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Interview with Howard Levy: Harmonica Extraordinaire

howard levy harmonicaAW: What is it about the diatonic harmonica that made you want to dedicate your life to it?  When did you first hear the instrument?

Howard: I first got into the harp when a high school friend played some Chicago Blues albums for me back in the late '60's: Junior Wells, Paul Butterfield, Little Walter, etc. I fell in love with the sound -- growing up in NYC, I had never heard Blues or Blues harmonica.

AW: When did you first start playing harmonica?  Who first taught you how to play harmonica?

Howard: I started playing after my friend the drummer taught himself how to play.  I went to Manny's Music on W. 48th St. in NY, bought a Blues Harp for $2.25 cents, took the subway to my friend's house and said: "Teach me how to play the Blues".  Well, he said that he couldn't explain how he bent notes, that it was all inside the mouth, the position of the tongue, that it was by feel, like learning to ride a bike.  That was the end of my first harp lesson -- it was frustrating!

AW: What do you remember from your first harmonica lessons?

Howard: There weren't any more after that first experience.  I walked around huffing and puffing on it, trying to bend a note, until all of a sudden one day it happened.  You can read about how I bent my first note on my website www.levyland.com.

In subsequent years, other harmonica players showed me some very important and valuable things, but for the first 10-15 years, I was totally self- taught. I figured out the whole thing of overblows and overdraws in the first 6 months... being a piano player, I couldn't stand the fact that there were notes missing.

AW: You are known to be able to play all notes in all keys, which is an impressive task to say the least.  Is this also obtainable for anyone learning how to play harmonica?  What keys should someone master first?

Howard: That's a great question.  I would say that people should develop their bending skills first, and on a variety of harps -- low, middle and high, like a G, C, and high F.  Then you can start trying overblows/overdraws, and applying them to be able to play melodies.  On other instruments, melodies of tunes are the easiest things to play.  On our instrument, they can be the hardest, because you need all different kinds of techniques to get all the notes that are easy to get on almost every other instrument.

To answer the question more directly, I teach people how to play in all 7 modal positions even in the Basic Lessons. The "easiest" keys to play in are what we call 1st, 2nd, and 3rd positions.  Once you learn how to bend, 4th, 5th, and 12th positions get much more friendly.  This allows you to play in C, D, E, F, G, and A on a C harp.  Players can easily get trapped into just playing in first position and cross harp, and this is limiting.  So if you are in my harmonica school, you can develop your bending and overblow/overdraw skills and apply them any way you want, to play music in any keys/positions on a harp,in any style.

AW: Who are some of your favorite harmonica players?

Howard: In Blues, my first hero was Paul Butterfield.  I also loved James Cotton, Junior Wells, all the Walters (!), anyone with a great sound and something to say.  As I evolved, I also heard many of the great chromatic harmonica players, both live on on recordings.  Although I respect and admire some of them greatly - Toots, Gregoire Maret, Larry Adler, etc -- I never fell in love with the SOUND of the chromatic harmonica.  This made me even more determined to try to play EVERYTHING possible on the diatonic.  My Jazz harmonica playing is inspired by great horn players like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc- not by Jazz chromatic harmonica players.

howard levy

AW: What are you thoughts on Blues harp, why are there so many Blues harmonica players out there?

Howard: The diatonic harmonica has a powerful emotional appeal, both to the player and the listener.  It instantly grabs you when you play or hear someone bend a note. There is just something about it that bypasses your brain and goes directly to your heart and soul.  Plus, it's relatively inexpensive and totally portable, which is the main reason I started.  It was great to have an instrument that you could just pull out of your pocket, instead of having to find a piano somewhere, hope that it was in tune, and that it was in a place where you could play it without bothering anyone.

AW: What's your favorite kind of music to play on harmonica?

Howard: I like playing GOOD music.  So there are many kinds, especially playing good music with good musicians and singers.  Blues, Jazz, Swing, Brazilian music, classical, Eastern European, Folk.  If I find a way to maximize the effect of the instrument in the music, then I can touch people, and make them (and myself) happy.

AW: When did you first start teaching harmonica lessons?

Howard: I started teaching harmonica in 1972.  My first student and I are still good friends.  And he plays great!  I used to teach in my various apartments and houses.  I taught my first serious workshops at Augusta in West Virginia in the mid 1980's.  I did that for seven summers.  It was an invaluable experience.  I made my first instructional video for Homespun in 1992, called "New Directions for Harmonica".  It is still selling!  And I put out a second one myself, called "Out of the Box, Vol. 1" in 2006. You can still get that as well.

Watch Howard's Free Harmonica Lessons

AW: How was it been going with your online harmonica lessons at ArtistWorks? 

Howard: I love my harmonica school.  It has changed my life.  It is a big responsibility, but incredibly gratifying to see players at all levels make dramatic progress, and be supported and encouraged by their fellow players.  It blows me away.  It has also made me have to articulate things in more clear ways, and then REMEMBER my own teaching advice when I play.  I have to say that my own playing has improved as a result.

AW: What are some common issues you notice in the videos your students submit to you?

Howard: Beginners always look at the harp too much!  I tell them that their breath is their eyesight.  Many harp players think that you have to pull or push hard to bend notes -- that's not true.  I make that clear in my bending lessons and save them a lot of frustration.  Also, the fact that many harp players don't know what notes they are playing... this is okay if you have a really good ear and are playing simple music, but to advance beyond basic blues licks requires a better knowledge of music, so I encourage them to learn some keyboard or guitar.

AW: If someone is new to learning harmonica, what are some of the first things they should practice?

Howard: Getting single notes, playing rhythmic vamps, breathing smoothly, holding the harp correctly, having good posture -- that's a few things!

AW: What is a good harmonica for beginners? What should people be looking for in a harmonica?

Howard: I think that the Hohner Special 20 is a great all- purpose harmonica for beginners, intermediate players, even advanced players.  Sometimes I use them myself.  The plastic comb is more forgiving of spit and drool, too!

AW: You play a variety of instruments besides harmonica, what else can you play?

Howard: I started on piano at the age of 8, studied it for 4 years at The Manhattan School of Music.  I also studied pipe organ for a few years, played a lot of Bach.  After getting good on harmonica at 18, I thought "maybe I can teach myself some other instruments that I love".  To make a very long story short, I learned how to play saxophone, many kinds of flutes and whistles, guitar, mandolin, ocarina, jew's harp, balafon, Chines ch'eng, hand drums, steel drums, and other instruments...

AW: You play in a lot of different groups, can you tell us a bit about some of the groups you're involved with now?

Howard: Well, I am in Trio Globo, a fantastic Jazz/World Music group with Eugene Friesen, cello, and Glen Velez, percussion.  Check out our website at www.trioglobo.com, we have several newer CD's out on Stonecutter and Balkan Samba Records.  I also continue to play with Chevere de Chicago, a 9-piece Latin Jazz group that I've been in for more than 30 years.  We have a great CD on Balkan Samba. I tour quite a bit with guitarist Chris Siebold, a fantastic, virtuosic player with a ton of soul.  We play mostly my original tunes, but a wide variety of other stuff as well. Chris also plays with me in Acoustic Express (also with a CD on Balkan Samba).  There is an indescribable avant- garde Jazz trio- Riessler/Levy/Matinier, who I play with in Europe. We have a CD "Silver and Black" on the ENJA label.   Also, I continue to perform my "Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra" with orchestras in Europe and the US.  I also perform solo concerts, and occasional duo concerts with my girlfriend, Fox Fehling, a violinist in the Chicago Symphony.  And maybe there will be another Flecktones tour somewhere down the road.  Who knows?  There's even more stuff coming, but I'll leave off there for now!

howard levy flecktones

AW: How did you meet Bela Fleck and become one of the Flecktones?

Howard: Bela and I met at The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1987.  I was playing with a group called Trapezoid, and he was there with New Grass Revival.  We started jamming at an after-party, and ended up playing till almost 7am.  The following summer, Bela got a call to do a concert/TV show in Louisville.  The promoter asked him to put together a unique band.  He had met the Wooten Brothers, then called me.  We played the show, got a great response, and the rest is, as they say, history . I stayed in the band for 4 years, left, made occasional guest appearances with them, then did the big reunion tour in 2011/2012, won another Grammy, etc. It was great.

AW: What are you currently working on?

Howard: I just played the world premier of "Balkan- American Harmonica", a piece for harmonica and orchestra composed for me by the German composer K.A. "Bobbi" Fischer.  I hope to record it soon.  I am about to mix a CD of free improvs/spontaneous compositions recorded with bassist Larry Gray and my son Miles Levy on drums.  I am very excited about this recording, and plan to put it out later this year.  I am also working really hard on my piano playing, hope to put out a solo Jazz piano recording.  And I plan to compose more pieces for harmonica and orchestra, as well as recording another Jazz CD for the Chicago Sessions label.  The first one, Tonight and Tomorrow got a 4 star review in DownBeat in 2010.

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