Although many of the uninitiated to not consider the harmonica when contemplating favorite jazz musical instruments, quite a few musicians have made their name playing jazz both in the past as well as the present. In fact, traditional jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, encouraged harmonica playing with the traveling orchestras of the day back in the late 30s and throughout the war years as well. One such musician was Toots Thielmans, a Brussels, Belgium native that Goodman encouraged to come to New York to play. Thielmans soon made harmonica history.
Carving Out a Spot
Not only did Thielemans take Goodman up on his offer to come to New York to play, the guitar-playing, whistling harmonica enthusiast soon went solo – on the harmonica. He is now credited as being one of the, if not the, greatest harmonica player from the 20th century. Thielemans found the riveting, upbeat Bebop jazz style that originated out of Kansas City in the early ‘4os much to his liking. In fact, Thielemans is credited with bringing harmonica playing into mainstream jazz recording with contemporary stars such as Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Jaco Pastorius. Now at 90, he plays occasionally in public although he recently suffered a stroke.
Passing the Torch
Although there was hardly a harmonica player that could come close to Thielemans in the 30-odd years of his popular reign, there were many who came close throughout the world such as Mauricio Einhorn from Brazil, Charles Leighton, Pete Pedersen and Les Thompson from the U.S. as well as Frenchman Glaude Garden. Then in the 60s enters a young, soon-to-be star that produced his own individual approach to harmonica playing just as Thielmans did. The young 18-year-old phenom who even recorded with Thielemans playing the latter’s famous “Bluesette” was none other than Stevie Wonder.
Traditional Style Remains Valid
While Thielemans and Wonder were developing unique and personal harmonica playing styles that would help etch their vaulted spots in the history of the chromatic, others continued pursuing traditional swing or Dixieland styles. Musicians like Harry Pitch or Jack Emblow have been performing for more than a half-century in the United Kingdom as the Rhythm and Reeds. Harmonica player Joe Martin has been playing with Jazz a Plenty in the US for more than 70 years. Harmonica playing styles can differ throughout the jazz landscape.
Present-Day Resurgence In Playing Interest
There’s been a recent resurgence interest in jazz harmonica playing, in short because of the popularity of the Internet. Young players are mixing use old techniques marrying these to new influences. Two of these young players that are emerging on the scene today are from the UK. One is Julian Jackson and the other is Adam Glasser, a South African born but London-based musician. Not to be outdone, the French are also producing their own crop of young artists that are led by Greg Szlapczynski, Olivier Ker Ourio, Sébastien Charlier and Frédéric Yonnet.
In the US, watch for performances by Gregoire Maret (Swiss transplant).