Jim M. Hellen
with his harmonica in hand, hellen’s passion for music thrives nationwide.
Music is a field most renowned for its passion. Musicians have been characterized by their abilities, driven mad by their muses and obsessed with their works since the beginning of musical history. For the few gifted with talent and passion, music is everything. English teacher Jim Hellen has been a musician for his entire life. His passion for music has been an important aspect of his identity ever since he was young.
“I’ve been playing the harmonica for over fifty years,” Hellen said. “It’s one of my very first memories.”
Music was a consistent aspect of Hellen’s childhood. His grandfather was an enthusiastic harmonica player, so his inclination to the instrument came as no surprise to his family. Hellen’s life was changed the moment he picked up the harmonica; he was immediately obsessed with the instrument. In the following years, Hellen would go on to expand his natural talent through lessons with his grandfather.
“One thing I know about music is that you can’t force it down anyone’s throat,” Hellen said. “You don’t choose an instrument, an instrument chooses you.”
Hellen cites a special connection between himself and his harmonica; the music he makes is a direct result of this connection. According to Hellen, he knows how to play everything except the drums. Although the harmonica is his instrument of choice, Hellen dedicated much of his life to understanding the inner workings of every instrument he could get his hands on.
“Mr. Hellen is really experienced with music,” senior Jack Bay said. “It’s so cool that he has done so much with his musical career. Not a lot of people can play so many instruments, especially not simultaneously.”
Instrumental music is not Hellen’s only niche. Over the course of his musical career, he has written countless original songs. His songs t under a range of genres and correspond to different aspects of his life.
“Sometimes news, sometimes politics, sometimes just something funny I heard someone else say; I spin it and write a whole song about it,” Hellen said. “You need to be a receptor and a transmitter, you have to absorb [the words of others], lter them and then restate them.”
In all the songs he writes, Hellen attempts to provoke uneasy thoughts and feelings within his audience. He writes about politically and emotionally charged topics in an effort to represent unnoticed aspects of society.
Hellen’s musical talents have given him many opportunities to perform in front of a variety of audiences. Currently, Hellen performs in a quartet and as a duo with two separate groups of musicians. In his quartet, Hellen plays guitar, harmonica and sings.
“[I like to] perform my songs with people I’ve taught and tuned,” Hellen said.
Hellen’s performances in his blues duo are another major aspect of his musical career. Once a month, he performs at breweries, bars or otherwise crowded venues with a friend of his. They play covers of blues songs, with Hellen on guitar and harmonica.
Music has had various roles in Hellen’s life since he rst found his passion. In college, he used his skills to earn money and expand his horizons. Hellen and his band have traveled throughout the midwest playing at count- less bars, clubs and coffeehouses. These gigs offered him a plethora of unique experiences, although not all of them were positive.
“[One time] a man was sitting [on his motorcycle] talking to me and a guy pulled into the parking lot and shot him right off the bike,” Hellen said.
A musician’s experiences oftentimes lead them off the conventional path. For those who stray into less savory locales to perform, it can often be dan- gerous. This danger never discouraged Hellen, although it wasn’t a pull-factor either.
Hellen’s musical career has been characterized by countless positive ex- periences as well: he met his wife through music, opened for national touring acts and helped shape his children’s youths.
The peak of Hellen’s musical career was his performance at the 2014 Chicago Blues Festival.
“It was the all star lineup and I was asked to be the harmonica player,” Hellen said.
Hellen played alongside major blues gures such as Mickey Jones, Harlan Terson and Kenny Saydak. This was a major accomplishment for Hellen, whose own music had been greatly in uenced by that of his fellow perform- ers.
“To be recognized in Chicago, [which is] the home of the blues, as one of the premier harmonica players in the city is a big accomplishment,” Hellen said.
Although this performance was the most important of his career, Hellen is not done showing off his musical talents to the world; he plans to continue performing for the rest of his life.
“I’ve got opportunities to tour Europe,” Hellen said. “Part of my retirement plan is to amp up [how often I perform].”
After Hellen’s time as a teacher is nished, he will dedicate his life to creating and performing music. Whether he is playing festivals in various countries across the Atlantic or covering blues rock songs in local coffee shops, Hellen’s musical career won’t end anytime soon.