Howard Levy Interview
Howard Levy is a fabulous musician of unlimited talents who is one of the world’s leading harmonica players. His list of credits would fill this page so just a few will be mentioned. If you think playing the harmonica is no big deal, you haven’t heard what he can do with this small instrument.
To hear a sampling, click on his photo below to be transported to his website and a preview of his new DVD. You’ll note that Howard doesn’t use a chromatic harmonica. He performs on a simple diatonic instrument to play every note in the chromatic scale with amazing speed and dexterity using a method he has developed. You’ll be amazed at the many famous musicians he has performed with. You’ve also heard him as a soloist on the sound tracks of major motion pictures. In addition to the harmonica, Howard is also a fantastic pianist and plays a number of other instruments as well. After you’ve been dazzled by what you’ll read, see and hear on Howard's website, return here to read his interview. You’ll be blown away with the many things this world-class musician has done and continues to do. If you aren’t really impressed, you’re made of stone!
Welcome to the Musicians Professional Resource (MPR), Howard. Yours is a very fabulous, interesting and varied career, and it has often been said that you are a musician without limitations. Tell us how and when you became interested in music and especially, how you ever decided to take up the harmonica (sometimes referred to as simply a “harp”).
Howard Levy (HL) I started out taking piano lessons at home when I was 8. The first week, the teacher showed me the notes, how to read treble clef and play with the right hand. The second week, he showed me bass clef and the left hand. The third week, he gave me a simple piece to play with both hands. After that, I started to improvise. I had it in me, and just getting the basic structure shown to me brought out my natural ability. After a few months, the teacher told my parents that I needed a better teacher. They looked into it and I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music. We lived in Queens (NY) and it was a long drive, but my parents took me every Saturday for 4 years. I studied music theory, took private piano lessons, and whenever I played a piece well enough, I got to perform it at Music Hour, a very humanely run program, where the woman in charge would offer helpful suggestions on improving your playing, and also open the floor to “constructive criticism” from fellow students. I learned a lot from this, and never had a serious fear of performing. My piano teacher, Jeanne Graham, made me play correctly, instilling discipline in me, showing me the need for clean and accurate technique, and at the same time encouraging my penchant for improvisation and composition. She also encouraged me to transpose pieces I was studying into other keys, a great thing to do. In theory class, we did ear training, dictation, and the like, which sharpened my ear greatly. It was also great to be in the company of fellow kids who loved music and could really play. I didn’t feel like an outcast the way I did at grade school, where very few kids shared my love of classical music or improvisation. I put a band together in 6th grade of all my friends who played instruments. It was 2 clarinets, trumpet, bassoon, accordion, drums, and me on piano. I wrote out an arrangement of the one pop tune that the accordion player knew- The Alley Cat Song. We rehearsed for weeks and played the final assembly. The students cheered and shouted “Encore!” But we only knew that one tune, so we played it again. It was the first time that I realized that playing music could actually IMPROVE my social status! After that, I was in a jug band at summer camp when I was 14 or 15. There were 4 of us- guitar and washtub bass were the instruments. We worked out some 4 part harmony tunes- I remember singing Rag Doll by The 4 Seasons, which went over big. At the high school dances- it was the ‘60’s- I borrowed a Farfisa electric organ and we drove to a school somewhere in Brooklyn. We- me, guitar, flute/sax, electric bass, and drums- had been rehearsing in my living room for a while, and we figured we were good enough to play a dance. It went pretty well. My father had to drive me there- I was 17, didn’t know how to drive. Many more of those followed. I remember taking long Farfisa solos on “Light my Fire”- it meant that the band had less songs to learn. The same guys I played rock and roll with got into Blues and Jazz. There were 3 of us who went to concerts and clubs together, turned each other on to new records, etc. In our Jazz period, we played some open- mic nights at clubs in the Village, a gig at Harvard, played on the air on Harvard’s radio station, etc. My friend Kieve, a classical violinist and self- taught drummer, got into Chicago Blues and started to play harmonica. Within a few weeks he sounded very good- within a few months even better. I had always been frustrated at having to find a piano if I wanted to play music. The harmonica seemed like such a great thing- you could bend notes, wail the blues, AND it fit in your pocket. I bought a Hohner Marine Band harmonica at Manny’s Music on W. 48th St for $2.25 and asked Kieve to show me how to bend a note. He told me that it was hard to show me, because it was inside the mouth and intuitive- like learning how to ride a bike. I tried for months with no success. One day, at student orientation week at Northwestern (where I went to college for a year and a half) it suddenly clicked. I bent my first note and got obsessed with playing the harp. I carried it with me everywhere, playing hours each day, playing more and more things until I realized that there were some missing notes on the 10 hole diatonic harp that just weren’t there. Being a pianist, I thought that this was impossible- they had to be there somewhere. So by stubborn experimentation, I found the missing 6 notes that allowed me to get a 3 octave chromatic scale. I had no idea that I was the first person to ever do this, but I was. (Before me, if you wanted to do this, you had to play the chromatic harmonica, the one with the button on the end. This is an entirely different instrument with a different sound). This was the start of a musical journey that has taken me more places, physically and musically, than I could have ever imagined. There is a lot of information about this at www.levyland.com.
MPR Tell us about your formal music education and how important it was to you.
HL After moving from New York to Chicago, I attended Northwestern University. While at NU, I auditioned for the piano chair in the Jazz band. I got it because I played jazz piano better than any of the other students, though my actual experience with reading charts was nil. It was on-the-job training, my first Jazz schooling. I learned what the chord names were as I went along. Before that, I had only known the most rudimentary chord names, though I had been playing some of the more advanced ones on my own. Now, I learned what they were called, and learned a lot more of them, too. It was at this point that I began to develop a love of practicing, discovery, and writing jazz compositions, and realized that, although I wasn’t a music major at NU (and I would drop out after a year and a half), I wanted to make music my career.
MPR What were your earliest gigs like?
HR I was so into music that I would sit in anywhere if someone asked (and sometimes even if they didn’t). I was desperate to play, and when I played well, it was noticed and I started to get gigs on piano and harmonica, in NY in 1971-72, and then back in Chicago. (This is such a long story that l have to leave a lot out.) My first “break” came from playing in a band in Chicago in 1976 that the great folksinger Steve Goodman took out on tour. That led to playing with John Prine. After a year of touring and recording with him, I started my own Jazz Quartet, co-founded The Balkan Rhythm Band, joined Chévere, etc, etc. This was around 1980. Playing with Chevere led to a gig subbing with Tito Puente, which led to my playing with Paquito D’Rivera, with whom I recorded my first 2 jazz harmonica solos in 1985 on the CBS album, “Explosion”. This brought me to the attention of the Jazz and harmonica worlds. By that time, I was also playing on a lot of jingle sessions in the Chicago studios. In 1986, I put out “Harmonica Jazz” a cassette album of originals, standards, and Coltrane tunes with a Jazz trio. This spread my reputation on harmonica even more.
MPR How and when did you happen to become associated with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones?
HR After several years of eclectic musical activities in Chicago and a little touring, I met Bela Fleck at The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1987, where I was playing with a band called Trapezoid. Bela and I met in the hotel lobby at the insistence of a friend, and we ended up jamming in my hotel room till 7 in the morning. In 1988 Bela got asked to do a TV show in Louisville. He put a band together with me, Victor and Roy Wooten. It was such a hit that we decided to try playing a few gigs, and The Flecktones were born. I did that full- time from 1989- 1992. It made me a very well-known musician, and opened many more opportunities for me to tour and record in the US and Europe.
MPR How and when did you start teaching?
HL I started teaching piano and harmonica around 1973 when I put up some ads in bookstores in Evanston where I lived. I was also working in factories, as a mover, a plumber’s ass’t, etc. Gradually, the word spread that I was a good teacher. I got enough students to quit the day gigs, and I also started to get some music gigs. I continued teaching, and eventually taught harmonica for a week for 7 summers from the mid ’80’s through early ‘90’s at Augusta in Elkins, WV. This was a wonderful experience, and led to the making of my first harmonica instructional video, “New Directions for Harmonica” for Homespun Tapes in 1992. It has sold thousands of copies. I just made another one called “Harmonica Out of the Box”, in which I perform and explain original tunes in 12 keys on one diatonic harmonica in the key of C. This is available through my website. I have also been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Dartmouth, Berklee, and other universities and schools in the US and Europe.
MPR What other musical activities are you currently involved with?
HL At the present time, I am involved in many bands and projects. 1) Chévere, a 9 piece Latin/Jazz/Everything band from Chicago. I started my own label (Balkan Samba Records) and put out the bands first long-overdue cd, “Secret Dream”. www.cheveredechicago.com 2) Howard Levy’s Acoustic Express- This is a 2 guitar, acoustic bass, and me group. It is based on the Django and Stephan bands of the ‘30’s and 40’s, but takes off in many other musical realms. We are trying to get a cd out. 3) The Molinaro/Levy Project- this is a duo with me on harmonica and the amazing pianist Anthony Molinaro. We have one cd out on 19/8 Records, “The Molinaro/Levy Project Live”, with another one in the works. 4) Trio Globo- World Music and Jazz, with Glen Velez, percussion, and Eugene Friesen, cello. We have 2 cd’s of original music composed by the 3 of us. 5) The Riessler/Levy/Matinier Trio- Contrabass clarinet, me on harmonica and piano, and accordion. These two European musicians are astounding players and composers. We play together in Europe, and plan to record a cd this year. 6) Howard Levy/Fox Fehling- me and my fiancée, a violinist in the Chicago Symphony. We have a cd out called “Cappuccino”, a blend of classical, bluegrass, Latin, Jazz- very eclectic- and play occasional concerts. 7) In 2001, I composed my Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra, the first concerto written for diatonic harmonica. I have performed it 15 times in the US and Europe. I recorded it with The Czech National Symphony in Prague and hope to release it in 2008, along with another composition of mine composed in 1995, “Harmonia Mundi” a suite for harmonica and chamber ensemble. There is more, but ….
MPR How beneficial have you found your own website to be?
HL My web site has been incredibly beneficial to me. First, the schedule lets me know where I’m supposed to play when I can’t remember. But seriously…a website is a wonderful thing to have. It has allowed me to stay connected to the whole world. People get in touch with me from everywhere through the website. Many concerts, recording sessions, teaching opportunities, etc, have come to me this way. I also put some memoirs and poems up there that I wanted to share with people as part of a general artistic statement. That’s the great thing about a website- you can make it into whatever you want. My webmaster, Chris Sampson, is a musician and devoted lover of music. It has been a pleasure working with him. He tries to help as much as possible. We share ideas, ways to improve the site, etc. He also filmed my new dvd. Even though he lives in Houston, he drove up here and we did a 3-camera shoot. My site is very informative, and fulfills its function well. I sell a lot of merchandise. Currently, there are 2 dvds, a video, and 8 cd’s available for purchase, plus many sound clips, and one video clip of the new dvd. I ship some of the merchandise, and Chris ships some from Texas.
MPR What advice would you give musicians starting out as professionals?
HL Advice- this is the hardest part. Don’t be a professional musician unless you absolutely can’t STAND to do anything else. Once you are committed to it, work as hard as you possibly can to keep getting better, because the competition is very stiff, no matter what kind of music you play. The thing I most like to hear from people who hear me play live is “Gee, you sounded even better than the last time I heard you”. That is the best thing to hear, because as I like to say, “the alternative is very depressing”. Take every single gig seriously, seeing it as an important step toward the improvement of your music and your career. Be purposeful. If there is one style of music that you really love and want to play, go hear the best people play it live, not just on recordings. Try to get one of them to teach you. Try to play with people who are better than you, because you will learn a lot more that way. If they don’t like something you did, ask them why. If you screw something up, even sitting in at a jam session, go home and practice that thing as hard as you can until you can play it right. Every “failure” is an opportunity to improve. If you are a composer, try as hard as you can to get your music played. Whether that means starting your own band, applying for a grant, entering a contest- whatever- DO IT. If you don’t, you will be frustrated, which will make you bitter. Sometimes, the world will not acknowledge your work. But when it does, it is a great feeling and it gives you the energy to write and perform more of it. To musicians playing tonal instruments, one of the most important things you can do is transpose pieces to all 12 keys, no matter what style you play in. This is not easy to do, but once you get used to doing it, it opens things up in a big way. There are no short cuts to mastering an instrument, no “easy” or “quick” ways. Just a combination of your talent and hard work. To musicians playing ANY instruments- try to get relaxed playing music in many different time meters, and also develop an understanding of music from different cultures, hearing it from the perspective of the people whose culture it is from. It is an amazing chance to see the ‘big picture” of music, all the unique variations of the “universal language.”
MPR Wow! That’s a lot of great advice, Howard. Thank you for a really great interview and that sound advice. I'm sure many of our visitors will learn much from your experiences as you continue to be an inspiration to many!