By Jen Chen
One night several years ago, my boyfriend was at the Clarette Club in Mission. It was karaoke night, and in between the performances, he saw a scraggly-looking guy with a white beard walk up to the karaoke host. The guy said something to the host, who looked puzzled but then nodded. The guy walked out of the bar and returned moments later with a black duffel bag. He took a conch shell out of the bag and went up to the mic. The KJ cued “The House of the Rising Sun.” The guy put the shell up to his lips and maneuvered one hand into a fold. He then proceeded to blow the melody of the song through the shell. Everyone in the enormous bar stopped what they were doing to watch. When the song ended, the guy put the shell back in the bag and left.
After I heard that story, I’ve longed to track down conch-shell guy. I finally caught him on film recently. Bill “Jazzbo” Hargrave first got into the shell when he studied at University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music. One of his trumpet teachers had him blow into the shell to get an idea of the air stream flow. He liked the sound it made, and some 30 shells later, here we are. The hard part is getting the pitch right – the different sounds are made by sticking his hand in and out of the shell. His repertoire includes jazz and blues stuff, including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. He can also play “Riders On the Storm,” complete with rolling thunder claps.
The 69-year-old musician also went to clown school in the ‘80s. He took some clown classes at Penn Valley Community College and attended a few clown camps, too. He learned about makeup, costuming, balloon and parlor tricks – standard clown fare, except for one thing. “I didn’t learn how to ride a unicycle,” he said.
Jazzbo performs his one-man band act at Jazz on 39th Street from 6-9 p.m. every Monday night.