“Producers called when they found out I could read music,” Rob says. “Time is money. When you’re in the studio, there’s no time to say, ‘How does it go? I’ll figure it out.’ They put the music in front of you and you play.”
Rob’s harmonica licks can be heard in the movies Brother Where Art Thou and Flirting With Disaster, and on albums by Roberta Flack, Judy Collins, Boy George and James Galway.
He played on Cyndi’s Lauper’s Broken Glass and on Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love, and toured with country legends George Jones and Dolly Parton. And he has wailed away from Broadway orchestra pits, for productions of The Will Rogers Follies and Big River.
‘THE PEOPLE’S INSTRUMENT’
Rob is doing his part to elevate an instrument that he says was regarded as a toy-like novelty until a musicians’ union strike in the 1940s. Desperate for music, radio stations turned to harmonica groups and said “want to come on our show?”
After that, harmonica players finally were accepted into the union. Standout performers such as the Belgian jazzman Toots Thielemans further legitimized the instrument.
“The cool thing about the harmonica,” Rob says, “is that it’s kind of like the People’s Instrument.
“Its sound comes from the throat, from the shape of your head and your hands. Horn players have a little bit of that. But harmonica players have a lot of that. It’s almost part of your speaking voice. It’s a very personal instrument.”
After you enjoy this festival, come back next Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, for the Sixth Annual MorristownGreen.com Film Festival, at the Hyatt Morristown!