Another year goes by…2012

As 2012 nears its end, it leads me to reflect on the incredible variety of experiences I had in this last go-round.

January through May:

It started with a whirlwind Flecktones tour of Dublin, Glasgow, and- believe it or not- Eilat, Israel.  This was wonderful but really grueling. I got to play with some fantastic Irish and Scottish musicians including the magical Scottish vocalist Kathleen McInness. In Israel Andy Narell sat in, which was a joy. The traveling was strenuous, but the trip was so short that I never had jet lag when I got home. I just fell over for a while and when I woke up, I was back.

February started with a dual concerto concert in Destin, FL with Sinfonia Gulf Coast (conductor Demetrius Fuller) and pianist Anthony Molinaro. I played my Harmonica Concerto, he played Rhapsody in Blue, and then we played a few tunes together. It was a blast- wish we could do this more often. Then Fox and I played our annual Valentine’s Day concert at The Town House Café in St. Charles, IL, playing a combination of classical, some Jazz standards, and a few of my tunes. Next, Chévere played our annual Winter weekend at The Green Mill, and I played a reunion gig with the fantastic 80’s rock group Tantrum. I recorded a track with them in 1979 called “Lady’s in Lust”- it is smoking! And so are they, still! Then- “The Harmonica Hoedown” at The Hideout, one of Chicago’s secret treasures. This included Joe Filisko, James Conway, Bob, Kessler, and more.  The place was mobbed. The next day I played a concert with the UIC Jazz Band led by Joel Spencer, which included the debut of a fine arrangement of my tune “Chorinho” by Scott Routenberg.  The day after this, I gave a presentation of the central ideas of my ongoing project “The Melody of Rhythm” with percussionist Jean Leroy at Roosevelt University, at the invitation of Paul Wertico. February was quite a month, really incredible in its variety and quality.

In March, The Flecktones tour started up again in the Midwest with memorable shows in Madison and Skokie, moving on to the West Coast, with an extremely memorable concert in Las Vegas’s brand new hall, then the Southeast and the Midwest- we were everywhere…the best catered meal and best Steinway were, believe it or not,  at Univ. of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.  Then the final blitz of 22 shows in 25 days. How did we do it??? I finally got to play The Ryman in Nashville, went back to The Birchmere ( I love this place), and we finished- as we started in 1987- in Louisville with our friend Richard Van Kleeck bringing us onstage, as he did at “The Lonesome Pine Special” in 1987 for our first – ever performance… If we never do it again, this was a sweet way to go.

Very little rest for me after this- the following week in May I played “Prairie Home Companion” in Minneapolis. This was a particularly cool experience, because after the show, Garrison had the band come to his house and play a 90 minute totally acoustic set for swing dancers in his living room- what a hoot. Not only is he a genius at what he does on the radio, but he is also a truly gracious host. A few days later I flew to Boston to rehearse and perform Maxwell Dulaney’s ultra- modern Harmonica Concerto at Brandeis University. This was a thrilling and slightly scary experience that I will write about in more detail later. And when I got home, I played a concert at the Irish Cultural Center with Kathleen Keane, a musical force on several instruments. We performed an Irish-ized version of the first movement of my Harmonica Concerto, with bodhran, whistle, and a step- dancer in addition to a string quintet. This was a wild success and I hope to do more in this vein.

June Through August:

Things kept going like this- I played 3 concerts in Virginia with old friend Paul Reisler, Amy Speace, and one-man musical marvel Joe Craven.  When I got home, I was special guest with Reely Dan, a fine group that plays the music of Steely Dan. There were several recording sessions, and then one of those weekends that I can’t actually believe happened. I performed again on Prairie Home Companion at Ravinia, the beautiful venue near my house. The next day, I played for my dear friend Cantor David Landau’s daughter’s wedding in Highland Park. Fox and I played the ceremony. I put together a stellar band for the party- Eric Schneider on sax/clarinet, the great Jazz vocalist Dee Alexander, Chris Siebold on guitar and vocals, Eric Hochberg on bass and vocals, and my son Miles on drums. If more weddings were like this, I’d play more of them! The following day Miles, I, and bassist Larry Gray went into Transient Studios in Chicago and recorded many hours of free improvisations, or as I prefer to call them, “spontaneous compositions”.  We got a lot of good music from this day and I am going to release the best of it on a CD sometime in 2013.  Three days that shook my world.

Two of my best harmonica students, Ilya Portnoy and  Jason Rosenblatt, each came to town for a series of lessons- this was fun. Then I had a wonderful weekend at The Green Mill with Acoustic Express (check out the “Time Capsules” CD), followed by a super- intense recording session at Transient with Trio Globo and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. This resulted in the “Matzah to Menorah” CD, just released this week (Dec. 8) on Balkan Samba Records.

After a few days off, I got on a plane to Perth, Australia, courtesy of Hohner International and their Australian distributor, Kurt Jacobs and Co.  I got to visit with my daughter Stephanie and son-in-law Roland, then played concerts with local musicians and gave workshops in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney. It was a great experience to play down there and meet a lot of wonderful people in the Australian harmonica scene, including Tricia Smits and her family from Kurt Jacobs, who kept everything running smoothly.  Also, Michael Timler, a true champion of the diatonic harmonica and Hohner employee (he is a major force in the harmonica world), flew in to give workshops in Melbourne and Sydney. It was great to see him again. Then I took an overnight flight to Taipei and gave a workshop and played a solo concert. I was pretty tired from that, so I slept well on my two flights home.

September through December:

After a much- needed break, Fox and I visited my parents in Florida where we played a concert for them. On returning home, I began preparations for playing the Jewish High Holiday services for Aytz Hayim, something I’ve been doing with my son Miles for 5- 10 years now. It is always an adventure and takes a lot of planning with the cantor, rabbis, and the president of the congregation. Between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, I flew to Toronto at the invitation of Mervon Mehta and performed the Bach Em Flute sonata on harmonica with an excellent harpsicordist as part of a tribute to Glenn Gould at the Royal Conservatory. Next came a 3- concert tour of the Northeast with the indescribable Joe Craven, a duo gig in Montreal with guitarist Greg Amirault, and a weekend at The Green Mill with Chévere.

November started with a 10 day European tour- Kiev, Ulm, Langenau, and Dresden. I played several solo concerts and workshops, a classical concert with organist Matthias Gruenert, two concerts in Dresden with The Klazz Brothers and the phenomenal trumpeter/trombonist James Morrison, and one with my good friends Michael Riessler and Jean – Louis Matinier. I have to bring them to the US- our trio is something special.

This was followed by a US East Coast tour (Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts) with Chris Siebold- a total blast- and a concert with the lovely and virtuosic guitarist Muriel Anderson in the Chicago area. After that, a bit of a break followed by 2 shows at the Evanston SPACE- a Holiday Concert with Harry Shearer, his wife Judith Owen, and a cast of dozens (this was indescribable), and the other with my dear friend Bonnie Koloc.  My last performance of the year will be the Dec. 16 CD release concert for “Matzah to Menorah” with Trio Globo and Alberto Mizrahi at Temple Enshe Emet in Chicago.

What a year! I am so lucky to be able to do what I do. Not just all the concerts, but also composing, running my harmonica school, (www.howardharmonica.com), playing on the cool recordings I am asked to do, and all the great people I get to meet along the way. In spite of all the catastrophic things that happened in 2012- hurricanes, tornados, shootings, etc, I was able to keep playing music for people, the thing I love doing the most. I hope I can keep doing this for a long time and that all of you will have a happy and healthy 2013. I look forward to seeing many of you down the road.

All the Best,

Howard

 

 

Reading Matter (5/09)

As a harmonica player and pianist, I often find myself practicing. As a composer, I often jot down little ideas in music notebooks that sometimes become compositions. Sometimes I’m at an instrument, sometimes not. And then there is recording, rehearsing, booking tours, etc. When people ask me if I have any hobbies, I usually just laugh, because Music is my Life. I spend so much time playing, writing, and thinking about it.   HOWEVER, I do read the occasional book, and I find myself influenced pretty heavily by what I read. Sometimes I’ll even write music inspired by things I read. So I thought I’d just share with you a short list of things I’ve read recently or am reading now.  As I look at it, I realize that most of them are about music. Oh well…

“Body and Soul” by Frank Conroy is one of the greatest books of fiction that I’ve ever read about music and musicians. The more you know about classical music and Jazz, the better it is. If you play piano and have ever lived in Manhattan (‘yes’ on both counts), it’s indescribably great. As I read the book, I felt like I wanted to call up the author and just thank him for writing it. To my great sorrow, I found that he died a few years ago. What a writer…

“The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra. I first read this when it came out about 30 years ago. It was a huge influence on me then, and re-reading it now has had no less profound an effect on me. It links together many of the concepts found in Eastern religion and particle physics. It is brilliant and deep.

“When my Fiddle’s in the Case” by Johnny Frigo. John was a dear friend, a great Jazz violinist who departed this earth last year at the age of 90, leaving behind a rich legacy of recordings and this fabulous book of his poetry and art. If you can find this book anywhere, buy it. I never tire of reading his poems, which are in many styles and are about, well, just about everything.

“Strange Sects and Curious Cults” by  Marcus Bach. Written in 1961, this is a fascinating exploration of some mainstream and not-so-mainstream religious groups and societies from ancient times to today. I peruse it often, opening to random chapters to immerse myself in the lore of these belief systems, which include the Shakers, Penitentes, Doukhobors, Voodoo, Father Divine, et al.

“Bird Lives” by Ross Russell. The first chapter, which is an account of Charlie Parker playing “Cherokee” at an L.A. Jazz club in the late 1940’s, is an amazing verbal description of his performance and everything surrounding it. You’ll feel like you were there after reading those 25 pages. And the rest of the book is a treasure trove. The more you love Bird, the more this book will mean to you.

 

Recording and sitting in with Donald Fagen

Howard with Donald Fagen
In 2006 I got the call to fly to NY and record on Donald Fagen’s new cd (first one in many years) “Morph The Cat”. After I walked into the studio and met Donald,  I asked him how he had heard of me. I figured it was The Flecktones, Kenny Loggins- something like that- but he told me that it was my playing on “A Prairie Home Companion” that made him call me. You never know…

I played on 2 tracks, “What I’d Do”, where I filled and soloed extensively, and “Mona”, where I played some fills and interacted with the textures. Afterwards we talked a lot about our mutual love of Jazz, especially John Coltrane, and discovered that both of us had gone many times to the Village Vanguard to hear the greats while in our teens, and that we both bought our Jazz records at the same shop on 8th St. in the Village. It was a great experience in every way.

He mentioned to me that he’d like to have me sit in with the band when they played Chicago, after the cd came out. I almost forgot about that until I got a call from his mgmt, telling me that Donald was coming to Chicago and wanted me to sit in. I checked the date, and the problem was that Chévere (www.cheveredechicago.com) was playing that weekend at The Green Mill. Since I am the music director, I don’t miss a Chevere gig unless I really can’t make it. A devoted Steely Dan fan from NY who is a good friend of the band got in touch with me, telling me EXACTLY when in Donald’s set they were performing “What I’d Do”. If  I left The Mill as soon as the first set ended at 9, I could be down at The Chicago Theater in time to jump up onstage for “What I’d Do”, then hurry back to The Mill for Chévere’s 2nd set, only missing one tune (which we made sure was one that didn’t require my presence)

I went to Donald’s sound check that afternoon and ran through “What I’d Do”- it felt great. Got to play again with my friend Freddie Washington, the great bass player (we had played together with Kenny Loggins). Then I went to the Mill for the 8pm set with Chevere. At 9pm they had a limo waiting for me at the side door of The Green Mill. At 9:01pm I jumped in with my friend Craig, we drove down to the stage door of The Chicago Theater, and I went in and waited in the wings. Donald was very funny- he said something about me coming down the lake by hovercraft- and called me out on stage. It was a blast to play, as you can see in the pic (snapped by the guy from NY who had timed the set). As soon as I finished, it was into the limo and back to The Mill, where I jumped up onstage in the middle of the 2nd tune. The fine Chicago pianist Ben Lewis had been in the audience and filled in for me on the first tune, which he knew. It worked out perfectly.

When Donald returned to Chicago with Steely Dan the following 2 years, he asked me to sit in with them both times, too, which was a thrill. What a band! The July 2008 show was just about the best thing I’ve ever heard live. I hope to do it again.

 

July 4th, 2008

Had a great 4th of July weekend at home, busy playing music. I played on “A Prairie Home Companion” at Ravinia (my 3rd time there with the show), a 20 minute drive from my house. This time, it was an embarrassment of riches for me. I premiered my minor- key Bluegrass tune “The Streets of Paris” with the band and the great Sam Bush on mandolin, got to play “Lover Man” with the transcendent vocalist Jearlyn Steele, play a few tunes with Suzy Boggus, act and play harp in a Garrison Keillor comedy sketch, and perfom “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as a duet with Rich Dworsky. That’s enough for several shows, but I also soloed on several other tunes with Jearlyn, Sam, and Pat Donahue on lead vocals. It was a total treat for me. Doing that show is always a surprising and amazing experience, but this one was just about the tops.

The next night, I dropped into Bill’s Blues on Davis St in Evanston to sit in for what I thought would be a few tunes with Johnny Burns. We played together years ago with Steve Goodman and John Prine. John is a great guy and a hell of a guitar player. He kept me up there for an hour and I had a blast playing harmonica and piano with him. John is the son of the late, great Jethro Burns, mandolin master and guru to so many mandolinists (including Sam Bush).  Jethro was one of Evanston’s great musical citizens. John is living is New Mexico these days, and was in town for a reunion of his band “The Famous Potatoes”.

An interesting week, June 8-14, 2008

I have known Paul Reisler for 25 years, since we met at The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1982 when he was playing with Trapezoid. I recorded with him on many projects, most recently the fascinating “At Night The Roses Tango” a few years back. Since then, we’ve played concerts of this music every June in Virginia where he lives. This June, I played 2 concerts, one at the small theater run by Loren Maazel at his country estate, the other in a park in Vienna, VA.

The Maazels’ venue is unique, in the middle of nowhere, totally unexpected. It is small- about 85 seats, but capable of staging operas- full lighting system, an orchestra pit, Boesendorfer piano, PA, etc. It was very inspiring to perform on a stage that has featured some of the world’s greatest classical musicians. Adding to the inspiration was the presence of the great singer Ysaye Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock. Maestro Maazel’s extremely gracious wife was our hostess, making us feel welcome, almost like family members, and the whole staff were the same way. We were treated to a delicious after- concert meal, and stayed in the luxurious guest house down the road.

After that, I had a few days off and got to visit with my friend Lorraine Duisit, another former ‘Zoid, whose album  “Hawks and Herons”, I recorded on in 1983. It is still one of my favorite recordings. She is writing a lot of new music and sounds wonderful. We have started collaborating- she just composed a musical setting for my poem “Make Your Heart a Garden”  (which you can read here at levyland.com).

I also visited Shahin Shahida, guitarist/producer who plays in the Genesis ensemble with me. Vocalist Humayun Khan came up and we jammed and recorded late into the night at Shahin’s studio in his mountain home nearby. Very inspiring, and much more of that to come. Then, I drove to Washington DC and lobbied Congress to help get a bill passed that will FINALLY pay musicians for their performances on terrestrial radio broadcasts. Up till now, only the composers of the music have been paid. So the record labels and musicians’ union got a group of us together to lobby. My group included Alejo Poveda (drummer for Chévere), and studio legends David Spinoza and Neil Steubenhaus. It was fascinating, and I just found out that the legislation was approved by committee, so it will actually go to a vote and perhaps become law.

Then I played the second concert with Paul in a beautiful park in Vienna, VA, for a very enthusiastic audience. I drove my rental car to Takoma Park to the home of my dear friend, Marika Partridge. She used to program all the music for “All Things Considered”, played lots of my stuff in between news items. She and her family are special friends of mine. They were having a party, and I played an impromptu solo piano concert for them, which was about as much fun as I’ve ever had doing that. After a short night’s sleep there, I flew to Detroit, where I was driven to Ann Arbor to rehearse for A Prairie Home Companion. It is always a great experience and this was no exception. The beautiful Hill Auditorium was packed with over 4,000 rabid fans, and they really liked my solo feature, “Blues in Triplicate”, that I wrote specially for the ocassion.

At the after- show party the next evening, I mentioned the name of the one person I know in Ann Arbor, and the person I was talking to said, “Oh, he’s right over there” It was Peter “Madcat” Ruth, one of America’s great harmonica players. I have known him for many years, and he had played at an outdoor festival right next to the hall where I had played- at the same time! One of those odd things…And with him was Benj Kanters, from Evanston, who used to run Amazing Grace and Studiomedia Studios. He was visiting his daughter who attends U of Michigan. Small world…

After a week like that, it was good to get back home, feeling inspired, energized, and gratified.

 

Music Videos

Over the years, I have appeared in a bunch of music videos. The first big one I did was “The Sinister Minister” with The Flecktones in 1989. We did another one in NYC and upstate NY in 1991, and one in Nashville for VH 1 around the same time. I did a bizarre one with Paquito DeRivera about the smuggling of exotic birds from South America, and a live concert video/cd with Kenny Loggins for Sony called “Outside from the Redwoods” that was shown extensively on PBS.
Making these videos is always surreal. There are so many elements that have to come together, so much work involved, and the images that end up on the screen stick with people for a long time. I’d like to share some of the funnier/stranger moments of these with you.

The first Flecktones video, “The Sinister Minister”, was a big reason for the quick success of the band. Warner Bros. had the vision to put us in front of millions of  TV watchers, and VH1 took them up on it by playing us in heavy rotation even before the first cd came out. We filmed it in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the coldest it has ever been there- it snowed the day we left. They had me dressed in a long black cape and a black beret. I thought it was cheesy but it was a blessing in disguise, because we were out there on the street for a few days and it kept me from freezing my ass off. We had a police detail there at all times, and I remember one of them telling a wide- eyed little kid that, yes, I WAS a vampire.

The Czech film director, who was wonderful, would show me the view through the lens before a shot. He used film, which gave the video a very classy look.

The Flecktones 2nd video did not go so smoothly. There was a different director. We shot a tune in a fairly disgusting vacant lot on the lower East Side of Manhattan where some squatters had built a surreal sculpture. It turned out that they wouldn’t let us film in front of it, which had been the whole point….Instead we were filmed standing in front of a brick wall while graffiti artists spray painted things behind us…Our tour manager, Richard Battaglia, took us aside before the shoot and warned us to wear thick soled shoes, as there were numerous used syringes and condoms on the ground. It was charming.

The second part of the shoot took place in an amazing rock sculpture garden upstate. I can’t remember its name or where it was, but I do remember that the owner was squashed to death by a huge rock that he was moving years earlier. We filmed our version of “The Star Spangled Banner” there.

(I should explain that when making these videos, you are “playing” along to your tracks, which are being played over a PA. Everything is synched. In those days, they used a Nagra with a synch track to make sure that the sound and cameras were together. It always took a little while. Then the tech guy would shout “Speed!” and the filming would begin. Now it’s all done on computers, instant synch.)

We got the footage when it was done and watched it on the bus. I commented that everything looked a little washed out. It turned out that our filmmaker had miscalculated the light and that the film from the upstate NY part of the video was overexposed. They had to spend a lot of time and money making it look good, I remember.

The same director had done a VH1 special on us in Nashville, which is how he got the call to do the video. It was called “In Your Face”, one of those shows where they used that herky-jerky cut up look for much of the footage. It was the fashion then like strobe lights were in the psychedelic ‘60’s. In addition to performing a few tunes live, everyone did their showiest  thing. Victor threw the bass around his body, might have even done a standing back flip, Roy is a show in himself, I think Bela played banjo blindfolded, etc. When they got to me, in spite of the guys telling the director that I could play harp and piano simultaneously, that I was the first one to play the diatonic chromatically, etc, he wasn’t sure what to film. Plus, what I do on harp is mostly INVISIBLE…it doesn’t make for good film, and this was “In Your Face” film.

So the director asked me, “So Howard, what can YOU do that is special?” I thought of some choice answers, thought the better of it, then decided to put him on. I stared into his eyes and said, “I can play piano with my hands behind my back!” Any kid can do that and I was joking, but he seemed genuinely impressed and eager to film it. There was an old upright piano there, so I did it. What I played sounded coherent in a twisted way. Then I had to say “You’re watching ‘In Your Face’ on VH1”. I had to say “In Your Face” very aggressively. It felt disgusting to me, like I was flipping off the audience. The director loved it.

Years later…I sat in with The Flecktones on harmonica at Ravinia in 2003 or 4. They filled the place, must have been 10- 15,000 people there. A kid came up to me afterwards with a look of awe on his face, and said, “Wow, you’re the guy who plays piano with his hands behind his back!” …

There was another unforgettable moment from that film. We did a live performance of Bela’s “Sunset Road”, one of my favorite tunes in the early days of the band. I used to clap softly on the backbeats before my entrance on keys, because the groove felt really good and it was a natural thing to do. The director liked it- it was visual- and made sure to film it. In the film, they made sure to show me clapping to the music. However, the person who edited it had me clapping on 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4, which is where HE thought you should clap. It made me look like a moron. It’s kind of the musical equivalent of quoting a politican out of context.

The Paquito video a few years later was truly bizarre. It was shot at a now defunct Chicago Jazz club called George’s. It was a full scale 3- camera shoot with all the bells and whistles, but our music was background for a story about illegal smuggling of tropical birds. The whole thing was strange. We played a few tunes. Paquito, in his inimitable way, not only wanted me to play the tunes, but also to play a Bach Prelude in Cm from The Well Tempered Clavier as an intro to one of them. First, I am not a great classical pianist. Second, though it sounded familiar when he hummed it to me, I had never played this piece. And most importantly, he didn’t have the music. He said, “Oh, every pianist knows that piece”. During the  break between the rehearsal and the shoot that night, I raced home, unearthed the music, practiced it, and eventually played it half-decently in the video that night. If anyone of you has actually SEEN this video, please let me know.

Kenny Loggins- Outside from the Redwoods. 1993. This was a great experience with great results, but the way that it started was another thing entirely.

In Spring of 1993, I was contacted by an arranger who was revamping some of Kenny Loggins’ tunes for “Outside from the Redwoods”, the live cd/video. I was hired for the recording and became part of the touring band, playing harmonica, mandolin, ocarina, and a little keyboards. It was a great band, with either Herman Matthews or Alvino Bennett on drums, and the great Freddie Washington on bass. Playing with a rhythm section like that made everything feel easy and right. Everyone else in the band was at that level, too- Mark Russo, Steve George, Chris Rodriguez, Ed Mann, etc. I was featured on a few big harp solos. After The Flecktones’ chops-oriented music, it was a relief to be in a setting where communicating the emotional and lyrical content of the song was the most important thing. Kenny was an amazing singer, and there sure were a lot of great songs.

I rehearsed in LA for 2 weeks for the live recording, going over and over the music in minutest detail. It was hard work and things were always changing, but I really enjoyed it. Kenny even had me singing a little. I felt appreciated and got along well with all the guys

When I showed up for the live recording a week later in Santa Cruz, I was ushered into the dressing room where the wardrobe lady took me aside. We had been fitted for clothes, and I assumed that they would have something Western for me to wear. It was the general look.

She looked at me with an apologetic expression, saying “I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” -she had a hanger full of clothes for me to wear- “Kenny wants you to wear these”. She handed me a long, heavy cloth coat and a stovepipe hat. From Bela Fleck introducing me as “The Tall Thin Flecktone” I had graduated to Kenny Loggins presenting me as Abe Lincoln.

I looked the wardrobe lady in the eye and said ”No Way!” She looked at her feet and said, “Yeah, I know”. Not only was it totally surreal, but it was about 90 degrees and humid outside, too.
“What else do you have in my size?”
“Well, there are some blue jeans”.
“Fine!”
“And this blue jean shirt”.
“Great !”

I walked out on stage, Kenny looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “Well, hello, Mr. Blue!” I smiled, we played, and everything went well. The “costume change” was never mentioned, and I went on to tour with Kenny for a year or two.

 

An Arabian Tent Party Wedding

Folk Music

I developed a love for so-called “folk music” in the mid 60’s going to summer camp in upstate New York. Guitar was the campfire instrument. Plucking strings in the rhythmic fingerpicking patterns wove a magic spell when mixed with a flickering campfire, pretty girls, a starry sky, and the smells of the country. I can remember some of the songs- folk songs, Jewish songs (it was a Jewish camp). I met my friend Marty Rothkopf there. He played 12 string guitar, wrote songs, and sang very well. We started a little band- guitar, washtub bass (played by yours truly), and 2 other guys who sang with 4 part harmony vocals. Our big number was “Rag Doll”, by The Four Seasons”. We worked out the harmonies and got a big response.

One day we all piled into the camp truck and drove to a Pete Seeger concert in Connecticut. Nowadays, nobody would have allowed 25 kids to sit on benches in the open air back of a truck with wooden slats for sides, but that’s what we did. We pulled into the parking lot and there was Pete Seeger driving a pickup truck with his grandson, and a canoe and guitar and banjo cases in the back. Marty recognized him, shouted out “Hi, Pete!”, and he waved to us. It was a wonderful concert. He knew the fine art of the singalong, made you really feel like singing, and added fantastic high falsetto parts over the top of the music.

Folk music made me want to play a portable instrument. I was 14 and started messing around on guitar just a little. (I also figured out how to play the jew’s harp.) When I got back to NY, Marty turned me on to a lot more music-Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Hamilton Camp, an Elektra sampler called “Folksong ‘65” that had a lot of artists on it- Phil Ochs, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, etc. Some of it was political, some bluesy, some funny, some beautiful. I learned how to simulate guitar fingerpicking on piano. (Years later I was to learn that a lot of Elizabethan English harpsichord music was derived from lute playing, as was a lot of German baroque, including Bach.)

Folk music was very much a part of the political protest movement that became tied to anti-Vietnam War protests. I was very involved in those from 1967-71. I marched in the big Peace Marches in NY in 68 and 69.

Marty and I started a band with two of my high school friends. It was more in the rock and Jazz direction, didn’t have much to do with Folk music, but it was the start of my first real band, The BMT Change Agent.

I moved to Chicago to go to Northwestern in Fall of 69. I quit in Spring of ‘71, moved back to NY. Then when I moved back to Chicago in June of ‘72, I found myself between styles. Unable to make a living playing Jazz, I found myself still drawn to Folk music, folk rock and at the same time developed a very strong interest in World Music, also entirely acoustic.

And I discovered Flamenco, Bluegrass, as well. I even took some Flamenco lessons annd started playing more mandolin. I played flamenco on keyboards as well.

I got my first “break” into the big time through a mixture of Folk, Swing and Jazz. I met a wonderful singer named Diane Holmes. She was playing at a club in Evanston called “Amazing Grace”. (It started as a soup kitchen at the NU student union during the student strike resulting from the Kent State killings in the Spring of ‘70. After that it thrived as an eclectic venue featuring folk, Jazz, bluegrass- just about everything.) She was singing with a very eclectic artist named Ken Bloom, who played as many instruments as I did, but all different ones. I sat in and felt a great rapport with Diane.

She asked me to join a band called “Swingshift”, led by a very funny singer/guitarist/songwriter named Ron Crick. The band featured the great mandolin player Jethro Burns, the rhythm section of Jim Tullio (to become a big jingle and record producer) and drummer Angie Varias, as well as T.C.Furlong on pedal steel guitar from The Jump in the Saddle Band, who had a hit with “The Curly Shuffle”.

Steve Goodman used to sit in with us, and basically hired us as his backup band for tours in late ‘76 and ‘77. He hired me for my first real recording session with Malvina Reynolds. Then, he produced Martin, Bogan, and Armstong’s “That Old Gang of Mine” and John Prine’s “Bruised Orange”. I played on those albums, and John hired me to tour with him from ‘78-79.

John is one of America’s great singer/songwriters. It was my entree into the big time. In addition to doing 2 albums, we played over 100 concerts, had a tour bus, and carried our own PA, Yamaha Grand piano, B 3 organ. I also played mandolin, pennywhistle, accordian, steel drums (which I learned for this gig), soprano sax, and of course, harmonica.

I got to meet Kris and Rita, Phil Spector (!), Gary Busey, David Alan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Redbone, Mac Macanally, Bonnie Raitt, etc. But it really wasn’t for me. I missed playing Jazz, and the Rock and Roll road life didn’t interest me. My wife got pregnant and I wanted to stop touring with John, so I played my last concert with him at Mandel Hall in Chicago in June 1979. Miles was born July 3.

After that, I branched out in Chicago, joined Chévere, founded the NBV Quintet, co-foundedThe Balkan Rhythm Band, etc, But my strong folk credentials persisted, and I started getting asked to play on records and do more shows. A lot of Flying Fish sessions- Don Lange, Si Kahn, etc, mostly at Acme Studios on Southport and Grace.

I started playing with Bonnie Koloc in 1980. I’m probably the only musician in Chicago to have worked extensively with the “big 3” of Bonnie, John, and Steve. Our first rehearsal was at a club, I think Byfield’s, one afternoon. It was me, Bonnie, John Baney and Steve Eisen. I had heard all these stories about how difficult she was to work with, but the experience was totally the opposite. She was totally sweet, really musical, a great voice, self-deprecating, very open to suggestions, stylistically broad. We had an instant rapport that has continued for more than 20 years. We played many clubs and concerts in the Chicago area, and some touring , too, through the 80’s, until I joined the Flecktones, when my whole life changed. I produced her Flying Fish album, “With You on my Side” in 1987. (I also wrote about 8 songs for her in Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man”, where she was cast as the Cook, the main singing role in the play. I won a Jefferson Award for Music).

In 1982, bassist Brian Torff (Stephane Grapelli, George Shearing, etc) asked me to play with him at The Winnipeg Folk Festival. I had met him when he played with David Amram, who opened for Steve Goodman at The Earl of Old Town’s Christmas shows in 76 and 77, maybe some other years, too. He thought I’d be the right guy to play a folk festival with a Jazz trio, and it worked out well. There, at one of the post-concert parties, I met Lorraine Duisit and Trapezoid, which led to my playing on her album, Hawks and Herons, the ‘Zoids’ “Cool of the Day”, and other albums with Si Kahn, John McCutcheon, Sally Rogers, all recorded at Bias Studios near Washington, DC. It also resulted in us becoming lifelong friends. And for those who don’t know, Lorraine is responsible for The Flecktones, because she made Bela and me play together at the 1987 Winnipeg festival, right in the hotel lobby. (He was there playing with NewGrass Revival.)

Paul Reisler asked me to teach a world music class at The Omega Institute in 1984, which is how I met Glen Velez (which led eventually to the formation of Trio Globo in 1993.) Then he got The Augusta Wkshp. to hire me as a harmonica teacher, which I did for 7 summers (I think). That led to so many things that I can’t even separate them. Many friendships, Harmonica Summits, recordings, Hank Bahnson’s research, my Homespun video, etc.

Meanwhile, back home I was recording with Tom Paxton, Bob Gibson, Jim Post, Bryan Bowers, Jenny Armstrong, Claudia Schmidt, playing on Studs Terkel’s radio show on WFMT…

One year at Winnipeg, I played with Bonnie Koloc, and also played sets with Maria Muldaur, Amos Garret, etc. Noah Adams, who was in the audience, was impressed. He asked me to play on “Good Evening from Minnesota”, a show that replaced A Prairie Home Companion. I played the show several times with Bonnie, Ken Nordine, and others.

So “folk” music and my love for it led to many musical things in my life and career.


How I Found Overblows and Overdraws

Pt. 1- Background

It was Winter of 1969-70. I was playing piano in the Jazz band at Northwestern Unic=versity in Evanston, IL. The bandleader was the great alto saxophonist Bunky Green. There were some very good horn players, and a good drummer and bass player. Reading big band charts was a new thing for me. Although I had been playing jazz and writing jazz tunes for a year or so, nobody had ever shown me Jazz chord symbols. I didn’t know the names of the more complex ones, though I had heard them on recordings and played some of them. And there were many chords that I didn’t know and hadn’t played, either. It was a much needed musical education, and I started playing better and writing some interesting tunes as a result.

I was in a new place, I didn’t know anyone, I was learning more about Jazz, writing new tunes, and trying to do well in my academic classes, some of which were very inspiring.

All this newness and stimulation extended out to my harp playing. I had started to play harp that September during freshman orientation week when I bent my first note (that story is also here at levylogs). After that, I played constantly- while walking to classes, in resonant hallways, in the echoey dorm bathrooms (great acoustics!) It had become an obsession. I loved playing blues licks on the harp, but soon my pianist/composer mind wouldn’t accept the apparent limitations of the diatonic harmonica. I started playing scales and arpeggios in different keys on one harp, the way I had been taught on piano, and playing along with records and songs on the radio, no matter what keys they were in. I mostly played on a G harp, but I started buying more – a C, a D, an A, a Bb.

After a few months I figured out how to play the blow bends on the top 3 holes, and realized that you could bend any higher – pitched note down to just above a lower – pitched one; it was blow bends on the top of the harp, draw bends on the bottom. That was a revelation, understanding the pitches of the bent notes and how far I could bend each one. I started to see a picture of the harp in my mind (based on the G harp), which would eventually become notes on an imaginary piano keyboard in my mind.

I had been in a Blues band in high school in NY, and missed being in one in Evanston. So I started one with my friend Dave, a guitarist from the NY band who was a student at nearby Lake Forest College. We had 2 guitars, bass, drums, 2 saxes and trombone. I played piano. I took the train up there to rehearse, and we started getting some frat party gigs. As I got better on harp, I gradually started playing it more in the band.

It was a big kick for me to actually be playing Blues on harp with a good band, but I soon ran into some dead ends. There were some bluesy notes that just weren’t on the harp, and I wanted to play them. This upset me.

“How is it possible for an instrument to not have all the notes? Every instrument has all the notes. They must be in there somewhere,” I said to myself. I set about to find them.

Pt. 2- I Find Them

It was so frustrating, for example, to not be able to play a minor 3rd in the second octave of cross harp. You couldn’t bend 7 draw down to get it, because it was the lower note on its hole. It didn’t seem like there was any way to do it. Settling for playing 7 draw, a major 3rd, sounded wimpy and wrong , even more when it would be the maj 7th of the 4 chord. A guitarist or a sax player would never hit that note! Why should I have to? I had to figure out how to get it. One day I thought, “What would happen if I tried bending down a lower –pitched note, one of the blows between 1 and 6?”

I started with 6, because that was the area closest to that missing minor 3rd. When I tried bending down the D, I got a very buzzy, distorted sound. I thought, “Wow, what a cool, funky sound”. Then I realized that the upper part of that sound was the missing minor 3rd, an F. I focused on that pitch, and gradually was able to separate it out. I had found one of the “missing notes” and was very excited.

If I could get F like this, maybe other missing notes could be obtained this way. What about the major 7th in cross harp, a C#? It just wasn’t there, and I really wanted to be able to play it, especially as the 3rd of the 5 chord. So I tried bending down 5 blow, a B, and lo and behold, a C# popped out, a little flat, but there. This was getting more exciting. The other nearby missing note was the Bb. When I bent down 4 blow (G), it popped out, very fuzzy, flat, and hard to separate, but it was there, too. If I tried to bend a lower note on a hole down, the note just above the higher note on that hole would pop out, as if by magic.

If I had known anything about adjusting reeds, it could have been much easier, but I had no clue. So I just tried and tried, found that some of these notes, like the Bb that popped out of 4 blow of a G harp, were easier to get on higher harps like a C. It was then that I asked my sax player friend from Jazz band, Eric Allison, what I was doing to get these notes. I played them for him, and he thought I was overblowing harmonics of the overtone series the way you do on a sax, trumpet- just about any wind instrument- by tightening your embouchure. I figured, “ He must know what he’s talking about, because he does that, too”, so I called it “overblowing”, an unfortunate name that has stuck. I’m sorry I popularized the term, but that’s the way it is. No hard feelings, Eric.

When harp players hear that word, the first thing they think is that you have to blow harder to get the note to come out. It really is a type of bending, with a very specific embouchure to extract the high note, to get it to “pop” out. The sound of the high note actually comes from the draw reed bending up- the blow reed goes down as low as it can, then stops sounding and acts as what is called a “closing reed”, creating a vacuum that enables the draw reed to bend up in pitch and actually produce the sound, surprising as it seems. Years later, I learned that the pitch of an overblow is flexible, that you can bend it up and down, that getting one “in tune” depended on what note you wanted to get, from a range of up to a fourth or even more! Playing Hank Bahnson’s hybrid overblow harp in the ‘90’s showed me that possibility. It had slides that closed over the closing reeds for overblows, letting the draw reeds bend up incredibly easily. Adjusting reeds down toward the reed plate on a standard harp made it a lot easier, too. I started doing that in the late 80’s after learning about it from other harp players. Back to the story…

After that, I found the Bb on 1 blow (still referring to a G harp). I couldn’t sustain it well, so I used it mostly as a passing tone. Then I tried bending down the draws from 7 up to 10, and discovered the “overdraws”. They filled in all the missing notes on the top 4 holes of the harp. I got 9 (Eb) and 10 (G#) but couldn’t get 7 until I bought a 14- hole Marine Band 365 in C (one octave lower) in Spring of 1970. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, 7 draw and blow were adjusted close on it, and C# popped out. (For years I thought I had to find harmonicas that had overblows and overdraws that “worked”. I could have saved a lot of time and money and played a lot better adjusting reed clearances, but I had no idea that you could do that. All I thought about were the notes and the music.)

So, by Spring of 1970, with all the bends, overblows, and overdraws, I had a 3- octave chromatic scale. When I played in public, I was a little reluctant to try overblows too much because they didn’t always pop out, but I kept working at it and got better at it. If there was a note I wanted to play, I’d go for it, the same way any guitarist, pianist, or sax player would. I wanted to play music, not just harp licks. I switched to Golden Melodies sometime in the early 70’s because they seemed easier to play for me. Years later found out that they were Hohner’s first diatonic harps tuned to a tempered scale (like chromatic harps), much more suited to my style of playing than the just intonation harps, which all the others were (and most still are).

Now that I had all the notes, I started to work at playing Jazz tunes. I soon discovered that the key of 5 draw (12th or 1st flat position) was a great key to play in. Being able to get the 4th in the second octave with 6 overblow allowed me to play more than just the Lydian mode. It also had some great bends in different places from cross harp, giving the harp an an entirely different character.

I started playing some Jazz tunes in straight harp (1st position), which is a key mostly used for folk music. It worked well for uptempo swing tunes and tunes like Samba de Orpheus. 6 draw (4th position) was a great key for minor key Jazz tunes like Autumn Leaves. It is the relative minor of straight harp. I also played My Favorite Things a lot in that key. 3rd position, the key of 1 draw, was great for minor key blues and bluesy tunes like Summertime.The key of 2 blow (5th position)worked well for minor key blues because you could bend the 3rd and 5th, but you had to be careful of the flat 2nd which was 5 draw. But then I found that 5th position worked great for playing middle eastern music where b2 was an important note. You could also wail on the top holes where 8 blow was the tonic and 9 blow the minor 3rd. And so on and so forth.
To be continued…

Rocky Grass Song School and Festival with Paul Reisler

8/14/04
I just returned from the Rocky Grass Song School and Festival in beautiful Lyons, CO. I taught a class called “Musicianship” to singer/songwriters. The staff was made up of many fine artists. Many of the students are professionals with careers who come there to learn more about songwriting, the business, to have their minds stretched, to hang out with their fellow artists, and just to be in the beautiful Colorado setting. It was a beehive of creativity, intelligence, and musicality. I was asked to teach there through my friend Paul Reisler, with whom I just recorded a cd “At Night the Roses Tango”. I have to digress a little and tell anyone reading this what an important person Paul has been in my musical life.

For years he was the leader of the acoustic folk group Trapezoid. I met Paul and the other ‘Zoids at The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1982 (I was playing with bassist Brian Torff). After our meeting, Paul hired me to play on several recordings that he produced, and then recommended me to teach harmonica at The Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop in Elkins, WV, which I ended up doing for 7 summers. So many fine harp players passed through there- Carlos del Junco, Sandy Weltman, Mike Green, to name a few- as well as Hank Bahnson, whose important research into the diatonic harmonica started in my class.

Paul also hired me to teach at a World Music Week at The Omega Institute in 1984, which is where I met percussionist Glen Velez. This led to many projects, culminating in the formation of Trio Globo. In 1987, while playing with Trapezoid at Winnipeg again, I met Bela Fleck. Trapezoid member Lorraine Duisit (whose beautiful Paul Reisler-produced “Hawks and Herons” album I played on in 1983) kept insisting that Bela and I had to play together. She physically dragged me over to where Bela was sitting in the hotel lobby one night and said, “Howard, Bela- Play!” We ended up jamming till 7 am. As a result of that night, Bela called me to do The Lonesome Pine Special TV show in Louisville in 1988 with the Victor and Roy Wooten, and The Flecktones were born.

So now Paul has introduced me to a new circle of brilliant and soulful musicians. Steve Seskin, Angela Kaset, Peter Himmelman, Arthur Lee, among others, not to mention a reunion for me with the Planet Bluegrass people who run Telluride and other great festivals in Colorado- Steve Symanski, Craig Ferguson, all the other wonderful staff people who made me feel like a member of a big extended family. Not to mention all the good vibes I got from so many of the students.

After I finished teaching Mon-Thurs, Paul, Angela, and I played a set on the festival stage. Before that, I sat in on 3 tunes with Steve Seskin. Thurs night there was a big student/teacher concert, and I sat in with a bunch of folks and had a great time.

The Planet Bluegrass people really know how to run a festival, and Lyons is a great little town with nice cafés, restaurants, and shops. For more info go to www.planetbluegrass.com.

 

Gordon Elliot Story

Summer of ‘90, I was with The Flecktones, and we were opening shows for Chicago. It was a strange pairing, but we opened about 30 shows for them and it helped spread the band’s name. One was at The Jones Beach Ampitheater on Long Island, around July 4th. After the show, I went to stay with my folks in Rockaway, which is pretty close by. We were all exhausted after a very long hot day and I collapsed into bed. The next thing I know, my mom is shaking me awake. I look at the clock- it’s really early, like 7 am. I
think- “The house is on fire!” or something like that. But she’s smiling, telling me, “Quick! Get dressed! They want you on live TV!”. This was very surreal. I mumbled something like, “Who? What are you talking about?”.

It turns out that there was an early morning show that traveled to different neighborhoods of New York every morning, looking for interesting and slightly wacky things to put on the air. That morning they were in my parents’ neighborhood to do some barbecueing, but the person slated to cook wasn’t home, and the host, a very personable Australian chap named Gordon Elliot, asked the assembled neighbors if anyone interesting lived nearby. My parents’ neighbor, Faye Levine, piped up, “The world’s greatest harmonica
player is staying at the Levy’s house on ___St.!”. So Gordon says, “Well, let’s go wake him up!”.They walked over, Gordon rang the bell, my dad, half asleep, stumbled downstairs in his shorts, opened the door a crack, to be greeted by a crowd of 30 raucous neighbors and a camera crew. (This was all being shown live on the New York Fox station).

So a few minutes later, there I was, sitting on my front porch steps half-dressed. Afer a commercial, they turned on the cameras, interviewed me, made me play a little, the neighbors clapped, and we all went back to bed. I have no idea what I said or played, but it seemed to satisfy Gordon Elliot and his camera crew. If anyone saw that little segment, yes, it was me.


How I Bent My First Note

January 2004

I’ve read some other people’s accounts of this life-changing experience, and some pretty good ones, too. I thought I’d add my experience to the pile.

I started trying to play harp toward the end of senior year of high school in New York, 1969. I had played piano since I was 8 years old, mostly classical, and had always improvised and written my own music, too. I had expanded my interests out into many styles, and was in my first real band. We played rock, blues and jazz with some of my originals, too. The drummer, a classical violinist who taught himself drums by emulating Elvin Jones, also taught himself harmonica from listening to Chicago Blues recordings and just absorbing it. In a few weeks he was sounding really good- in a few months even better. I was impressed at how well he played, and how quickly it happened. I also fell in love with the Blues, period. I went to hear Paul Butterfield and James Cotton at a club in The Village, and that sealed it- the music blew my mind. Growing up in NYC, I had never heard any blues live. There weren’t many places to hear it, very few Blues players, and a general lack of awareness of the music.

After I got comfortable playing Blues on piano, I wanted to try harp- it was portable, unlike the piano, and you could bend notes on it, unlike the piano. I also met my first serious girlfriend around that time- she liked the way my friend played the harp- a little extra incentive for me to learn it. So I bought one at Manny’s on 48th St. in NY for about $2.50 and started honking on it. I sounded like any other kid who tries to play-terrible. I had no clue how to bend a note. I asked my friend Kieve, who couldn’t explain it – invisible things went on inside your mouth that he could do effortlessly but couldn’t impart to me. I tried for months with no success and almost gave up.

In Sept.1969, I went away to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. During orientation week, the Chicago Seven- Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, et al- made a fund-raising appearance at an NU lecture hall. They were on trial for planning the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was against the Vietnam War, which was the central issue of the day and the main reason for the protests at the Convention that led to the trouble and the trial. So I went and squeezed into a spot with 4-500 others. It was really something to see all those guys in person, get a feeling for each of their personalities and beliefs, and listen to their speeches. My most vivid recollection is of Abby Hoffman as a wild court jester leaping all over the stage, saying outrageous things. Tom Hayden seemed like a grim anti-government politician with a serious message. I don’t remember Jerry Rubin very well. Another of them was into Bhuddism, one was a pacifist/conscientious objector. One might have been talking revolution- it’s a little hard to remember. A lot of people were talking about that back then because there was such anger against the government and “The Establishment” in general. It was heavy, I didn’t know a soul there, and it was my first time West of Pennsylvania.

I walked out of the hall that day, trying to absorb what I had seen, what it all meant, and trying to figure out where I stood in relation to all of it. Somehow, I felt like playing the harp. I fished it out of my pocket, a Marine band in G (from Manny’s), put it to my lips, and suddenly, I bent the 4 draw. I was shocked- that’s what it felt like- WOW! Indescribable, an oral balancing act between vacuum, pressure, and breath that transformed the harp from a mundane wood and metal object into a magical, organic vessel that vibrated, sang, and changed me in the process- forever, as it turned out. All thoughts of politics vanished as I bent 4 draw over and over while I kept walking, and then started to apply that one note to some simple Blues licks. I had heard them hundreds of times but could never play them before this moment-what a feeling, what a revelation! Within a few minutes I was bending 1,2,and 3 draw, later, 6, and finding more and more Blues licks. They had been there the whole time waiting for me to bend so I could play them. I was speaking with a voice I didn’t know I had, because I had never had it before- I wished that my girlfriend back in NY could hear it, and my bandmates, too. It changed me forever. I felt like people who’d known me before didn’t really know me anymore. And since nobody here knew me at all, I was starting my time in Evanston as a different person than I had been just days before in New York. It was exciting, strange and a little disconcerting. I had to tell someone I knew.

I went to a pay phone at the train station and called a guitarist named Dave who I’d played with in Brooklyn, who was attending Lake Forest College (about 15 miles north). I told him about it and took the train up there to play for him- I was practically jumping out of my skin. I’ll never know why I had my breakthrough at this particular moment, whether the political rally or just being in Chicago had anything to do with it. All I know is that it did happen exactly as I’ve recounted here.


Rod Paparozzi

April 2003

This is an account that Rob Paparozzi wrote about the events of Mar. 28-30 after the wonderful harmonica gathering he and Wade Schuman staged`Mar. 30 in NY. It went on for more than 8 hours, with an incredible amount of high-level harp playing and good music, which Rob recounts in amazing detail! Rob is a great harp player and singer, and a friend to the harmonica world in general. In Rob’s words….

…..I want to thank everyone that came out to support our “NY Club”, The NY Reedsters. Also, special thanks to Danny Wilson and Harp-l for allowing us to promote this event electronically which resulted in an outstanding success. Since I don’t have a formal list of who attended, I won’t even attempt to start listing them but I’ll mention a few as I talk about the weekend.

Friday:
The weekend kicked off with Howard Levy and Anthony Molinaro playing a duet concert on the Upper Eastside. I couldn’t make it, but I heard they were a hit and got a standing ovation on the finale of “America the Beautiful”.

Friday Nite:
I spoke with Howard via cell phone after his Noon concert. He said he was looking for something to do Friday Night and asked me who was playing around. I told him that I knew my friend Ed Palermo was playing at The Bottom Line, performing two Frank Zappa lp’s in their entirety. Howard went down and talked to them at sound check and as it turned out they asked him back to play that night at the show. Well,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,you guessed it, he Blew the doors from W 4th St out to Bleecker St with his solo, according to reports I got!!!!

Saturday (7-10pm)
Wade Schuman’s “Hazmat Modine” extravanganza! at Terra Blues Club on Bleecker Street in the Village. I went from 7-7:30pm and saw Howard sit in but I had to leave to get to my uptown (wedding gig) at the Essex House on Central Park South.

Wade’s band was kickin’ and Wade started the show as he always does with a
breathtaking ‘solo’ piece…..Wade is an amazing player and a terrific
bandleader and arranger.

Saturday (9pm-1am)
Private Party! Howard agreed to fill in as our piano player wasn’t able to do this gig. Well, it was a wedding, and Howard trekked uptown from Wade’s gig in his Tux……now check this out- the groom recognized Howard, as he used to see him in Virginia at college with Bela Fleck’s band! He was a big Fan and couldn’t believe Howard was playing at his wedding! …..That set the tone for a crazy night, so me and Howard took turns trading off on Piano and Harmonica and we all had a blast………………..

Sunday (3pm-Midnite) The Gathering at Wade’s Midtown Loft Both myself and Wade were pretty wiped going into this event from our gigs the night before. I got back to NJ about 3pm unloaded my PA and reloaded my Van with a Piano, Soda, Beer and asst party goods for the next day…at Noon I met my Bass Player, Bailey Gee and we headed into town, we got to Wade’s Building and we met drummer Bernard Purdie in the lobby, I said “what are you doing here Bernard?” and he responded, “today is your event right? and I’m here to help out!”…….woah!! I was floored to have Bernard help out us Harp players. He is a true friend not only to me but as many of us know from the Summit, a genuine ally to our harp community.

Bernard knew both me and Wade bit off more than we could handle, so he went for Ice, Greeted everyone and collected the dues at the door, handled the caterers, and Played Drums with everyone from the Sgro Bros to Frederic Yonnett!!! Bernard, I know you’re not on harp-l, BUT THANK YOU SO MUCH….we love you!!!! The Sgro Bros backed by Howard on Piano, and Purdie on drums (now that’s a first!!!) played “Lullaby of Birdland” & “Stars &Stripes Forever”.

Howard and Anthony did a duet of “Mood Indigo”, “Amazonas”, “America”…and 1 or two more….Anthony is an impeccable classically trained pianist with Jazz & improv chops as well! He announced that this was the 1st time he had ever attempted these pieces on electric piano, but you’d never know it after hearing him!

Since Howard was brought up in the NY area, it was special having him featured at this meeting, IMO, Howard is to the Diatonic what Larry Adler was to the Chromatic, By this I mean, they ‘opened’ the door for expanding the possibilities and parameters of our instruments. But not only did we have playing pioneers, we had MASTER Harmonica master technicians, customizers, inventors and great players in their own right in attendance as well!….Cham-Ber Huang, Rick Epping and Joe Filisko. Newer techs like Jimmy Gordon, Mike Easton and Bob Meehan……so this was quite an event!

For the first time we actually had a great backup Band with a real Bassist, Drummer and Guitarist (Jon Scholle) from David Grismans band and another great player that Wade will have to mention as his name escapes me. William Galison even brought his own talented band with Madelline on Vox & Gtr and a great female Accordionist.

We also had two Claviola players who performed a duet and Rick Epping gave us a gorgeous mini concert on Concertina & Rack Harp……as well as a very interesting demo of his new “XB” harp….thank You so much Rick!I didn’t know Frederic Yonnet was coming!….I think Galison got word to him, but Fred put on a hell of a show, with ‘chops’ and ‘speed’ for days….I put Purdie, Scholle, Howard (on piano) and Bailey up there w/ him to perform “The Chicken” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman”………….totally funk-i-fied!!!!

Wade recreated his Solo piece was again and just amazed us all! taking us from pre-war harps and hollers to eastern microtonal scale with sprinkles of Butterfield….now that’s a mixture!!! Wade was Wade & Kate also deserve a BIG thanx for allowing this madness into their Loft for a whole day & Night….very gracious!!!!! Some more of the featured players brought up were alot of our regular club members: William Galison, Susan Rosenberg, Robert Bonfiglio, Steve Guyger, Dennis Gruenling, Charles Spranklin, George Brooks……a few came but were a little under the weather if I didn’t want to put them on the spot…Thanx to Cham-Ber and Charlie Leighton….they are also giants they attended but didn’t play. Oh yeah….our good Friend, Harris Simon (Diatonic) is an awesome Jazz Pianist and helped out immensely, we love you Harris and Thanx for putting up Howard on Sunday Night!!! A huge thanx to Bob Meehan who picked up Filisko at my house at 4am to get him back to Chicago on Monday so he could make his teaching gig!

Thanx to Bob Beck, Jimbeau, Chet Williamson, Chris Gillock, Johnny
Rosch, Gary Schreiner, Chis Mastakas, Gary Schreiner, Larry Wexman, David ?, Sandy Mack and Nick Coppola, Trip Henderson, Bob Lians, Daine-Paul Russell, Rich Yescali, Louie, Ben Nathanson, Gary Mettler, David Teicher, Jon Paris, Mark the Harper, Randy Weinstein, Lester Schultz, Norman Savitt……………….and a ton more I cannot recall at this moment….apologies to all I failed to mention….oh…Chris Bauer did a nice job on Chromatic on a Duke tune as well as Susan Rosenberg’s verse of “Summertime” acc. by Harris Simon on Piano. Bonfiglio I put on the spot with NO accompaniment for some great Classical Playing and a poignant “Amazing Grace” ….we had a moment of silence for deceased Reedsters, Don Brooks ….and I forgot to include the late great Reedster from Brooklyn Bob Shatkin, I’m sorry……..

My good friend Randy Singer got there a little Late, he was giggin the night before in Florida and is was VERY special having him up to play with Galison at the end……he ALWAYS sounds great!!! and so does his new CD!!! Some cool highlights were Howard Levy and William Galison trading Melodies, Harmonies and licks on Django’s “Nuages” and “My Funny Valentine”….pretty beautiful hearing Chrom & Diatonic together….it really worked!!!

Also, I really want to Thank Joe Filisko and Rick Epping, our ‘special’ out of town guests for taking time from their busy schedules, they WERE the highlight of our event…thanx guys!! All in all I think a good time was had by all, I hope everyone enjoyed it and thanx again to Harp-l, we couldn’t have done this without you……………………Reedfully Yours……….Rob Paparozzi


The Making of “The Old Country”

There were some unique things about the making of this cd. One was the hotel. The owner of M.A records, Todd Garfinkle, lives in Tokyo, is married to a Japanese woman, and speaks fluent Japanese. He rented a hi-tech hall in a little town in the country about 2 hours west of Tokyo. It had great acoustics, but the town was really tiny.

Mark Nauseef, Miroslav Tadic, and I rehearsed at CalArts ouside of LA, flew over to Tokyo, and were picked up by Todd, who drove us to this town. There was only one good hotel, and it was in an amusement park. To get there, you had to make a left and go under the rollercoaster. This was so strange (especially in the dark) that Todd couldn’t believe it, and we drove past the place twice before eventually turning in. Another strange thing was that the hotel seemed to have no towels- “People bring their own” was the answer we got from the manager. Todd persuaded him to give us some. There was no soap of any kind in the rooms- the manager opened the gift shop and sold us soap and shampoo.

Then he told us that breakfast was at 9 am. The next morning, we received stern phone calls telling us that breakfast was ready. We wondered why they seemed so insistent until we realized that we were the only guests and they didn’t want to stay open any longer than necessary. So we had to dine promptly. Walking down the hallway to the dining room I heard all sorts of birds chirping very loudly. “We’re really in the country”, I thought. Mark mentioned to me that there seemed to be some sort of “white noise” in the hallway, too. Later we found out that they were playing a cable radio station that featured sounds of nature. The one they chose each morning was “Birds by a Rushing Stream”.

On the third day, the amusement park opened and there were finally others in the hotel. Since the rollercoaster was right outside my window, I was treated to clattering wheels and screams for the next few mornings. I named one of my tunes after the name of the rollercoaster, “Hayabusa”.

There weren’t too many good restaurants in the town, either, and late one night after a day of recording, we found ouselves in a bar, the only place with food that was still open. It was also the only dirty place I’ve ever seen in Japan. We sat on the dusty, carpeted floor while flies buzzed around us. They had conveniently supplied a flyswatter, which I found under the table. The main attraction was a giant screen with karaoke videos about drug dealers and prostitutes, and the customers seemed to have stepped right out of them into the bar. Occasionally, one would grab the mic, drunkenly bellow a tune, and sink back onto his stool.

The owner, trying to make us feel welcome and giving us the friendly proprietor treatment, came over to us with the mic and smilingly sang a song while he put his hand on Mark’s knee, which Mark didn’t exactly like, to put it mildly. He said things like “Hey Buddy, get your _ _ _ _ _ _ _ hand off my knee!” while the guy smiled and sang on enthusiastically in Japanese.

Rather than see a fight break out over that or the terrible food – my chicken was spoiled- I grabbed the mic and played harp to the next tune, to the general confusion of everyone there. We couldn’t get out fast enough. Todd was worried, Mark was angry, I was hungry, and Miroslav was laughing- he said it reminded him of places in his country (Bosnia).We ended up at a convenience store eating snack food.

In spite of (or maybe partially because of) all of this strangeness, we managed to record a cd full of challenging and unusual music.


The One-Note Piano

July 2002

In May 2002 I did a tour of England with Rabih Abou Khalil. We rehearsed in London for 2 days and then played 7 nights all over England. Then I flew to Germany and played 3 solo concerts there, which I enjoyed very much. After that, I took a train from Ulm to beautiful Bolzano in the Dolomite region of northern Italy, where I played a trio concert with Michael Riessler and vocalist Elise Caron.

The concert was ouside of town on top of a mountain in an old castle called Schloss Runkelstein (this part of Italy is half German). Unfortunately, the communication between our agent and the promoter was not very good, and nobody there realized that I was playing piano as well as harmonica. At the last minute, after a very windy soundcheck, the promoter was able to get a keyboard from a friend down in Bolzano- a Fatar 88-key weighted- key controller with some kind of Roland module. After an hour, he was back with it. One small problem- he had forgotten to bring a keyboard stand. Well, things could have been worse. There were some armchairs, so I set it up across 2 of them, plugged it in and turned it on. Not very professional-looking, but what else could I do?

From the first second, I was in trouble. When I plugged everything in, I got a smattering of notes, maybe 20, all in the wrong octaves and out of sequence, and some keys would play more than one note at a time. Someone had set this keyboard up for something other than live piano playing! No place on the Fatar was there any clue as to what any of its various buttons really did, and the tiny display only showed numbers. I couldn’t find a reset button or a default setting- nothing I tried helped at all. It was midi hell and I was in it. If it had been a keyboard I was familiar with, maybe I could have figured it out, but I had no idea what I was doing. To make matters worse, there was still a mountain wind blowing. Chairs, music stands and music, and mic stands were crashing down around us, with us trying to catch them and stagehands trying to tape them down. It was a scene out of a Marx Brothers movie.

Then someone put me on a cell phone with the owner, a very nice guy who spoke English and tried communicating with me, but it only made things worse. By the end of our conversation, I had exactly one note, the lowest A on the piano. I figured I could play the first 8 bars of “One Note Samba”, in D.

After soundcheck, the owner showed up and fixed the problem. It never did sound very good (to put it kindly), but at least it had all the notes in the right order, and we played the concert.
July, 2002.


Amsterdam

July 2002

Sometimes things happen that just boggle the imagination.They are not outside the realm of possibility, just highly improbable.

In Winter of 1998 or ’99, I was in Amsterdam doing a cd with an electric bassist for an obscure little record label. The label got all of the musicians a little house to stay in out of town, but it was not right- the beds were too small, it was freezing cold, crowded, far away from everything, in short, a nightmare. After one sleepless night all of us insisted on staying at a hotel in town, so they moved us to one. Unfortunately, all the hotels were very busy, so I had to change my room the second night. And after 2 nights, they had to move us to another hotel down the street. Meanwhile, we were recording live to 2-track all day long at a nearby church, and it was a lot of hard, stressful work.

I know one person in Amsterdam, a harmonica player that I thought I should call, but I waited until the recording was done before I called him. I don’t know this guy that well, and the atmosphere at the church was too tense to invite a stranger into.

We finally finished recording, but not before the hotel made me change my room again. This time, I noticed a strange poster on the wall. It said “Dr. Hot and Neon” – I had no idea what it meant. Most hotel rooms have abstract paintings or touristy pictures on the wall. It was kind of odd, but I didn’t pay much attention to it or try to figure out what it was. After all, it was Amsterdam, a pretty eccentric place, and I was really tired.

So the next morning I called Steve to come meet me for lunch. When he came into my room he had an astonished look on his face.
“That’s me!”, he shouted, staring in shock at the poster on the wall. He was “Neon”, part of a juggling/music/comedy act that he used to do in Amsterdam at least ten years before. After all the hotels and different rooms, I finally called the one person I knew in Amsterdam and his picture was hanging on my wall! I had absolutely no idea that it was him when I had looked at it, and none of the other rooms in the hotel had that poster. We both laughed for a long time.
It falls into the “possible but highly improbable” category, and was a much-needed dose of humor for me after a rough week.


East Meets Jazz

East Meets Jazz
I just returned from the Sandip Burman “East Meets Jazz” tour. Unfortunately, we were cancelled in mid- tour as a result of the terrible events in New York on Sept. 11. We played our final show that night in Blacksburg, VA. It was a very emotional concert. We began with a long moment of silence and played a concert marked by everyone’s hearfelt emotions as well as their virtuosic playing.

Our bassist, Victor Bailey, broke into a moving version of the Star Spangled Banner in the middle of a bass solo. I played Amazing Grace in the middle of an unaccompanied harmonica solo, and we finished the concert with Sandip’s beautiful Alap, Jor, Jhala in Rag Bairagi.

Before Sept. 11, we were cruising along. In Lubbock, TX, I finally got to meet Chris Sampson of Octagonal Madness. He is the person responsible for this web site and the sites for many other musicians. He and his girlfriend made the marathon 9- hour drive to hear us play (a medium-length drive by Texas standards). It was great to finally meet him. Chris is a bundle of non-stop energy and great ideas.

In San Francisco (our first gig with Randy Brecker), we had an afternoon concert/workshop with questions from the audience. It left us time to do things later. Steve, Jerry, Victor, Winslow Yerxa, and I went over to Pearl’s to hear The Vince Lateano Trio, with guitarist Bruce Forman. Victor’s uncle Donald, a fine chromatic harp player as well as a famous drummer, stopped by. It was great to meet him. Steve and I sat in and played a few tunes together, and had a great time.

After the San Diego show, we flew the red eye to Baltimore through Chicago. That night, we stayed at the Best Western Pentagon, very close to the impending disaster. Then we played Annapolis, the first of what would be just 2 nights with the great guitarist Paul Bollenback as the newest band member. From there, it was on to Blacksburg.

Getting home on Sept. 12 was difficult, as there were no flights, no rental cars to be had, no trains, and no buses. Jerry Goodman, Steve Smith, and I finally rented a 14 ft. U Haul truck, the smallest thing that would fit three people, and drove it to Chicago. From there, Steve was able to rent a car and drove all the way home to San Francisco. Jerry stayed in Chicago for a while and was finally able to get a flight back to LA.

The other band members got a ride in the band van from Blacksburg back to Baltimore, from where they each managed to get home. Our soundman, Chuck, who drove them there, had to rent a U Haul to drive back home to Charlotte, NC.

So, onward and upward for us all. My best wishes to all of you who came to see us play, and my apologies to those whose shows were cancelled. Hope tosee you all soon.


The Stolen Harmonicas

Around 1987-88 I was sitting in the kitchenette at Streeterville Studios in Chicago after playing on a jingle. I had brought an amp, and it was sitting in the hall right next to the room I was in, along with my coat and my harps, which were in a fishing tackle box inside a fancy- looking triple-trumpet case that I used to carry over my shoulder.

It was about 5 pm on a cold winter afternoon. I filled out my W-4 slips, finished my coffee and got up to leave, but when I got to my stuff, just 10 feet down the hall, I saw that the harps were gone. I was stunned and I immediately knew that they had been stolen. It was the second time it had happened to me- all my harps had been stolen out of my car several years before, and the feeling of having it happen again was sickening. People in the studio said that they had seen a man who they thought was a courier running out of the place with a blue bag- my case – over his shoulder. I was frantic, but I thought that maybe once he saw that he had stolen a bunch of harmonicas and not 3 trumpets, he would throw them out.

I ran down to the alley and looked in the dumpsters, to no avail. I was half crazy and panic-stricken, and I started walking off into the night, hoping that by some miracle, I’d find them or the thief. I walked for miles through the Loop, ending up at the pawn shop district in the South Loop, but they were all closed. It was about 10 degrees out and I was freezing. I gave up, took a cab back to my car, drove home, and numbly played a gig at The Green Mill with The Ed Peterson Quintet, playing piano and, for obvious reasons, no harp at all.

The next morning I still felt catatonic. The phone rang, and my wife told me that a bartender from some bar down on Rush Street wanted to talk to me. I told her I didn’t want to talk to any bartender- if the place wanted me for a gig, have the manager call me. He was insistent, so I came to the phone in the worst of moods. His name was Patrick Davis, and he said “I’m a bartender at O’Leary’s Saloon. Last night around 6 pm a guy came into my bar. He had watches under his coat he was trying to sell, and this blue bag with a tackle box full of harmonicas in it. I bought the harps for $35.”
Well, I jumped in the air and shouted some happy profanities. I got his address and raced down there- no breakfast, no coffee- I had to get there. Here’s the strange part- my name was nowhere in or on that case.

Somehow, I had never thought about putting it there, and that might have been what got the harps back to me- how could the thief have sold them with my name plastered all over the case?

In addition to the harps (at least 40) I had several mics, a tuner, some effects pedals, tools, all sorts of stuff. How did the bartender find out that the case was mine? My friend Craig Sieben had just returned a Harmonica Jazz demo tape that I had given him before I put it out- he didn’t need it any more, and I flipped it into the case absent-mindedly, never imagining that my phone number on the cassette label would get my harps back to me!
When I drove down to Patrick’s place, I realized that it was just a block south of the pawn shops I had walked to the night before. I walked up the stairs, rang the bell, and was greeted by a tall kid of 22 who handed me the bag. I opened it up just to see my harps- everything was there- harps, mics, pedals, etc- and took one out to play just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. It was a Golden Melody harp in A and it was real.

He said, “You know, I was listening to the tape- you’re pretty good- wanna play a tune?” It was getting stranger.

“Are you a musician?,” I asked.

“Yes, I’m a college student, part-time bartender, and I sing and play guitar- wanna play a blues?”

“Sure”.

So he starts playing in E, coincidentally the perfect key for the harp I had taken out. I close my eyes to play and he starts to sing. I opened my eyes to see who had walked in the room- this kid from the suburbs sang exactly like Muddy Waters.

We got through playing and I asked the obvious question- “How the h__ , ? etc.”

He pointed to his turntable that had a stack of Muddy Waters’ records on it.
“I’m starting a Muddy Waters tribute band. My partner plays harp, and when this guy walked in and opened up the case and I saw all the harps, I thought, ‘what a great price for all those harps- my partner could use them’. Later, when I looked through the case and saw how many there were, I figured that whoever owned them must be a serious player, and I felt wrong about keeping them. Then I found your name and number on the cassette and called you”.

I was speechless. I thanked him in amazement, paid him $50 and took him out to breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s, a great Chicago breakfast place nearby. I told him that he was on my guest list for life, anywhere, anytime. And I never saw him again. Truth is stranger than fiction.


Latin Music

I have been playing what is commonly called “Latin Music” for about 20 years. My interest in it started in New York where I grew up. New York has a very large Puerto Rican and Cuban community that supported a huge music scene. Most of the music, called “Salsa”, was a blend of Afro-Cuban music and American Jazz, and the players were a mixture of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Americans. I heard a lot of it growing up in NY. A big influence on me was the album “Patato and Totico”. I was fascinated by the interlocking rhythmic patterns of clavés, congas, and cowbells, and used to sit up trying to follow each part through a tune. (I met Patato years later with Tito Puente in NY). After I heard Eddie Palmieri play live in 1970, I was really hooked.

I started playing the music in Chicago in 1979 with a band called Cheveré, a slang word to describe something that’s “happening”. The band, founded by Costa Rican drummer/percussionist Alejo Poveda, started as a percussion ensemble and gradually added other instruments. I joined as a sub, became a member, and started writing and arranging a lot of tunes for the band. It was an unusual group- the band (sax/flute, trumpet, guitar, electric keyboards-mostly Hammond B3, bass, drums, 2 percussionists, and me on piano, harmonica, and mandolin) played a combination of Afro-Cuban, Brasilian, and American styles. The musicians came from Costa Rica, Brasil, Cuba, and America, and that diversity was naturally reflected in the music, which also included a lot of exhuberance and humor.

The band played a lot, mostly around Chicago, and had a large following.There were a few studio recordings made, but none were ever released commercially. We couldn’t find a label that was interested (which seems absurd now) and we never put it out ourselves because we kept thinking that someone else eventually would.

Another band that I played in was Som Brasil. Led by Brasilian pianist Breno Sauer and his wife, Neusa, they performed a lot of the best Brasilian music by Jobim, Milton Nasciemento, Gilberto Gil, Joao Bosco, etc. I used to sit in with the band on harmonica, and when Breno needed a heart bypass, I became the pianist for a few months and learned a lot of great tunes. The band included Brasilians Luis Ewerling on drums and Paulinho Garcia, bass and vocals, and some fine American players- saxophonists Ron DeWar and Steve Eisen, and guitarist/composer Ernie Denov. Steve and Ernie were also members of Cheveré.

Through Geraldo DeOliveira, a percussionist in both of these bands, I got to play and record with the great Brasilian guitarist/composer Toninho Horta. We recorded 5 of his tunes, with Kelly Sill, bass, and Steve Eisen on flute. I treasure the cassette copy that I have and will always remember the session as a magical experience.

I also developed an interest in the style of Brasilian music called “Choro”, and especially in the music of mandolinist Jacob de Bandolim. I learned several of his compositions and played some of them in Cheveré on mandolin.

Around 1984 played my first “name” gig in the Latin music world. I subbed for Jorgé D’Alto on piano for 2 nights with The Tito Puente Latin-Jazz Allstars, which included Jerry Gonzalez and Paquito D’Rivera. This was an honor and a thrill. Paquito was impressed with my piano and harmonica playing, and after I sat in on his next gig in Chicago, he started to hire me to play with him when he toured the midwest. This led to more US and European tours, (including a gig with Giovanni Hidalgo and sitting in with Arturo Sandoval) and to recording with him in 1986 on the CBS album “Explosion”, on the cuts “Christmas Without You” and “The Lady and the Tramp”. Those were the first tunes to showcase my harmonica playing on a major label.

One of the best things about playing with Paquito was playing with the great Brasilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi. I played with him for several week-long engagements at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase in the 90’s.

I have continued to play Latin music, with many other collaborations along the way. Through Alejo Poveda, I met the late Manfredo Fest, with whom I composed “Seresta”, recorded by Paquito (twice) and The Flecktones (UFOTOFU). I also recorded my 11/16 Bulgarian-style arrangement of his signature tune, “Brasilian Dorian Dream” on Trio Globo.


Mistaken Identities

Musicians travel to so many unusual places and meet so many people. Lots of times people who we don’t know come up to us and say that they saw us play somewhere we don’t remember playing. When this happens, usually I smile politely and say “Thank you- glad you enjoyed it”, and wonder if it was me that they heard.

Howard Levy is a common name, but I started to wonder what was going on when people who weren’t drunk came up to me in Chicago clubs to tell me that they had heard me play with Sonny Stitt on the South Side in the ’60’s (when I was still in high school in New York). One guy looked at me and said, “Man, you look about the same as you did then.”

I couldn’t figure it out until someone finally told me that there had been a Howard Levy who looked like me, lived in Hyde Park in the 60’s, and was a jazz pianist.

There was another Howard Levy who was a conga player from New York living in Chicago in the 70’s. He was about my age, played concerts with a popular singer named Frannie Golde, and when his name appeared in the paper, I always got confused calls from friends. We even got each other’s checks form the Union by mistake a few times.

There is an older musician in Chicago named Harvey Levy whose name people have confused with mine. I got a phone call one Sunday morning about 10 years ago from an irate trombone player demanding to know where the gig was. “What are you talking about?” I asked sleepily from my bed.

“Don’t mess with me, man”, the guy said. “You know, the gig on the boat.”

I started to wake up in a hurry. Something occured to me, and I asked what type of music he was supposed to play.

“Dixieland”, was the answer.

“You want

Levy the tuba player, not me”, I said. The trombone player (whose name I don’t remember) realized his mistake, called Harvey, and (I assume) made it to the gig.

Just a few weeks ago, I received a picture from a Chicago Musician’s Union officer of Harvey (white-haired and at least in his 60’s) and another older musician taken at a Musician’s Union party. It was addressed to Howard Levy and came with a note to me saying how nice it was to see me at the party.

And then there is Charlie Garcia. He’s a huge rock star in Argentina, and looks a lot like the way I looked with my old glasses. I had met several Argentinians who said that we look like twins. On my last trip to Brasil, I happened to catch a show about him on Argentinian TV, and he really does look like me. Look him up on the web and you’ll see.


With Rabih Abou Khalil in Taiwan

Touring with Rabih Abou Khalil was always an adventure. We met playing a concert in Athens with Glen Velez in 1991 (I was on a break from the Flecktones). I played more than a hundred concerts with him from 1993 to 1997 (and a few after that), and recorded 2 cd’s. We performed mostly in Europe, but also in more exotic places like Syria, Jordan, Macedonia, and Taiwan. I played the Taiwan Jazz Festival in 1994, one of my first gigs with Rabih. It was part of a ’round- the- world- in- ten-days- tour, which I only realized as I was doing it. Montreal, Den Haag (North Sea Festival, near Amsterdam), Taiwan, L.A. (where I had a recording session), and home to Chicago.

Rabih had sent a mountain of faxes back and forth to the head organizer, a woman whom I will call Emily Shen. One of the things she insisted on toward the end was that we attend a press conference 3 days before our concert. In spite of Rabih’s strong protests, we had to leave Amsterdam immediately after our gig and fly to Taipei through Hong Kong. Exhausted, we were hustled to the press conference without even checking into our hotel. After we grabbed a few bites of leftover hors d’ouvres, we sat down and waited, all sweaty and hungry. Rabih, ever the Lebanese gentleman, introduced himself to Emily Shen and gave her a present. She seemed totally unimpressed, unfriendly and brusque. He was surprised and a little offended to receive such a cold reception after all of the faxing and phoning and travelling.

The press conference consisted of “Mr. Rabih Abou Khalil, would you please introduce the members of your band.” It was like a roll call. We each stood up when our name was called. That was it. Needless to say, we were not happy. You’d think that we would be allowed to go to the hotel, but NO, another surprise! The real reason they wanted us there three days early- we had to perform a Free outdoor concert in Chiang Kai Shek Park. It was 95 degrees and just about as humid. Hurry hurry to the park! Right away! Of course, we waited for several hours outdoors in the sticky heat, and then played. Although there were considerable language problems between us and the sound man, it went pretty well.

Finally, they took us to the hotel. As soon as we could shower and change, the 4 of us went to a restaurant in the hotel with an all- you- can -eat buffet. We ordered, the first two dishes came, and they were delicious. We waited and waited for the rest to come, then finally called the waiter over and asked where the rest of the food was. We were told that the cook had gone home. (It was hours before the listed closing time). By this time, we had all been up for more than 24 hours. Rabih, who had somehow stayed calm during everything, went ballistic. He screamed at the manager, who then told him that the real reason why the cook went home was that we had ordered things that he didn’t think Europeans would like. The fact that we were two Arabs, an Indian, and an American didn’t alter his opinion.

For the next 3 days, nobody from the festival ever called us or came to show us around. We found things to do, rehearsed, saw the city, but couldn’t figure out the neglect. And at the concert, there was no food at all for us, though we had to be there for soundcheck, and there were no restaurants anywhere nearby. We ended up eating out of vending machines. In spite of it, we played very well for 1,000- 2,000 people, got a great response, and were taken out to a delicious dinner afterwards by a journalist who was ashamed of the way we had been treated and wanted to show us some true Taiwanese hospitality.

I got the answer to the mystery of our bad treatment on my way to airport the next morning. I shared a cab with an American musician who said to me “It’s too bad Emily Shen couldn’t have been here- she was so nice”.

“What do you mean- who was in charge?” I asked.

“Oh, that was Emily Shan. Emily Shen had to go back to the US where she is a graduate student, and they replaced her at the last minute with Emily Shan, who didn’t know what she was doing.”

That explained a few things. I told this to Rabih later, and he said that he noticed the spelling of the name had changed on the last faxes, but that there were so many other misspellings in the faxes that he never imagined that he was dealing with a different person toward the end.


An Arabian Tent Party Wedding

An Arabian Tent Party Wedding
Unusual gigs I used to do in Chicago… I never played too many “jobbing dates”, as they are called in Chicago. But in the early and mid 80’s, I did don my tuxedo and venture out with my electric keyboard or other axes to play the odd job here and there. The experiences varied wildly, and I have a few indelible memories from those years, some of which are hilarious, and some just plain weird (like the time a party guest stole the drummer’s cymbal bag and put it next to a dumpster -and I found it by a combination of deduction and imagination).

One of the coolest gigs I did back then was to play Greek weddings with The Aristons, a 3- piece Greek band consisting of drums, keyboard, andbouzoukee/guitar. The bouzoukee/guitar player, Bill Demis, was a friend of mine who was a very versatile musician who played many styles of music. He knew that I played all kinds of music, including Bulgarian and middle-eastern, and when the group’s clarinet player quit to become a full-time architect, he hired me as the 4th member. I memorized many Greek folk and pop tunes, played them on soprano sax and harmonica.

The band played a 50/50 blend of American pop and Greek music, so I played most of the pop material on tenor sax, which I used to play a lot in the 80’s. I really enjoyed the ritual dance medleys at the Greek wedding parties. There were traditional dances for all the relatives. I especially enjoyed playing theTsamikos, which Bill called “the Greek blues”. It’s in a slow 3/4 rhythm and I got to wail on it on harp. (I put one on The Old Country). Zeibekiko, a slow 9, was another of my big favorites.

I played a lot of gigs with The Aristons, but one was truly bizarre. It was “An Arabian Tent Party Wedding”, held at a very ritzy hotel in Chicago. We had to dress in costumes, and I almost left when I saw the turbans and vests. The other entertainment included a snake dancer, a female contortionist dressed in a frog costume who squeezed her body through barrels, a couple dressed as Tarzan and Jane who led a parade of wild animals including a cheetah and a chimpanzee, a sword swallower, and a male stripper (I couldn’t take playing for that and took a break). The couple were older, and the woman had two adolescent sons who periodically did break dancing in the middle of the floor. All of the guests were seated on the floor, middle-eastern style. One couple right in front of me got very sloshed and amorous, and were all over each other for most of the night. The whole event was being filmed by 3 cameras, and I wondered if Fellini was in charge of the camera crew.

Assyrian Music
Also in the 80’s, I did a lot of recording for an Assyrian record label called SY. The owner, Sargon Yonan, ran a dental laboratory, in back of which was a state- of – the – art recording studio. Sargon, who everyone called Sarge, was a brilliant guy who played many Eastern and Western instruments, and invented a pitch – altering device to make electric organs able to play the 1/4 tones needed in middle-eastern music.

I played (mostly piano, but some harp, flute, and maybe mandolin?) on 5 or 6 albums on SY. The only one I still have is by a singer named Linda George, who is very well known in the Assyrian world. The cover has a picture of her dressed as Queen Shamiram. I recently saw her in an Assyrian dance video while I was channel surfing late one night.


Brasil

I finally played in Brasil this past July. Thanks to the efforts of my friend Geraldo DeOliveira in Chicago, and Ciro Cruz and Flavio Guimaraes in Brasil, everything happened just as it was supposed to. Ciro put together the band- Toca DeLamare on piano, Mila Schiavo on percussion, and himself on bass.

We performed a combination of my tunes, Brasilian music, and some Trio Globo compositions that Ciro and the band learned on their own. Onstage at the first show in Rio, I got an incredible rush from the feeling of actually playing in Brasil after having played Brasilian music for so many years. We had three guest artists. I played 2 tunes with the great chromatic harmonica player and composer Mauricio Einhorn, and Flavio got up and joined us on harp (with me on piano) for a version of “Summertime”. Bernardo Lobo also sang his tune “Luz e Breu”.

I conducted harmonica workshops in Rio and Sao Paulo- many players showed up, and Mila and Flavio translated for me. After 2 nights at Bourbon Street in SP, I recorded a track with Flavio and a berimbau player for his next cd. Then, we played a blues gig together with Flavio’s excellent band in Campinas, a few hours drive inland. There is a thriving blues scene in Brasil. It’s a big country with as many musical styles as the US. The hospitality of the people, the great food, and just the feeling of being there make me want to go back many more times.


Prague

I just got back from playing 2 concerts in The Czech Republic. Thanks to the tireless work of long- time friend Slavek Hanslik, the experience was a wonderful one. I played at The Lucerna in Prague with bassist/pianist Larry Kohut, my son Miles on drums and percussion, and guest artist Jiri Stivin from Prague (a great player) on flutes. We performed a wide variety of material and got a great response. I hope to play there again, possibly in the Spring. We played a smaller show the next night in Brno.

Originally I was supposed to play a concerto in Munich (with Michael Riessler, Jean Loius Matinier and the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra) and then go to Prague, but it was postponed till Fall of 2001. I am really glad I went to Prague in spite of the unexpected cancellation. It is one of the world’s most beautiful and artistic cities and we came home to freezing cold Chicago feeling inspired.


The Star Spangled Banner

I have had the honor of playing the national anthem three times in Chicago, twice for the White Sox once for the Bulls. Each time, something surrealistic happened, and I’ll share two of them with you.

My first experience was playing at the old Chicago Stadium for the Bulls in the late ’80′s. Michael Jordan was in his prime (I think he scored 53 points that night) and I was very excited to be there. A woman from the organization walked me onto the floor past the players and over to the broadcast table where I met Johnny “Red” Kerr, the Bulls chief broadcaster and a legend in Chicago. He shook my hand and I was on my way to the mic in the center of the floor when he called me back and asked ” Howard, do you pronounce your last name LEE-VY or LEH-VY?” I told him the right way to say my name, he said “Okay”, and I nervously stepped to the mic.

Then I heard his voice boom out over the P.A. “And now, Howard Levy will sing our national anthem”. Nobody had told him that I played harmonica. My fingers are so long that he never saw it in my left hand, and he assumed that I was a singer.

I paused, thought about singing, thought the better of it, steadied my nerves, and played, to the surprise of the crowd. After they realized that I was playing a harmonica, they enjoyed it, but at first, I could feel the confusion in the place over the fact that there weren’t any lyrics. Red Kerr apologized to me afterwards, but it was a real thrill for me to play, even if 19,000 people thought they were going to hear a singer.

The other strange anthem experience came the second time I played it for the White Sox in 1993. The first time I played there, standing at home plate hearing my sound fly around the huge ballpark gave me goosebumps. I eagerly looked forward to doing it again.

This time, I had just flown in from LA from playing the Tonight Show with Kenny Loggins. I went straight from the airport to Orchestra Hall where I was playing in a benefit concert for the Pediatric Aids Foundation, featuring the music of Steven Sondheim. Don Sebesky was music director, the orchestra was made up mostly of members of the Chicago Symphony, Charles Durning was there- quite a scene. After the rehearsal I took a cab to Comiskey. I got to the office, and was greeted by a man from management who hemmed and hawed- a group of girls from Mt. Prospect High School were signing the anthem for the hearing impaired, and thought they were doing it with a singer (sound familiar?). They wanted to rehearse with me. The Sox management guy asked, “Howard, do you think you could play it really straight this time?”

I told him that it was an honor to play the anthem and that it was no problem. So they took me down to the umpires’ room, a small room behind home plate where 8 nervous teenage girls and their teacher ran through their moves as I played. It was pretty funny, and I can only imagine how puzzled the fans must have been when we gave our performance on the field. Once again, though, it was a thrill to stand at home plate and play it.

As soon as I finished, I hurried back to Orchestra Hall, put on my tuxedo, and played the benefit concert. And after that, I went up to The No Exit Café, a place I used to play years before, to play a set that was filmed for a doumentary. I played harmonica and piano, and, I confess, I finally sang a tune.

There is a strange coda to this story. I was at Cal Arts near LA rehearsing for The Old Country cd before flying to Japan to record it. A student was moving some drums for us. He found out that I was from Chicago. We started talking about his one visit to Chicago several years before, and how he went to his one and only major league baseball game on that trip. “As a matter of fact”, he said, “there was a guy who looked kind of like you who played the national anthem on harmonica with a bunch of girls signing it for the deaf. I thought it was cool.”