Musician Omar Coleman is keeping the blues tradition alive on the West Side of Chicago, but that path wasn’t always set in stone.
In the late 1990s, he worked in a barbershop on the North Side when he decided to pick up the harmonica on a lark, and as they say, the rest is history.
Coleman is a singer, too, and his signature style mixes classic blues sounds with funk, soul, and R&B.
In this interview with Morning Shift‘s Tony Sarabia, Coleman talked about his shift from barbering to the blues, why he believes the blues is “in limbo,” and how earlier artists in the genre continue to inspire his work — whether he’s playing in a blues joint in Chicago or a venue in Japan, where he recently wrapped up a tour.
Coleman is performing a tribute to one of his inspirations — the late Chicago bluesman Junior Wells — on June 8 at the Chicago Blues Festival in Millennium Park. His most recent CD is called Omar Coleman & Westside Soul.
On picking up music in his 20s
Tony Sarabia: How did the harmonica become your choice of instrument?
Omar Coleman: I worked in another shop in downtown Chicago, and they had a music store downstairs, so I went and bought a harmonica. And then I would drive people crazy every day at the barbershop. Because we had a shoe shine guy, so when he went shining shoes in the back of the shop, I was sitting in his chair … but I took it for granted. I was oblivious that Chicago was the home of the blues because most black people — most people, but most black people — as far as blues, it’s all around us.
On paying tribute to his musical hero
Sarabia: You’re doing a tribute to Junior Wells, one of your earliest discoveries. This is a guy who is truly a legend. In being part of this celebration, how does that make you feel? Are you nervous?
Coleman: No, but I’ll tell you what. I need to backtrack a bit. Junior Wells, when I discovered that guy and started listening to that stuff, I was like, “Man, that’s what I want to do!” Maybe not wear them little shark skin suits, but his singing, his charisma, his playing. It made sense to me.
On the future of the blues
Sarabia: You’re young. And I’m wondering, from your perspective as a mid-forties African-American blues musician, do you find it a challenge to get other African-Americans your age or even younger interested in the blues? What’s your take on that?
Coleman: I have two boys. I try to interest them in instruments. I got pianos and stuff for them, and they’re just like ding, ding, ding. Yeah, honestly, I just don’t know of any young black kids who want to do this kind of stuff unless it’s got some kind of hip hop bent to it. Or pop bent to it. I don’t see any kids who want to take the time to learn it, to learn the craft.
Sarabia: And I would imagine the older musicians, and as you just mentioned Eddie Clearwater just passed away. And unfortunately, we’re seeing more of that generation leave, but I would imagine they’re really happy to have someone like you and other young blues musicians sort of waiting in the wings, or still learning from them and playing with them.
Coleman: Yeah, when they keep saying the blues is dying, it ain’t dying. I think it’s just in limbo so to speak. I’m a blues guy, but I do a lot of other stuff. So, the old-timey stuff I love, but not everybody loves it, especially young kids. They look at you like: Man, what is this?
GUEST: Omar Coleman, Blues harmonica player, vocalist and bandleader
LEARN MORE: Omar Coleman Performs At Harlem Avenue Lounge (3/21/15)