Jason Ricci, hailed as one of the greatest harmonica players ever, opens the curtains of his turbulent rise and fall from fame and rebirth as a living legend of Blues Harmonica.
At first glance, Jason’s appearance is everything but blues, with wild hair and eccentric clothing that can only be described as punk rock/hippie. But when his raspy voice hits the microphone it’s as if the mood of the entire world had just changed, and you suddenly relax into the rhythm of southern blues. Then Ricci pulls from the mic and buries his face in his hands. As the first note pierces the air, you can see everyone perk up in their chairs, and as Jason dives into his first harmonica solo, even the band seems to be a part of the audience as they watch him with respect and admiration. Ricci hits note after note, sounding as if there are 5 harmonicas playing at once, even beat boxing, creating his own percussion accompaniment without missing a note. Everyone starts to yell and whistle, encouraging him to keep going. The crowd sounds like a revival sermon, with even some “amen”s being shouted. People are breaking into applause before he has even finished, multiple times. Ricci is like a maniac, feeding off the energy of the crowd, playing faster and more complex the louder they cheer. We can see the level of effort growing and you imagine he must be exhausted. You are wondering, “How long can he do this- will he fall off the stage?” He has got to pass out, but he shows no sign of deprivation as he designs a roller coaster of music, and your jaw drops open as you watch like a child at a magic show, wondering “How did he do that?” This is what it is like to watch Jason Ricci perform: the turbulence, the twists and turns, the sudden calmness, the silence of one clean note sitting by itself, then into a storm of notes. This seems to be the story of Jason Ricci’s life…could Jason be playing his autobiography in music?
I am Tom Bassano. I first saw Jason Ricci play at Terra Blue in New York City. Now, three years later, I am bringing him to Tampa Bay. I have never interviewed anyone before. I had originally thought to give the task of interviewing to someone who was accomplished in the field of writing, but I chose to do it myself because I wanted to dive deeper into Jason’s past and try to understand who he really is. I said, “Jason, I decided to interview and write the story myself.” Jason said “That’s cool, now just relax and we’ll talk, and then you can take what you want from it. Ask me anything, nothing’s off the table- jail, addiction, homosexuality; I am an open book.”
Well, let’s start off with the soft pitches and we will dive deeper as we go.
Jason Ricci: Sounds good.
You grew up in Maine, but somehow you ended up in the south being mentored by, and even living with, legends of the blues in your late teens and early 20s, like Pat Ramsey and David Jr. Kimbrough. How did a New England punk rocker find his way into the blues?
Jason Ricci: It was the harmonica, the instrument itself. It was played in America by mostly black blues players and some white country singers, bluegrass, and folk. But if you are truly interested in the harmonica, you are going to be interested in the blues, because of what those guys do with it. So, at first, I was attracted to the music. But then I listened to the lyrics and in what at first sounded old-timey in comparison to punk, I heard a similarity, and that similarity is sincerity. There is a sincerity in both punk and blues that I could relate to. When I saw this, my mother brought me to acts such as James Cotton and Buckwheat Zydeco at a young age. Blues and punk are written more towards the arts and not so much for entertainment, unlike a lot of pop music. Today, I don’t try to play the blues. I just play music (he laughs) I play Jason Ricci. As a rule, I don’t think categorizing music is very creative, and I don’t believe its marketable that way.
What music were you listening to as a teenager and what has carried over to your playlist today?
Jason Ricci: All of it- I didn’t grow out of any of it. For a while I did, The Dead Kennedy’s Pixies, Misfits, and 7 Seconds. Then at 17, 18, 19, I was blues and jazz in my 20s. I temporarily stopped listening to punk until I came out of the closet in my 30s. That’s when I went back to my roots, and gave myself permission to be who I am. You see, I pretended to not like punk because it wasn’t in the culture. I wanted to be an authentic blues person, so all I would listen to was Little Walter, B.B. King, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Jr., and Freddy King.
If I were to describe your performance to someone, I would say you were a mix of Janis Joplin, Steven Tyler and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jason Ricci: Thank you, Janis is definitely one of my biggest influences. My mom would put on videos of her when I was 13, 14 years old and actually I would say to this day that I have never seen a better performance. The way she ran the band and her vulnerability, the audience would be wondering if she was even capable of finishing the performance. She would miss notes and she was trying to hard to get them that it was actually better than had she hit them.
Who would you say influenced you?
Jason Ricci: Janis was one of my biggest influences. I can tell you that Sean Costello’s live performance changed my life and watching Derek Truck concentrate on a single note is like watching Buddha meditate.
When you allowed yourself to listen to punk again, did that influence your music?
Jason Ricci: That moment that I said, “You know what? I’m going to sleep with men.” That decision influenced everything that was repressed in me to come out. I’m just going to be me, and I don’t care how I’m perceived. As far as punk influence, you only need to go to my album, Done with the Devil, and you can hear my blues cover of “I Turned Into a Martian”, a Misfits song. That’s some homework for you. (Jason laughs)
Tom Bassano: When did you recognize your homosexuality?
Jason Ricci: I recognized it on the school bus to kindergarten. I have always been attracted to men. I don’t have a choice of who I am attracted to, but I do have a choice of who I sleep with. It was easy for me in my teens, especially since I am a romantic and influenced by the heterosexual community. It was easy to have girlfriends. I didn’t have many, I had a girlfriend in high school and maybe slept with 11 girls my whole life, and for a musician that is not a lot. (Jason laughs) It’s pretty low- I was obsessed with music, there was not much time for sex until I reached my 30s. I charged the first man I ever slept with, so I felt that exonerated me (Jason laughs again) That was a Lou Reed song:
“Little Joe never once gave it away/
Everyone had to pay and pay/
A hustle here and a hustle there/
New York City’s the place.”
Later I fell in love with a guy- he moved away and broke my heart.
I thought I was gay because the gay community said my attraction to women was just brainwashing from the conventional heterosexual society. I met a guy named Brady that I was going to be with for the rest of my life, and probably could have. I would have married him if it was legal at the time. He refused to acknowledge any bisexual thing that was going on, if I said a woman was sexy, he would say “You just want to be her”. So, it took me a while to accept that I am attracted to both genders. I wasn’t going to say that I was attracted to both genders while I was in a long-term relationship. When I finally did, he said it was just me trying to hold onto some level of conventional American normalcy. I have slept with hundreds of men (Jason busts out laughing) maybe not hundreds, let’s take that out. I was with a lot of guys, like every night a different guy for like… (Jason pauses) wait a minute that is hundreds of guys (laughing hysterically). I can’t even come close to counting, I see people all over New Orleans that I have slept with. It’s a good thing I don’t go to Nashville very often anymore. I don’t regret it. Coming out as bisexual was the loneliest. If you’re straight, it’s great, everyone digs you, and being gay you have the gay community and all the clubs. But when you come out as bi, chicks are like, “What do you mean you sleep with men?” And the gay community is like “Jason’s just trying to make more money.” Being bisexual is not as cool as being gay and it’s not as easy. I am attracted to women; I communicate better with men. I don’t know, I guess gender for me is irrelevant. I never considered Brady’s gender and I never considered Kate’s gender- my wife. Both were great.
Tom Bassano: Okay Jason, I need to back you up a bit- you just glossed over prostitution like it was nothing!
Jason Ricci: Oh, it didn’t last very long. I answered an ad in the paper that said, “Male sculpture models wanted” and I met a guy that was really nice. It wasn’t like I was walking the streets; I wasn’t River Phoenix style- my own personal Basketball Diaries.
Tom Bassano: Were you going through your addictions at the time?
Jason Ricci: No, I was smoking a little weed… (Laughs) I was smoking a lot of weed.
Tom Bassano: When did the drugs start to take over?
Jason Ricci: Well, I went to treatment in 1997. I was 23. I left treatment after a few months and got a year and a day in a boot camp jail situation. I got out and went into a work release program and then probation. I stayed sober from 1998 to 2010. I was dealing with a lot of things when my band The New Blood broke up, and my mental health was not good. I was placing my career, and material objects, and my physical appearance above my spiritual wellbeing. I had everything. A career, money, and I was in great shape; abs, the whole nine yards. But I wanted more, I wasn’t happy with it. Plus, I did not recognize severe bipolar syndrome. For about 4 years, I was staying up 2 or 3 days at a time. I became obsessed with the occult books. I was a member of O.T.O., a secret society- and I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, there are plenty of people in O.T.O- but it’s classic bipolar behavior. I was dealing with forces I still till this day believe were demonic. You can chalk that up to bipolar or real life, I don’t care.
Tom Bassano: In your mind?
Jason Ricci: No, external. I full heartedly believe in God and the devil.
Tom Bassano: Have you been able to escape?
Jason Ricci: Yes, through God- but I don’t push it on people. So, after 2010, I started smoking crack and doing heroin, I had a French girlfriend and we were sleeping with men together, then I was arrested and went to jail in Indiana for some big boy charges: assault on a police officer and burglary. (Jason pauses) I never touched him. I did a year and a day and never touched him. I did a plea bargain to avoid 12 years.
Tom Bassano: What about the burglary?
Jason Ricci: I robbed a woman’s house and stole guitars. A pretty shitty crime for a musician. I didn’t really know her. I met her once and knew she wouldn’t be home and robbed her to get crack and heroin. When I got out, I met my wife. Her mother worked in the jail-she introduced us.
Tom Bassano: (Choking) What?! You have got to be kidding me. (Laughing in disbelief)
Jason Ricci: Well, you don’t know my wife’s mother (Jason laughs, as if remembering a sweet moment). She is AMAZING. She’s a prison advocate. She was hired by Amnesty International to go into the Bloomington Indiana Jail to police the guards who were stun gunning their prisoners to death. That job evolved throughout the years for her to advocate for prisoners to get their GED’s, glasses, and medications, simple things that they need. She started an organization called “New Leaf New Life” that takes long-term prisoners who have lost their homes, wives, loved ones and felons incapable of being employed in many places. She puts them in a position to be repositioned. She doesn’t judge people by their past actions. She’s not Christian but that’s a very Christian thing to do. Because we are not broken, but circumstances may cause people to behave in ways that are outside of their true nature. She saw that I had this life before jail. When I got out, she had dinner with me a few times, as a friend of course. She told me about her daughter, who at the time was trying to get harmonica lessons for a friend of hers who had been in a car accident and could no longer play her original instrument.
Tom Bassano: That is bizarre, I would never imagine a relationship developing that way.
Jason Ricci: It gets weirder, my mother-in-law is a descendant of the Karnoffskys, who gave Louis Armstrong the money for his first cornet- Louis may have never become the legend if not for that cornet, as he had an incident that led him into a juvenile detention center for a year, where he honed in on his skills. Louis spoke fluent Yiddish, and wore the star of David on his neck till his death in honor of the Karnoffsky’s.
I have survived and am actively healing through God’s grace. I don’t mean my career because I worked hard for that, but for my life. I’m talking about the fact that I shot more dope than Sean Costello, and I don’t know why I’m still here. I don’t think I’m favored, that’s part of grace. Grace basically means through no doing of our own, we are still here. All my hard work and my career in the long run, where will it really get me? My goal is, can I remain stoic in the face of adversity? In other words, how stable can I be regardless of my circumstances? Can I not let my circumstances dictate my behavior and how I have a natural tendency, like most anybody else, to turn to food, sex, drugs, and alcohol, even too much TV. But that’s something I try not to do.
Tom Bassano: So, you have an addictive personality beyond just drugs?
Jason Ricci: Yeah, a lot of that stems from trauma. I had a traumatic upbringing. It’s not too hard to dig and find that my father Joseph Ricci was all over 60 minutes, Geraldo Rivera, mafia websites. My mother did multiple stents in hospitals, a couple of them long term more than a couple months. I was raised by the neighbors, people thought I had money because of my father, and they thought I got that money because my father killed people. I did not have access to that money because my mother was not present. She was a bipolar and dealing with her own demons. Her parents were horrific. So, working too much is just a classic symptom of trauma as well as it is reinforced heavily by American culture. The harder you work, the better you are- workaholic. Don’t get me wrong though, I am a huge fan of America, I love living here.
Tom Bassano: The addiction is a large part of how you became who you are. Without the work addiction you may not have become Jason Ricci, one of the greatest harmonica players.
Jason Ricci: Absolutely, I lean heavily on the manic side. I am the opposite of attention disorder. I can focus on one thing for a few days and be fairly productive until I become agitated by sleep deprivation. I would say highly productive. But I don’t allow it to go there anymore. I take medication. It took 10 years to find the right medication. I take an antipsychotic and a sleep aid. That allows me to get manic in the daytime and then it cuts it off so I can sleep, and it takes longer for me to get manic, like 2 or 3 hours. I just exhibit an overly enthusiastic person for a few hours. I am still manic, but I accept it, I like being a little manic. Every bipolar person likes being manic. Everyone around me has the right to tell me when I’m manic. I don’t always like it, but I listen, or I have to explain why I’m not. (Jason laughs hysterically).
Tom Bassano: Does the blues bring you to those dark places? Is it hard to do that while recovering?
Jason Ricci: No, I think the blues has always been my lily. It’s like I made a mistake and I hope I learn from this. That’s the theme. It doesn’t always provide a spiritual solution. (Jason laughs)
Tom Bassano: Do you find it hard to play in clubs as a recovering addict?
Jason Ricci: Never, never. Because I don’t use drugs and alcohol like people in clubs do. That includes cocaine. I am not doing a line in the bathroom. I barricade myself in a room with furniture and mattresses, I smoke crack and shoot dope while watching porn for 4 or 5 days straight. Watching people drink in public is not the way I would like to, so it’s just not tempting. If they were smoking crack or shooting cocaine after the gig is over and I had a bad day, I don’t feel connected to God and I have not done anything to feel connected to God, I am in danger.
Tom Bassano: So, your addiction is self-medicating?
Jason Ricci: Yeah, there is nothing fun about it, the way I use. I remember coming back from a run and numerous parties that I had saying “Did you have fun?”, and that’s just a stupid question. It was just business at that point, there was nothing fun about what I was doing.
Tom Bassano: What would wake you up out of that?
Jason Ricci: God.
Tom Bassano: So, you are laying on the ground and God wakes you?
Jason Ricci: Not in the beginning. Normally it was an ambulance and a cop car that would interrupt it, two years ago- not quite two years ago, I will be two years sober November 20th. The last two years have been wonderful, completely different from when I was sober for 12 years and the time for 4 years. This is a totally different world where I am full of gratitude, and I recognize all the things that have happened to me and the rotten things I have done are all nothing but tools for me to help other people who may feel they are beyond forgiveness that may have done the same things as me or even worse. I can use going to jail, breaking into someone’s house and stealing guitars, prostitution, I can use what I did or what has happened to me to hopefully help others. Before you called, I was on the phone with a lady from Massachusetts that was fighting alcoholism, trying to find her resources to get better. It’s the most important thing I can do trying to give back.
You can see Jason Ricci on October 2, 2021 featuring JP Soars and the Red Hots in Safety Harbor on the Bassano Cheesecake stage on 507 Main Street during the Safety Harbor Autumn Music Festival.
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