Still playing after all these years: Westport bluesman brings Wednesday concert series to 323 Restaurant
WESTPORT — Beneath the grand piano that dominates Mark Naftalin’s dimly lit Westport living room are stacks of posters.
The posters, some black and white, others glossy in red, green or yellow, are blues-rock ephemera: notices of festivals and concerts many decades in the past. They are also historical texts. On them are preserved the names and faces of a staggering collection of men and women who together left an indelible mark on the blues genre and were brought together, at least once a year in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, by a powerful musical force.
That force — now, at 73, with unkempt white hair, a slightly slumped stature, ovaline eyeglasses sitting low on the bridge of his nose, and a slow, deliberate manner of speech — was Naftalin. Around his headshot, snapped many years ago, on the posters, are the names and faces of Albert King, Etta James, Charlie Musselwhite, Dr. John and countless others.
“This was a fantastic festival,” said Naftalin, referring to one of the innumerable shows he put together, balanced on one knee as he bent below the wooden instrument, on which he still plays every day, in search of the flier from a particular year.
Naftalin — the son of a former Minneapolis mayor, raised world’s away from the geographical and cultural epicenter of blues — is a keyboardist and a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, a session musician who played on records with Van Morrison, Big Joe Turner and John Lee Hooker, among others, and an organizer of blues festivals in California’s Bay Area as well as locally.
Beginning this month, Naftalin will again be enlisting his fellow musicians to join him in concert in Westport twice a month. On May 16, Naftalin will perform alongside singer and guitarist Paul Gabriel, a recent recipient of the Connecticut Blues Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and singer and guitarist Chance Browne at 323 Restaurant in Westport, where he hopes to connect special musical guests with local blues fans in the coming months.
Future “Blue Wednesday Party” guests include R&B saxophone virtuoso Crispin Cioe of the Uptown Horns on June 6, and New Orleans via New Haven guitarist and vocalist George Baker on June 20. 323 Restaurant is located at 323 Main St., Westport.
Naftalin grew up in a duplex in Southeast Minneapolis and started taking piano lessons at 8. By way of the boy next door, he got a hold of a record by Lead Belly, the master of 12-string guitar and blues-folk luminary.
“I was completely transfixed. I was magnetized by it,” Naftalin remembered.
Around the same time, rock n’ roll started coming on the radio. A self-described “edgy” and “pent-up” young man, Naftalin would listen rapturously to the transmissions of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles and try to play along. By age 14, in 1959, Naftalin had prevailed upon his mother to let him abandon formal lessons but continued to learn on his own. He joined a local band that year, called Johnny and the Galaxies, and began playing shows, always honing his craft.
“I spent a lot of time on the piano. I was very compulsive about it,” Naftalin said. “But I didn’t realize it was going to be my life because there was no prototype.”
Naftalin assumed he would go into the humanities and perhaps become a college professor. He graduated from high school a year early and was accepted to the University of Chicago, where, instead of heading down the professorial path, he began studying music theory.
It was at college that Naftalin took part in “Twist Parties,” at which attendees would collectively listen to records in the lounge of a University of Chicago dorm. But the affairs soon escalated. People started bringing instruments and playing along with the music, and a riotous jam-session materialized.
“It was a bazaar of sounds,” Naftalin remembered.
Week after week, the parties grew. It was at one such gathering that Naftalin first interacted with Mike Bloomfield, the virtuoso blues guitarist and a fellow founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
“He was playing supersonic speed, Chuck Berry-type rock n’ roll,” said Naftalin. “I knew he was a fanatic for his instrument, just like I was for mine.”
Eventually, the parties moved to University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall, where an early iteration of the Butterfield Band, sans Naftalin, became the house entertainment. As Paul, Mike and the other band members played on the bandstand, Naftalin would wheel over a small, unamplified piano to the side of the stage and play along.
“I was never invited to do it, but I was never discouraged from doing it,” Naftalin said.
His playing eventually granted him acquaintance with the band and, years later, would lead to his being asked to join as they cut their seminal, self-titled debut album. Naftalin would continue to tour and record with the band until 1968, at which point he had had enough of the road and was looking to settle down and devote more time to practicing his instrument.
After his departure, Naftalin settled in the Bay Area, where he became a well-known session musician and house keyboardist at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Naftalin also hosted a radio show on San Francisco’s KALW, called the Blues Power Hour, organized a weekly Blue Monday performance in San Francisco, through which he met prominent local musicians who then enabled him to organize his own Marin County Blues Festival — the press posters from which still populate his living room.
Naftalin, who moved with his wife, Ellen, to Westport in the early-2000s, has not slowed down. For three years he has hosted a weekly radio show on Bridgeport’s WPKN and he is still a formidable force within the blues scene, capable of drawing must-see musicians to accompany him Wednesdays in Westport.
And still, Naftalin has not lost the fanaticism for the piano that formed in him as an angsty, fleet-fingered young man looking for a release.
“I think I have some of the same compulsion I’ve always had,” Naftalin said.
Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586