Sandy Brown Jazz


Picture of marine band harmonica Picture of chromatic harmonica


Harmonica Jazz

by Roger Trobridge

The use of a free vibrating reed to make music began thousands of years ago in Asia. The harmonica in its current form was developed about the same time as the saxophone, about 150 years ago, but it has never received the same recognition as a serious musical instrument. It is unique in producing notes by both blowing and drawing air through the instrument, which leads to the possibility of producing small, portable instruments with a wide frequency range. The use of the mouth and throat for tone and pitch control make it a very personal instrument.

The early harmonicas were diatonic and the layout of their reedToo Late album covers (notes) was chosen to allow simple melodies to be played with a basic tonic and dominant 7th chord accompaniment. Two styles predominated. The tremolo harmonica and what is usually called today, the blues harmonica. The first truly chromatic harmonicas started to be more common by the mid 20s. These added a button driven slide which raised each note by a semi-tone. The twelve hole model covered three octaves, and the bigger 16 hole added another lower octave.

Some early US diatonic players like Blues Birdhead, Alvin Gautreaux and Gus Mulcay were dabbling with tunes like St Louis Blues in the 1920s and Rhythm Willie finally recorded his clarinet influenced solos in 1940 and later in 48/50 with bands like the Earl Bostic Orchestra. There are examples on Pat Missin's excellent harmonica site.

The best collections of the recordings of harmonica players from this period have been issued on Document Records.

Picture of Larry Adler album cover

It was the arrival of the chromatic instrument which led to the harmonica's melodic potential being set free. Larry Adler first brought the instrument to prominence as a solo instrument at the same time that Borrah Minevitch was developing the Harmonica Rascals group into a successful comedy variety act. From the early thirties these two built up a tremendous following and made lots of records.

Here are some examples which show their technical skills and musical ability and a repertoire which covered standards and compositions by bandleaders like Duke Ellington. (Caravan, Stormy Weather, Stardust, Daybreak Express).

Larry toured widely and in Paris he made four recordings in 1938 with Django Reinhard and the Hot Club de Paris - Body and Soul; Lover, Come Back to Me; My Melancholy Baby; and I Got Rhythm. These are widely available, like most of Larry's other 78s, on remastered CDs. My favourite is the EMI collection, The Mouth Organ Virtuoso.
Picture of Harmonica Swing album cover

A superb French CD "Harmonica Swing", FA 5096, shows how widespread this practice was in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Many small jazz groups and orchestras included harmonica players as instrumentalists and soloists. Among the best known during this period were the young Max Geldray (Holland) and Dany Kane (France) who feature on this double CD. In the USA, the CD is called Harmonica Jazz Essentials. You can hear some short audio samples here.

In the USA, the harmonica quartet reigned supreme (Borrah Minevitch, Harmonicats, Cappy Barra, the Philharmonicas) and it was only when their popularity waned that jazz soloists like Charles Leighton emerged. He was the lead in the Philharmonics and Cappy Barra groups.

The popularity of the harmonica peaked in the 1950s in the UK. Larry Adler, Tommy Reilly, Max Geldray (The Goon Show - Max is in view and plays after 3 mins) and Ronald Chesney (Educating Archie) were active on BBC radio and music hall playing a mixture of swing and popular music to a large audience. The Chesney clip has some banter from the show and then a number performed for a none jazz audience at the NHL festival in Westminster Hall, London, in 1960, after Ronnie had stopped playing professionally.

Picture of Toots Thielemans

Around the same time a revolution was starting in Belgium. A guitarist, whistler and harmonica player called Toots Thielemans, encouraged by Benny Goodman, had moved to New York and had taken over the guitar seat with George Shearing. Toots played occasional harmonica solos for George before going solo and playing with the local BeBop musicians. He recorded jazz albums in his own name with musicians like Pepper Adams (Man Bites Harmonica), Bill Evans (Affinity) and Ray Bryant, and accompanied singers like Peggy Lee. He took the harmonica to the heart of modern jazz and kept it there, playing later with his friends Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson and Jaco Pastorius. He still tours but he is in his 80s and has suffered a stroke. His most famous composition is Bluesette. You can listen to him reminiscing with Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz for NPRadio in NY.

No one reached the same heights as Toots in the next 30 years but there were other good players like Mauricio Einhorn (Brazil), Glaude Garden (France), Charles Leighton, Les Thompson and Pete Pederson, in the USA, who carried the flag, often playing as session musicians.

A youngster who came out of the 60s who gained the respect of everyone with his individual approach to the chromatic was Stevie Wonder. Here is a link to a 18 year old Stevie playing Ruby and a mature Stevie playing Bluesette with Toots. Some others were still playing in the swing and Dixeland style. Harry Pitch and Jack Emblow have been performing as Rhythm and Reeds for 50 years in the UK and Joe Martin with Jazz a Plenty for 70 years in the USA.

Picture of Howard Levy

In the 90s, a new generation of chromatic players came through like William Galison and Mike Turk (USA), and Hendrik Meurkens (Germany) and Nobuo Tokunaga (Japan), but in the background, the full potential of the diatonic harmonica was beginning to be realised.

The early harmonica players had discovered that it was possible to lower certain notes on the diatonic and the ability to vary pitch became a very powerful musical technique, particularly for blues and country players. Howard Levy developed playing techniques, which enable him to produce the other notes required for a complete chromatic scale and a new revolution was underway.

In the hands of a player like Howard, not only could you play any melody but you could bend up and down to any note.Howard played for many years with Bela Fleck, and his style also fits the music of the Lebanese musician, Rabih Abou-Khalil. Here are some examples of Howard playing in a jazz environment in a concert he played for the NHL in London in 2007 (Francesca, Amazing Grace {virtuoso performance}).

So, what is happening now? We seem to have resurgence with the arrival of the Internet generation. The improved communication and the ability to see and learn from the best on the Internet have raised the bar considerably. Interest is increasing; membership of the National Harmonica League has doubled in recent years and around the world young new players are emerging on chromatic and diatonic, mixing the old techniques with modern musical influences. Musical distinctions are blurring as funk and jazz overlap.

The UK has two established younger jazz chromatic players, Julian Jackson and South African born Londoner Adam Glasser, with others seeking to establish themselves. France has blossomed in recent years and has quite a crop of youngsters led by Greg Szlapczynski, Frédéric Yonnet and Sébastien Charlier. The USA has Gregoire Maret (Switzerland) who has plays with many modern/funk jazz musicians like Dapp Theory and Herbie Hancock. Holland has Hermine Deurloo, Spain has Antonio Serrano, with more from Germany, Brazil, Ukraine, Japan …. Even Swing jazz is popular again. Here is PT Gazell. The future is looking bright and is still being written. There is a lot of talent out there.

The National Harmonica League is the organisation for harmonica players of all levels and musical leanings in the UK. We organise educational workshops and publish a magazine, Harmonica World, six times a year. It is sent out to our members all round the world and we run festivals and training workshops in the UK. The recent annual festival, H2008, in Bristol, had a jazz theme and featured Harry Pitch, Adam Glasser and William Galison.

In 2008 the London Barbican featured concerts by Toots Thielemans and Gregoire Maret. You can hear Julian Jackson and Adam Glasser, mainly in the London area. Julian has a CD, "I can't get started". Adam's CD Free at First, is due for release on Sunnyside Records in February 2009 and he is appearing at The Bulls Head in Barnes, London, on 28th Jan 2009.

My favourite videos? Toots and Steve Wonder playing Bluesette and a video which edits together three different performances of Summertime by Larry Adler.

Roger Trobridge

Chairman - National Harmonica League
Harmonica World magazine
email: Roger Trobridge

We have tried to use resources which are in the public domain or ones where we have been granted permission. This area can be quite complex so if we have used anything improperly, please let us know and we can remove it.

July 2009:

The Cyril Davies Website and Recordings

Roger Trobridge tells us that the first set of recordings by the British blues harp pioneer, Cyril Davies, is now available. Information and a video can be found on the Cyril Davies website where you will find the following information:

A new CD collection of folk, skiffle and country blues recordings, Blues from the Roundhouse, by Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis, was released by RSK in May 2009. It covers the period Cyril Daviesup to 1958 when Cyril was moving from playing his 12 String guitar to beginning to play harmonica. You can buy the CD here. We are still working to get the rest of Cyril's recordings released. About two years ago, Sanctuary were planning to release a double CD of virtually all of Cyril's recordings, Preaching the Blues, a Tribute Album, but it was cancelled when they were taken over by Universal. Details were pre-released and you can still find it on some web sites. None were ever sold.

We are also seeking information on the infamous 'London Blues & Barrelhouse Club', the intimate up-stairs venue found on the corner of Wardour and Brewer Streets in London's Soho. This venue is most commonly referred to as 'The Roundhouse or Round House' - which was actually the public house below the 'London Blues & Barrelhouse Club' on the street level. If you have any memories or photographs, please let us know!

Photograph courtesy of Cyril Davies Website


January 2011

Olivier Ker Ourio

Roger Trobridge has sent us this video link for Olivier Ker Ourio playing a terrific piece at a 2010 National Harmonica League festival in Bristol: click here for Olivier Ker Ourioyour taster. Olivier is accompanied by pianist Chris Collis playing the famous Jean Wertzel/Larry Adler hit "Le Grisbi" (French slang for 'money') from the 1953 film, "Touchez pas au Grisbi" ('Don't touch the Money'). Roger says: 'Olivier is a great player and the music was a hit in the 50s. He learned about it from his father, but he plays his own arrangement. The concert performance was spontaneous as we provided him with an accompanist - Chris Collis. I could not afford to bring over his pianist.'

Olivier Ker Ourio was born in Paris in 1964, but grew up in his family's homeland, the small French territory of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Today he is a Paris-based musician, composer, bandleader, a highly-regarded soloist and one of the world’s premiere chromatic jazz harmonica players. His compositions 'combine lyric melodies with invigorating rhythms and inventive harmonies'. Olivier has released 6 albums as a leader and has played on numerous albums as a guest artist. The list of people with whom he has collaborated is extensive and includes names like Didier Lockwood, Sylvain Luc, Michel Pétrucciani, Toots Thielemans and Michel Legrand.

One commentator spoke of a gig where "The duo of Sylvain Luc on guitar and Olivier Ker Ourio on harmonica had me sceptical: two instruments I am not especially fond of, and shades of contrived sounds worried my mind. But I was quickly proved wrong, asOlivier Ker Ourio Oversea album the unlikely duo unleashed an absolutely breathtaking performance, including modern and old tunes but above all playing with unbounded freedom, having a great fun and involving the audience in it. The crowded square responded with enthusiasm, and they were called back twice. I was not familiar with these musicians (my fault) and for me they were the best surprise of the weekend”.

For more about Olivier Ker Ourio click here for his MySpace site where you will find more information and more videos (you may need to click 'Translate This Page' from French to English). For CDs by Olivier click here.

December 2014

Preachin' The Blues

In 2014, GVC (Great Voices of the Century) released Preachin' The Blues, a memorial album to jazz harmonica player Cyril Davies. The 2 CD set includes five tracks recorded in 1963 with the Rhythm and Blues All Stars. The collection has been compiled by Roger Dopson and remastered by Peter J. Reynolds.

GVC say: 'Cyril Davies was perhaps the pivotal figure in the development of UK Blues and R&B, his pioneering work with Alexis Korner bCyril Davies albumetween the mid ‘50s and early ‘60s laying down the roots for a scene from which bands like The Stones later emerged. Sadly, his own life and career were cut tragically short in January 1964 when he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of endocarditis.'

'This is the first anthology of Cyril’s work, it features virtually every track that Cyril is known to have played and/or sung on, ranging from a 1954 home recording to a clutch of tracks with The R&B All-Stars, cut in 1963 at the height of the British R&B/Beat Boom that, had tragedy not intervened, threatened to make him into a household name. Along the way, we encounter such important career milestones as his first official recording session, his genuinely ground-breaking partnership with Alexis Korner, and a veritable host of impossibly rare vinyl releases. It comes as a considerable shock to discover that one of the founding fathers of modern British Blues/R&B has yet to have his rather more vital career similarly anthologised. But that’s the way it is with Cyril Davies, whose incalculable influence on the scene hasn’t stopped many of his pioneering recordings languishing in the obscurity in which they were made, some fifty years ago. Finally, though, his seminal body of work is now assembled on this definitive collection.'

Click here for more information.


January 2015

Cyril Davies

In December 2014 we reported on a new album, an anthology of jazz harmonica player, Cyril Davies. Roger Trobridge writes:

'The early days of R&B were covered by the Cyril Davies CD anthology which omitted some trad jazz tracks with Cyril on banjo. Todd and I helped with the original incarnation of this double CD, back in 2007. It was completed, pre-sold and then dropped at the very last second when Universal took over Castle. Our web site ( provided a lot of the history for the booklet. It is not generally known that two of the early outings for the Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner Blues Inc band was as a support for the late Acker Bilk. The audiences were unsure what to make of them (no waistcoats and bowler hats) and Acker could not remember them when I spoke to him about it a couple of years ago.'

Roger did a broadcast on commuity radio a year ago about the early days of the British Blues boom. You can access it on the Cyril Davies website home page - click here.


September 2015

Harry Pitch

Harry Pitch

In August the well respected harmonica player, Harry Pitch passed through the Departure Lounge. He started out on trumpet and led a successful Count Basie style band in the 1950s when he gradually introduced the harmonica into his band. Active in London for more than 60 years he is also remembered for his playing with Jack Emblow. One of Larry Adler's favourite players, Harry became a leading studio player recording for films and TV including The Bridge On The River Kwai and Last Of The Summer Wine. He also played for many years with the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Big Band.

Click here for Harry's obituary.

Click here for Harry, Jack Emblow and band playing Secret Love.

Roger Trobridge has put together an excellent audio-biography of harmonica player Harry Pitch - click here. The audio runs for just under 29 minutes and includes some great samples that Roger has gathered together from private recordings both of Harry talking about his career and clips from his music.

Roger writes: 'Born in 1925, Harry Pitch took inspiration from Larry Adler and like him he was an entertainer who worked hard to build a successful career. They were both more interested in the music rather than technique, but Harry was always a jazz player. This audio-biography shows how Harry’s long musical career covered all areas of music on chromatic harmonica and trumpet, as a soloist, session man and bandleader. He could read music but was always happy to improvise and play with other musicians.'

'Harry started to play harmonica before the Second World War. When harmonicas became unavailable after the Second World War he moved to trumpet. He joined and led big bands in the 1940s/50s but he started to play harmonica again after hearing Max Geldray playing in the Goon Show. I have included examples of him playing both instruments in his big band. He carried over much of his trumpet solo style to his harmonica playing.'

'In the 1960s he became a successful session musician, featuring on film soundtracks, classical music concerts, pop records and his biggest hit, Groovin’ with Mr Bloe’. From the 1970s, Harry played on the long running TV series, ‘The Last of the Summer Wine’ and he started to play more with his old friend, accordionist, Jack Emblow. Harry set up two bands, ‘Rhythm and Reeds’ and ‘The Thames Valley Jazzmen’ and he continued to play trumpet and harmonica. As live gigs became harder to get he played more smaller venues like Pizza Express restaurants with some distinguished pianists and a repertoire of light classics, standards and tributes to Larry Adler.'







If you found this page interesting youmight also like our page on Banjo Jazz:
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