When you hear the word “harmonica,” you probably think of a diatonic harmonica, the kind most associated with blues and rock music from which that wailing, note bending sound emanates (and also the kind your father played mournful western songs on); or you might think of Stevie Wonder blowing on the larger chromatic harmonica getting his distinctive tone that colored so many of his classic recordings.
The most obvious difference between the two types are that the diatonic harmonica is pitched in a specific key, so most players carry a case of “harps” with them, one for every key they play in. (Think of Dan Ackroyd prepping with the Blues Brothers.) A chromatic harmonica has two sets of reeds providing access to every note in the scale via manipulation of a push button.
Howard Levy singlehandedly changed the rules.
“I’ve been playing piano since I was eight years old,” he told me in a recent conversation. “I started playing harmonica when I was eighteen. I fell in love with the blues and I just wanted to play blues licks. Very soon after I figured out how to bend notes and play blues licks, I discovered that all the notes weren’t on the instrument. To a piano player, this was very upsetting. In my mind, something that didn’t have all the notes on it was somehow broken.
“I thought, how is it possible that a musical instrument doesn’t have all the notes? That was my frame of mind. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna find them.’ I was eighteen years old and I didn’t know any better. No one ever gave me a lesson, I was figuring it out by feel. Once I had figured out how to bend the draw notes on the bottom of the harmonica and found that on the top you’re using the blow notes, it was just a matter of how persistent I was going to be.
“After about six months, I figured out the technique to get the missing notes. But I didn’t know how I was doing it. So I asked a saxophone player friend of mine who said ‘when you blow on one note and a higher note comes out, it sounds like you’re overblowing a harmonic.’ That’s not what you’re doing at all, but little did I know. So I called it ‘overblowing’ and that’s what everyone calls it now. But what it really is—you’re trying to bend the note down to the lower note on a hole, which you can’t bend down. As you try to bend down, that reed has a kind of shift paralysis, and the other reed which you don’t think you’re playing gets activated and bends up from its pitch. It’s a very weird thing.
“Scientists have studied this now. Seriously. The behavior of reeds in a harmonica is one of the strangest things. It’s kind of like wings on an aircraft. There’s all of these turbulence patterns in there. The people who designed it in Germany in the early 19th century had no idea. Someone very ingeniously realized that if you mount half of the reeds facing away from you and half facing in, you’d get twice as many notes, two notes per hole. But the bending notes was an unintentional byproduct. To me it’s one of the greatest accidents in history.”
Levy, who initially made his mark as part of the groundbreaking Bela Fleck and the Flecktones beginning in the late ‘80s, comes to town as part of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Jazz at the Attucks series on Saturday, March 21st. He’ll be playing with John Toomey’s trio.
“I have not met him,” he said of the ODU professor and local jazz giant. “We are going to correspond. That’s the thing about jazz. If you’re playing with good musicians, you don’t need that much advance preparation for something like this. I’ll bring some of my charts, I’m sure he’ll have some of his, and we’ll play some standards. And I love that. If you’re with good players who have good ears, the result is always good.”
Howard Levy knows whereof he speaks. Though the jazz audience considers him one of their own, he has traveled a broad musical pathway while expanding the range of his chosen instrument. He’s met and played with musicians from across the musical spectrum and around the globe:
“I’m very lucky to have met all of the original Harmonicats. There were a lot of harmonica bands in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, but the Harmonicats were the most serious musicians. There are some fantastic French classical players. And of course, since the instrument was invented in Germany, there are tons of German classical players.
“I wrote a concerto for the diatonic harmonica because I had been asked to play concertos with orchestras, but all of the ones they mentioned had been written for the chromatic. I would always say I didn’t really play that instrument. But one time I said I could write one for myself. And they said that’s a great idea. I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ So I wrote a concerto and have performed it all over the world. It worked out well.
“Playing classical music is a risk,” he laughed. “Playing jazz is a joy!”
with the John Toomey Trio
March 21 – 8:00 pm