I’ve been part of the Los Angeles music scene for many years. I started with the blues and eventually delved into other genres: bluegrass, country swing, and Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy jazz.
My musical journey began in the early ‘60s, when I was tutored on the diatonic harmonica by the legendary blues icon Sonny Terry. In the mid-1960s, I taught harmonica at the Ashgrove, a club that was the focal point of the Los Angeles folk music revival. Years later, I taught and performed at other venues in the Los Angeles area, such as McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Boulevard Music, the Coffee Gallery Backstage, and Viva Cantina.
In the mid-’90s, I started focusing on the chromatic harmonica. I honed my skills by attending numerous music jams and gigs, armed only with a chromatic in the key of C. By playing in all keys, I became comfortable playing by ear and improvising in many styles of music.
In 2005, I produced and played harmonica and guitar on my first CD, Harmonica and Guitar Duets, which covers diverse types of music, including blues, swing, Klezmer, ragtime, and country. In 2008, I produced the CD, High Desert Bluegrass Sessions, with bluegrass greats, banjoist Pat Cloud, guitarist Eric Uglum, fiddler Christian Ward, and bassist Austin Ward. In 2010, I released Bluegrass Harmonica that features my harmonica, and includes virtuoso breaks by Pat Cloud, Eric Uglum, and guitarist Steve Trovato. In 2012, I released Douce Ambiance: Gypsy Jazz Classics, featuring my jazz harmonica with the fiery guitar lines of Gonzalo Bergara, and the unmatched jazz 5-string banjo playing of Pat Cloud.
Gypsy Jazz Harmonica
In the 1930s, Belgian guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, together with French violinist Stephane Grappelli, introduced the world to Gypsy jazz. Gypsy jazz is typically acoustic music featuring the guitar, but often includes the violin, bass, and sometimes accordion. The music can be fast and fiery, or melodic and sublime. Reinhardt and Grappelli started what became known as “The Hot Club of France.” Django wrote and inspired much of the Gypsy jazz music that was played then and now.
In Gypsy jazz, the chromatic harmonica is rarely used, but it does have some history. Django, for example, recorded four tunes with chromatic harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler and played with the jazz harmonica pioneer, Max Geldray. I have tried to use my chromatic harmonica to capture the fiery Gypsy jazz feel that is so different from other types of jazz.
Iʼm one of the few harmonica players who specialize in Gypsy jazz. I have performed with Gypsy jazz bands, and have attended numerous Gypsy jazz festivals and jams throughout the United States. I have found that my harmonica playing has been very welcomed within this music community.
In my new CD, “Douce Ambiance: Gypsy Jazz Classics,” my harmonica playing is accompanied by the intricate guitar lines of Gypsy jazz virtuoso Gonzalo Bergara, and the unmatched 5-string banjo playing of the legendary Pat Cloud. The harmonica and banjo help make this CD unique in the world of Gypsy jazz.
I once half-jokingly remarked that harmonica players are about as welcome at bluegrass jams as mosquitoes that come out to feast. Indeed, many bluegrass folks consider the harmonica a suspect instrument, although it is certainly better established in bluegrass than instruments such as the clarinet or saxophone. Harmonica player Mike Stevens recorded with Jim and Jesse McReynolds; Charlie McCoy, with Flatt and Scruggs; Buddy Greene, with Bryan Sutton, Aubrey Haynie, Ron Block, and Stuart Duncan; PT Gazell, with Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs; and WV. Ryan Rightmire, with the Del McCoury Band.
I have also created a place for myself in the world of bluegrass. I’ve recorded and performed with banjoist Pat Cloud, fiddler Christian Ward, guitarist Eric Uglum, and bassist Austin Ward. What makes my playing unusual is that, as far as I know, I’m the only musician who has recorded bluegrass using a chromatic harmonica. When played properly, the chromatic harmonica can produce a sweet, fiddle-like sound and handle intricate melodies. All the other bluegrass harmonica players I’m aware of use diatonic harmonicas, which produce a raw, bluesy sound. This is because, unlike the chromatic harmonica, the diatonic harmonica is missing notes, which can only be obtained by bending the reed.
I have taken the harmonica in a new direction, and based on the feedback I’ve gotten, a direct that is appreciated by many in the bluegrass community.