Name: Spencer Jarrett
City: San Francisco
Position: Blues/gospel musician
J.: You play blues harmonica and guitar with two gospel groups and you front your own blues band. Have you been musical your whole life?
Spencer Jarrett: I came from a nonmusical family. We had no culture in the home at all — no books, no records. My brother and I used to listen to the rhythm and blues radio station at night through a little transistor radio under the pillow.
My childhood nickname was Fumferer, which is Yiddish for one who mumbles. I was a shy kid who looked at the ground a lot. But I managed to save up my allowance and buy a harmonica at age 12, and with the harmonica I found my voice. Musicians often classify other musicians into two groups: great technical players, and people who have great feel by ear, which I’ve always had.
How’d you start playing with gospel groups?
I had been working as a musician in the New York and Newark area, and when I came out here [in 1999] I stopped by a blues jam session in San Jose one night. There was a black guitar player on stage, and I went up to him between songs and asked if I could play with him. I got on stage with him, and it was like magic. We really meshed.
One day he said, “If you want to hear some really great music, you ought to swing by my church.” I went one Sunday and the music was great. After the service, a bunch of guys there got together in a little huddle and one of them began to sing something he’d been working on, and the other guys joined him in perfect three-part harmony. I told them I was trying to sing better and asked if I could come to rehearsal. So they invited me that afternoon to play harmonica with them. It was my first experience with church gospel music. Eventually I became a full member of the group, which is called the Gospel Travelers. They voted me in, and the same night invited me to be the chaplain of the group. I said, “You guys know I’m Jewish, don’t you?” The lead singer, Reverend Johnson, said, “Son, we don’t care what religion you are, you’re our new chaplain.”
As someone who davens at a Modern Orthodox synagogue, what role did you play?
At the beginning of rehearsal we get together for a group prayer. As the chaplain, I would do a reading before the prayer. Because I’m Jewish, it would be from the Book of Psalms. Only once did I actually have to dispense some spiritual advice, when the group was fighting. I said, “Listen, we’re musicians, right? Back in the days of the Bible, the priests had been carrying the Tabernacle through the desert. When the Temple was built, they were assigned the job of being the musicians in the Temple. What that means for us as gospel musicians is that we have to be able to carry a heavy load, and we have to be extra pure of heart like the priests.” And then one member of the group said, “Now that man knows his Bible!”
What kind of kinship do you feel after having performed together for years?
This is my family. If I were ever in trouble, if I needed anything, my musical family would be there for me in a heartbeat. Everybody in the group has their own struggles with money and relationships and the grind of life. We struggle together. We all feel that every day is a gift from God. I get up in the morning and say [the Jewish morning prayer] Modeh Ani. The others get up and say a different prayer.
You’ve also played with some blues and gospel greats. How did that come about?
My ex-wife and I were living in New York, and for a time there I became the caretaker for this legendary gospel singer, Claude Jeter. Through him I got to know many of the gospel legends. The most exciting was Otis Rush. It was life-altering, because when you know these people through their musical influence, they’re larger than life. The truth is that back in Chicago, Otis Rush was playing these $40 gigs in crummy little dive bars. Jeter was a great, but he was living in poverty and his royalty checks were for amounts like 43 cents. It told me something about how black musicians are treated in this country.
You’re on the board of the Jewish Film Institute. Do you have any recommendations for the upcoming S.F. Jewish Film Festival?
I’m really excited about “Presenting Princess Shaw.” It’s a mind-blowing documentary about a black musician who goes unrecognized in the wider world and the power of cross-cultural fertilization.
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