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Howard Levy: Reinventing The Harmonica

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Howard Levy: Reinventing The Harmonica

Howard Levy: Reinventing The Harmonica

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Howard Levy's house in Evanston, Illinois, is filled with musical instruments - ocarinas, percussion and especially, harmonicas. When he was just a teenager, Levy took a regular, dime-store harmonica and figured out how to play a full chromatic scale. His virtuosity has since landed him gigs with everyone from Tito Puente to Garrison Keillor to Bela Fleck. Independent producer David Schulman went to interview Levy for the series "Musicians in their Own Words." Levy pulled up in his car, and to David's surprise, the interview started en route.

Mr. HOWARD LEVY (Musician): So, I always drive with at least one harmonica in the car, and I've written a bunch of tunes driving.

Mr. DAVID SCHULMAN (Independent Producer): Really?

Mr. LEVY: Yeah. Because, you know, harmonica is the only instrument you could really play while you drive, because you'd only need one hand to play it.

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: I mean, you know...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: You know, I fantasized hooking up a mike and pretending I'm a Honda. I am a Honda, but...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy imitating a Honda car horn with the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: Fiat, you know...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy imitating a Fiat car horn with the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: Cadillacs...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy imitating a Cadillac car horn with the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: You know, all different kinds of cars. But I mean, I could play while I drive. It's no problem. There's one tune of mine called the "Tri-State Boogie," which I wrote while I was driving on the tri-state expressway.

(Soundbite of song "Tri-State Boogie")

Mr. LEVY: That's the basic idea of it, and it does do better driving faster. I'd probably play it faster when I'm driving faster, too.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. LEVY: We are at Leviland Studios, which is also my house. And it's a relatively small dining room in this brick bungalow that I live in, but it's got my 1923 Steinway, a piano, which is a beautiful instrument. When I'm playing a solo on the harmonica, I'm singing through the harmonica, seeing it as a piano keyboard, you know.

(Soundbite of piano and harmonica composition)

Mr. LEVY: I mean, that's how I think.

(Soundbite of piano and harmonica composition)

Mr. LEVY: When I picked up the harmonica, that really changed my personality because the piano is a machine. And playing a wind instrument is just so personal. You're breathing the notes directly from your body, and the instrument comes alive, and it sings.

This diatonic harmonica here was invented to play German folk music and was turned into a blues instrument, which is one of the greatest accidents in the history of musical instruments. They intended it to be played...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: They left out a bunch of notes in the bottom octave, but if you wanted to play the melodies on the top, you'd just put your mouth over it. The melodies would all be harmonized.

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: And then when African-Americans got a hold of the instrument, and some genius realized that instead of playing it based on the exhale, if you played it based on the inhale, you got the blues scale, basically.

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: Not only could you get...

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: ...the chords, you can get all the single notes that you need in the blues.

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: By an amazing accident of design.

(Soundbite of Mr. Levy playing the harmonica)

Mr. LEVY: They say that music is a universal language, but it has a lot of dialects, and you've got to be able to speak either very, very strongly in your own dialect so that people can just dig it. Or if you're trying to reach out to people, then you have to learn their dialects. And you don't pronounce German with an English accent. You pronounce it with a German accent. So that if I'm playing Cuban-style Latin stuff, I will try to play it with a Cuban accent.

(Soundbite of Cuban-style piano and harmonica composition)

Mr. LEVY: A bunch of smaller orchestras around Chicago area got in touch with me about playing a harmonica concerto with them. I said, well, do you want me to write one? And they said, yes. And then I was really up the creek. I had no idea how to write a harmonica concerto. I never studied orchestration or composition - although, I have a lot of experience listening to orchestras, partially because my girlfriend is a violinist in the Chicago Symphony.

(Soundbite of harmonica concerto)

Mr. LEVY: The more I learned about classical musicians, the more I realized that the greatest of them were great improvisers. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all improvised at their own concerts. After they played a few concertos and conducted their symphonies, etc., they would do a free improvisation.

(Soundbite of harmonica concerto)

Mr. LEVY: So, I left myself room to improvise so that I would never get bored playing my piece.

(Soundbite of harmonica concerto)

Mr. LEVY: It could be everything, man. Music can be a political act. It can be a mating call. It can be a mathematical equation. They're notes, but you can imbue those things with any shade of meaning or emotion that you're capable of.

(Soundbite of harmonica concerto)

(Soundbite of applause)

LYDEN: Harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy. Our feature was produced by David Schulman as part of his series "Musicians in Their Own Words." And you can hear more of Levy's music on our Web site at npr.org.

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