By John Rumler
Get Down Jones, an eclectic and versatile 7-member band founded in 2007 in Southeast Portland, plays scorching, steaming, authentic blues—including some jaw-dropping Howling Wolf songs — to growing legions of regional fans.
But GDJ might not even be in existence today were it not for a judge’s decision to sentence a troubled teenager to perform community service at the Oregon Food Bank during one of the early Waterfront Blues Festivals.
Barney Murnin, Get Down Jones’ founder, front-man and band leader, was born and raised in Portland and has been playing blues/roots music for over 17 years. Murnin credits the blues and blues music for helping reverse his downward spiral after his parents divorced and he began running with the wrong crowd.
On top of his mom and dad separating, Murnin lost not one, but two close friends to cancer. In the latter stages, they both ended up in wheelchairs, and Murnin assisted them and became angry when other kids made fun of them or picked on other youngsters who were physically or mentally impaired.
After standing up to several bullies in a neighborhood gang, Murnin, then 15, faced assault charges. Fortunately, the judge sentenced him to perform community service which turned out to be collecting and sorting canned goods at the gate of the 1991 Waterfront Blues Fest.
That’s when he first heard Chicago blues legends Jimmie Rogers, long-time guitarist for the Muddy Waters Band, and Hubert Sumlin, Howling Wolf’s lead guitarist.
“Man, I was instantly hooked! That turned out to be a huge turning point for me.” Up until then, Murnin didn’t find older music relevant, but the blues spoke clearly to him.
“I was instantly attracted to those sounds, the pain, hurt, and frustration…It was good for me to take my anger and bottled up emotions out on my guitar instead of adding to my juvenile record.”
The rest of that summer, Murnin saved all the money he earned mowing lawns and plunked down $600 at Showcase Music on Hawthorne Blvd. for his first guitar, a white Stratocaster, Although he is left-handed, Murnin learned to play right-handed because the selection of guitars was much better.
He continued practicing and improving and soon was playing in local bands such as The Rising Buffalo Tribe, Green World Vision, Dead Conspiracy, and Omelet. As he grew more proficient and confident, Murnin’s itch for the blues deepened and he decided to start his own group with the idea of providing a blues-centered rhythm section and having a variety of musicians sit in.
This solidified into Get Down Jones and the Delegation which played its first gigs in 2007 at the Roots Organic Brewery in inner Southeast Portland. “Delegation meant that any of our friends were welcome to bring their instruments and play with us. We had several different lineups of talented artists during that phase,” Murnin explains.
GDJ now plays festivals from Seattle to Northern California, including HempStock, World Music Festival, Organic Brewers Festival, Gresham Art Festival, Pioneer Festival, the Astor Dam Festival, and the Steel Head River Festival. Earlier this year, GDJ played at Jim Miller’s memorial at the Trail’s End Saloon. “Jim was a terrific guy and a big part of the Waterfront Blues Festival. His passing is a real loss to Portland music scene,” Barney said.
The Waterfront Blues Festival’s seminal influence on Get Down Jones is entirely appropriate. Benevolence is a recurring theme with GDJ, as Murnin & Co. continue to invest considerable time and energy appearing at benefits for a variety of worthy causes, particularly pediatric illness fundraisers such as Brave Mykayla’s Cancer Fund, Hope for Leah, Blues for the Cure, Baby Thomas, and dozens of others “No matter what we have going on, we always slip a few benefits into our schedule,” says Murnin.
GDJ has also performed at Plews Brews, Cadigan’s Corner, Roots Brewery, World Famous Cannabis Cafe, Bob White Theater, the Trail’s End, among others, and blew the roof off at the CBA Membership Meeting last November.
Members of GDJ have been around the blues-block in Portland and elsewhere. Drummer Smokin’ Chris Hoke, a co-founder of the band, got his first snare drum at the age of 7, his first kit at 14, and has been playing drums for 35 years and 20 years professionally. Growing up, he played to CCR, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Beatles and his favorite drummers are still John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, and Ringo Starr. Through the 90s he toured with various punk rock bands, mainly in Seattle, including the Valentine Killers, Cookie, Jimmy Flame and the Sexxy Boys.
Hoke, who grew up listening to blues, says he came full circle, returning to the blues about 10 years ago. “My mom was a huge blues fan: I heard threads of blues in everything I liked. In my mind, blues was the original building block for modern music and it still is.”
During the day, Hoke works with the developmentally disabled, mainly one-on-one with schizophrenic clients.
He describes his drumming style as, “playing within the song, not on top,” and says that he strives to be a solid anchor while dancing in his seat. “I’m real happy with the GDJ lineup now, great people with a family atmosphere, and am proud to be in a band that is involved in so many good causes.”
Pianist Richard Sanders grew up in a musical home and started playing piano at age of 5. He studied music theory, composition and performance as well as piano, voice, and trombone at George Fox College. Growing up, his favorite piano player was Elton John. Although he played many different styles of music from classical to Lynard Skynyrd and Metallica to Pink Floyd and Styx in bands from Oregon to New Mexico, he drifted musically for several decades, unable to find his niche until joining GDJ.
Sanders went to the Farm Jam outside Oregon City in 2013 looking to play some music. “That’s how I met Barney and his band and I have been playing the blues with them ever since.” The best thing about playing with GDJ, Sanders says, is “the freedom the blues offers musically and the good people I meet along the way.”
Bass player, David Balding has also played keyboard and guitar in several bands in the last ten years. Some of his favorite musicians include Albert and BB King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton. Starting off in a jug band in the late sixties, Balding gave up performing for the next three and a half decades except for playing piano for himself. In 2005, he picked up a bass that his son abandoned and has been playing ever since. His current role model for playing bass is Carol Kaye.
A recording engineer by trade, Balding, 66, previously worked as a publishing consultant. He also hosts an open jam in his own studio on Thursday evenings and when time allows. Balding loves playing songs with classic bass lines such as Hey Joe, Space Cowboy, and Low Rider and he enjoys learning new songs for GDJ. “If I’m not trying to cover someone else’s bass lines, I like to come up with my own chordally harmonic melody lines that enhance the songs,” Balding said.
Blues harpist Chuck Gilman taught himself to play harmonica in the early-mid 1970s while serving in the navy on board the USS Fox (CG-33) H. As he became more serious, Gilman took advanced classes with harmonica maestros Lee Oskar, Norton Buffalo, Paul DeLay and Arthur Moore. He’s blown harp with several regional bands, including The Dismal Niche Orchestra, Grey Matters, and now GDJ. Gilman, who joined Get Down Jones about 18 months ago, has appeared at Arthur Moore’s harmonica parties and his Waterfront Blues Festival Harmonica Hoedowns,
Growing up, Gilman listened to a lot of Beatles and Stones. Later, Neil Young’s soulful harmonica playing caught his ear along with John Mayall. A mechanical engineer in the daytime, Gilman lists Paul Butterfield and Little Walter as major influences. “I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Beth Hart recently and another influence is Howard Levy. He isn’t a blues player, but it’s phenomenal what he does with a diatonic harmonica!”
“I like the energy of GDJ, the style of music we play and the band is a bunch of very cool and nice guys,” says Gilman. “There’s no big egos, just good, rockin’ blues.”
A long time fixture on the Portland music scene and active on many fronts, Sean Derrickson does keyboards and vocals for GDJ. Derrickson started playing the trumpet when he was 7 and studied music at Mt Hood Community College and Portland State University and went on to play in, write for and/or produce many bands with many styles of music ranging from punk rock to polka, and from opera to hip hop.
Some of the groups that stand out are Truth, a rock band, Bus Stop, a funk group that played covers, Whiskey Flynn, and the Crazy 8s. Derrickson was also the front man for The Heavy Brothers, a power funk band that played all over the Pacific Northwest and he also played keys and did vocals for Mike Leach and the Dreadnaughts. Derrickson, who holds an MSW and works in counseling, met up with GDJ about 3 years ago and meshed almost instantly.
“I felt that the Portland blues scene needed someone like Barney to keep things moving forward. He’s an amazing musician and we both like to give back to the community and do many fundraisers and help others in need.”
Bob Poetzsch, one of GDJ’s two guitarists, started playing guitar at 15 on a cheap Teisco hollow body that he bought with his savings from a newspaper route. After a few lessons he started teaching himself through chord books and by, “dropping the needle over and over on LPs.” At first, his favorite bands included pop groups such as the Beatles, Stones, and CCR, but he quickly converted to Muddy Waters, Johnny Winters, Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
During the 70’s and 80’s, Poetzsch played in variety of bands in Long Island and Oregon and then due to work and family commitments, he took a long break from music and then he resumed playing around 2010.
He met GDJ through his friend Chuck Gilman and after auditioning a little over a year ago, he joined the band. “These guys are a great bunch of musicians and we play songs that you don’t hear other bands playing. Everyone can pretty much add their personal touch to the songs.”
Although Poetzsch enjoys playing rhythm guitar, he does much more. “Barney and I weave like Keith Richard and Ron Wood in some songs and I also throw in a lot of fills and stabs to keep things interesting. I also take a solo in every song, but Barney is the lead guitarist per se.”
Now that the band is solidified and firing on all cylinders, Murnin says the goal is to add to the repertoire and keep building the fan base by providing high quality shows and participating in more regional festivals. “I’d also like to find a way to capture the energy and excitement of our live shows on a recording. That’s something we really hope to do.”
Get Down Jones will soon be releasing their debut EP entitled Bang Bang Boogie on HWY 99. The CD includes 4 original songs and covers by Howling Wolf, Hubert Sumlin and other blues legends. Their first show after the CD release is at Cadigan’s Corner Bar, 5501 SE 72nd Ave., part of a June 25th block party. GDJ will also play at the Gresham Art Festival on July 18.
For more info, go to www.GetDownJones.com