Gianluca Littera – Chromatic Harmonica Teacher and Performer

Gianluca Littera was born in Rome in 1962. He graduated in Viola in 1985 at the G. Rossini Conservatory of Music in Pesaro, and afterwards he performed with many famous orchestras and conductors.

Whilst playing the Viola, he heard Toots Thieleman playing the chromatic harmonica and became fascinated by its sound and potential.

In the following years he taught himself to play the instrument, as there was no agreed way or didactic path dedicated to it.

He went on to perform as a classical soloist as well as leading his own jazz ensembles.

Following extensive research, consulting libraries, archives and contacting publishing houses, Gianluca Littera became aware of the existence of a large repertoire of music written for harmonica. Due to the absence of any educational path for the training of players, much of it has never been performed except on rare occasions in concert by the few players who have dedicated themselves to it.

These works include composers such as: Villa Lobos, Darius Milhaud, Malcom Arnold, Arthur Benjamin, Graham Wettham, Michael Spivakovsky, Robert Farnon, Alan Hovhaness, Paul Patterson, Gordon Jacob, Vilem Tauski, Vaughan Williams, Henri Sauguet…

In 1996, Gianluca recorded the Villa Lobos Concert for Harmonica and Orchestra with the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Maestro Adrian Leaper.

Since then, his career has grown exponentially. Gianluca Littera has played as a soloist with numerous orchestras all over the world, inluding the Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome, both in concert and in recording projects with Maestro M.W. Chung. He has performed many new works for harmonica including a work by Ennio Morricone.

In the Jazz field, he has worked with international artists such as Ute Lemper, Ivan Lins, and Eugenio Toussaint. He has toured internationally and appeared at the Shanghai Jazz Festival in China, Erl Festival (Austria), Edinburgh, Belfast etc…

In addition to his concert activity, Gianluca Littera is the author of various compositions that he has performed with numerous orchestras. In 2007 he released the CD “Sconcertango” with the chamber group “Ensemble Project”, with compositions and arrangements mainly by him.

Starting in 2014 he held harmonica courses for several years at the Conservatory of Rome Santa Cecilia and the Conservatory of Frosinone and Vibo Valentia.

In 2019 he submitted an application to the Ministry of Education – with the support of the director of the Conservatory of Rome, maestro Roberto Giuliani – for a three-year university degree for the study of the harmonica, an instrument that had been absent from the Conservatory. It was accepted and marks the official recognition of the harmonica, putting it on a par with other musical instruments. You can read more about the degree course here.

In addition to his specific teaching activities, he has taken part in academic conferences and meetings where he was able to illustrate the technical and expressive possibilities of the harmonica, the literature and history of the instrument.

The prestigious Japanese harmonica manufacturer, Suzuki, commissioned a series of 11 video tutorials in English by Gianluca on the correct approach to playing the instrument. These videos, made by Gianluca Littera, can be viewed on Suzuki’s YouTube Channel.

He has also written two books which are the backbone of the lectures and workshops used by his harmonica students and those who are interested in the instrument – 70 exercises for Chromatic Harmonica from basic to Intermediate / advanced level and Theoretical and Practical Treatise for Chromatic Harmonica.

He has also recorded many CDs.

Here is a video about his recent CD – A Breath Between the Strings (Music by Gordon Jacob, James Moody and Tony Kinsey)

Here is his Facebook page

You can read more about the degree course and how to apply on my blog page about it.

Chromatic Harmonica Degree Course – Gianluca Littera

Most musical instruments can be studied, and performances can be graded from beginners through to degree level. Unfortunately, the harmonica is not one of them. I have reviewed some previous attempts in a separate blog.

Recently I became aware of a new university degree course for the chromatic harmonica which has been developed by Gianluca Littera at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome. This looks very impressive and much more comprehensive than anything else I have come across. I had the help of Gianandrea Pasquinelli as a translator to help my understanding of what Gianluca had done.

Gianluca was born in Rome in 1962 and gained his music degree in 1985 as a viola player. He worked and toured with many orchestras before embracing the chromatic harmonica after seeing Toots Thielemans on TV. His recording career started in 1996 and he has played with many symphony orchestras as well as forming his own jazz groups.

Gianluca Littera

Gianluca organised free harmonica courses for six years before deciding to develop them further. He joined the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome as a lecturer in 2022 after successfully submitting the degree course for recognition by the Italian Ministry of Education.

You can read more about Gianluca Littera here.

What follows is in his own words.

Gianandrea Pasquinelli

The Creation of the Harmonica Degree Course.

The Free Course

I wanted to share what I had learned with other players, hoping that they would share the pleasure I experienced while playing the harmonica.

It was difficult to gain acceptance for the chromatic harmonica in a traditional Music College. Fortunately, I had a degree as a viola player and so I was accepted. This allowed me to introduce the harmonica, which was not even considered an instrument at that time.

I started with six years of free courses (2014-20) at Conservatories around Rome. These classes were a real success, attracting students and arousing a lot of curiosity and interest.

Students performed in concerts with musicians from other courses and also attended seminars on the physiology of breathing when playing wind instruments.

These activities were necessary to get full acceptance for the harmonica and the creation of the three-year Academic degree course (Triennio).

The Degree Course

The complete educational path lasts 8 years and leads to a degree (like a violin or a piano). A qualification recognized throughout Europe.

  • the three-year Preparatory course followed by
  • the three-year course (Triennium) and
  • the two-year course (Biennium).

The Italian Ministry of Education has approved the three-year Preparatory course followed by the three-year course (Triennium) which leads to a degree. The next step will be the approval of the two-year course (Biennium) which would lead to a second degree or Masters.

I created the study plan, entrance exams, course work exams and graduation exams etc., based on those developed for other musical instruments, both in terms of duration and level of difficulty.

This residential course includes the different subjects and knowledge that the student must acquire. The harmonica is the topic. For the practical / technical part we mainly use my book 70 exercises for Chromatic Harmonica from basic to Intermediate / advanced level while for the workshops /lectures we use as a reference another text of mine Theoretical and Practical Treatise for Chromatic Harmonica.

In addition to the harmonica, some other topics are studied: solfeggio, the history of music, harmonic analysis, chamber music, choral singing, and knowledge of relevant legislation etc…

These skills combine to train, not only a harmonica player, but, more importantly, a musician with all the necessary tools to enter the professional world, and, if he wishes, to teach others.

The chromatic harmonica is one of the instruments which leads to a music degree.

Here are links to music to be studied and lectures for the three-year course (Triennium) for harmonica.

The current status of the course

There are 3 stages.

  • The three-year Preparatory course can be accessed without an entrance exam.
  • To access the three-year course (Triennium) it is necessary to pass an entrance exam and to know solfeggio (read music).
  • To access the two-year course (Biennium), when it opens, it will be necessary to have completed a three-year degree course and an entrance exam with the harmonica.

These courses started in February 2022 and currently there are 12 students, distributed between the Preparatory and Triennium courses. Some come from outside Italy (France and Switzerland).

In October 2022, the students enrolled in the Preparatory path will prepare to take the entrance exam for the three-year course and the other students will make the transition from the 1st to the 2nd year of the three-year course.

The Future

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching was discovering that it enriches not only the pupil but also the teacher. Furthermore, many of the pupils who were already playing when they entered the course had no idea what it meant to study in a conservatory. The opportunities offered to them have meant that their musical boundaries were enormously enriched, something that gives me, as a teacher, lots of satisfaction to see a student grow and develop.

In the future I foresee harmonica classes like mine in other Conservatories. I want to get the harmonica the recognition that has always been missing! Since 1992, when the accordion entered the Conservatory, no other instrument has since been recognized as such. I am happy to have succeeded first of all to give the harmonica the dignity it deserves, and also, to pass on at least some of what this instrument has given me which has enriched me musically and personally.

Finally, the harmonica now has an officially recognized course of workshops, lessons and lectures. In Italy we wrote a piece of the history of this instrument, and it was the piece that was missing. Perhaps we have not yet fully understood the scope of what we have achieved at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory.

I believe that other Institutes will take this result as an example and will do the same. At the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, we have opened and indicated the way. Everyone can access an educational path that provides the opportunity to register or take an exam according to their own level. Then advance from the Preparatory for those starting or the Triennium for those who already play and then the Biennium.

For more information you can contact me, Gianluca Littera

Toots Thielemans at 100

Toots died in 2016 but he would have been 100 if he had lived until 2022. This year there was a series of events including concerts in Brussels and around the world to celebrate his life and music. You can see more on the event website – 100 years of Toots Thielemans .

I love his music and enjoyed his enthusiastic personality which came across in his interviews.

Here is a great edit from the many conversations he recorded over his long career as whistler, guitarist and one of the best harmonica players. The compilation was put together by a Belgian DJ, Nico Kanakaris, who goes by the name of BlueNotes (Facebook).

Here are some memories of Toots and his life broadcast in German by ‘Das Feature – Deutschlandfunk’ with contributions from harmonica players – Steven de Bruyn, Hendrik Meurkens, Yvonnick Prene, Gregoire Maret … – and many top jazz musicians. Download the music from their webspage –
Der Weg der Mundharmonika – Toots Thielemans und der Atem der Melancholie

Here, Julian Joseph and Julian Jackson talk about Toots Thielemans in the Jazz Legends series broadcast by the BBC in the early 2000s. Julian Jackson is one of the top UK Jazz harmonica players and a session musician. He was been inspired by and had visited Toots. They play a number of recordings by Toots.

A Tribute to Tommy Morgan (1932 – 2022)

I met Tommy Morgan when I travelled to Denver in 2001 for my first visit to a SPAH convention. My friend Douglas Tate had just become President of SPAH and I was the new Chairman of Harmonica UK (then the NHL). Two proud Yorkshiremen guiding two great organisations.

Douglas and Tommy were friends as was evident from their workshops and concerts. I stayed in email contact with Tommy up to the end, finally through Tommy’s great friend Jon Kip.

Tommy’s long history and musical activities have been well chronicled in the obituaries listed below. He took up chromatic harmonica at school and was fortunate to have lessons from Jerry Adler, who later got him his first recording session. After spells with the U.S. Air Force band and tours on his own throughout the 1950s Tommy built up his musical skills from arrangers like Sammy Nestico and a Masters Degree from UCLA. He also added the chord and bass harmonicas to his armoury. Tommy’s site reading improved and he began to set up his own recording sessions.

The 1960s was the beginning of the Golden Age of film and TV themes and producers were looking for harmonica players. Tommy had the skills and would tackle anything. He became the “go-to” man for recording sessions, something he did for decades. Tommy said he had done over 900 film scores and 7000 recording sessions.

A conversation with Tommy Morgan by Phil Hopkins.

Phil Hopkins wrote this for me in 2010 when I was Editor of Harmonica World. He is a chromatic harmonica player when he is not the percussionist for London stage orchestras.

Here he is with Tommy Morgan in California in 2010.

The name of Tommy Morgan, Hollywood’s favourite harmonica player, is assured of a prominent place in any history of the instrument’s development. Morgan’s extraordinary career, during which he has racked up more than 7000 recording sessions for entertainment industry bluebloods such as The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, John Barry, Randy Newman, John Williams, Barbara Streisand and James Taylor, to name but a few, is still going strong – and recently passed a significant milestone. For September 2010 witnessed the 60th anniversary of Morgan’s session career, commencing with a recording for the Andrews Sisters in 1950 and recently seeing him booked in the studio for sessions for projects such as the film “Toy Story 3” and a new Barry Manilow album. And he still keeps busy with live classical engagements with the world-renowned LA Philharmonic.

I personally experienced the Tommy Morgan sound as a part of the soundtrack to my formative years as a youngster growing up in the 70s, even though at that stage I didn’t know the name of the man who was behind it. The mournful intro to “Rainy Days And Mondays”, the funk/C&W fusion of the Rockford Files theme, the spooky middle section of “Good Vibrations” (borrowed from my elder brother’s record collection) – all were manifestations of the master harmonicist at work in different disguises. But it was only when I heard John Barry’s orchestral album “The Beyondness Of Things” in 1998, with Morgan prominently credited for some gorgeous solos, that I connected the name of Tommy Morgan to the harmonica work which I had enjoyed for many years hitherto (via information on Morgan’s website). And for me as a harmonica student, Tommy’s sound on “Beyondness” soon became a reference work, a template of how the harmonica at its best could sound. Forget about whether it was chromatic or diatonic (actually mostly chromatic, with a little diatonic on “Dance With Reality”), this was an amazing harmonica sound, rich, full, controlled and completely attuned to the lush orchestrations which surrounded it.

What did it take, I wondered as the years passed, to develop a sound and a career to this level? Then in October 2010 I found myself passing through Tommy Morgan’s home city of Los Angeles and was lucky enough to find the man himself in town, graciously agreeing to spend a morning explaining to me and Harmonica World readers how it all came together.

“People call me a legend,” he says, settling into a chair in my hotel room – before modestly adding, “which means I’m old.” But I am soon to learn that this particular “legend” was erected on a bedrock of sheer old-fashioned graft. “When I was 26 I realised that I didn’t like my sound,” he explains. Although everyone else seemed satisfied with it – Morgan had already been a soloist with the US Airforce Band and had worked studio sessions along with guesting on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show – he wanted to attain the sound he heard in his mind’s ear. “I had weaknesses. I hadn’t gone through the pedagogy that other instrumentalists go through to play in orchestras. So I started on the Rubank flute book. It’s still around. I spent several hours a day for 6 years, while also working dates. I started with the first page and didn’t skip any exercises, I played them all. I now have a stack of sight-reading two feet high. Then when I got to a level where I thought I was getting better, I would spend a week in A Major. Then a week in B Flat.”

I mention that I dislike A Major. It’s a sharp key and tricky for chromatic players. “You’ve got to like A Major,” Morgan cautions. “I just finished an album with Gregg Nestor the classical guitarist where every piece bar one is in a sharp key. I play in D as comfortably as I do in any key. I’m as prepared as anyone who’s been through a European Conservatoire. I stuck with the flute and oboe tutors. Clarinets get a little too arpeggiated.” He chuckles. “If you want to be humbled, go get a clarinet book.”

But how to get that big, rich sound? “I practised long tones. Just like wind players do at music college. The note has to be in tune, and the tone mustn’t waver. It’s not easy.” He spots a harmonica in my room and asks me to play a scale. “That’s good but you don’t play every note in tune.” He asks to borrow the instrument and plays a single G, hole number 3, which starts imperceptibly, builds to a crescendo and dies away. The pitch is perfect, the sound fills the room. Then he demonstrates a Bb scale at breakneck speed to show that, at age 77, the technique is as strong as ever.

I find Morgan direct, but not intimidating. He likes to communicate clearly, and he is generous with information. “When I was sixteen or seventeen I studied with Jerry Adler, Larry’s brother. Jerry was a superb ballad player, he opened my eyes to what could be done. It wasn’t so much totally improvised jazz solo as an interpretation. It was more like, here’s the tune….and second time around he’d add and subtract things. And now when I give a lesson I sit close to the student, and we play. The best way to learn from someone is close-up. Without equalization or effects.”

Morgan adds that the hours spent listening to playbacks in the studio have been essential in building his sound.

“Hearing your sound back in the studio is the best way of developing it. I have heard myself more than any other harmonica player. You don’t hear yourself when you play alone. Most students I have play introspectively. They don’t project, they play with their heads down and slump a little bit. If I were teaching you today we’d go into a corner with hard surfaces where the sound bounces back in your ear. When there was a lot of studio work I’d hear myself daily…you’d hear a solo back and change a little bit here. This sounds good…but this is a little better.”

Another key to the Tommy Morgan sound is the area where the sound is actually produced, the contact zone between player and instrument. Morgan favours the square hole found on the classic Hohner 270 chromatic. “There’s more area than the round hole,” he confides. “And there is nothing on the inside of my mouth that covers the square. When I’m tongue-blocking, which I mostly use for chromatic, the right side of my tongue is flat. When I’m giving a lesson we both face the mirror with mouthpieces and you’ll see on mine that there is nothing covering the edge.”

Did he consciously set out to flatten the right edge of his tongue?

“I played for so long not liking the sound that I gradually improved the embouchure. As I uncovered a bit more hole it became a more open sound. I get the full air passage. I proved you can make a square mouth.” He raises an eyebrow ironically. “I have lived the harmonica, believe me. I didn’t take anything for granted, and I have tried a lot of things. But I didn’t set out to make a square mouth. I set out to make a good tone.”

This, I realise, is at the core of what Morgan is about. A relentless and restless desire to make better music. And at this point it comes as no surprise to hear that serving the music is the end result, not showcasing the harmonica. When I mention how much I enjoyed a little bend Tommy played on a solo on the James Taylor album “October Road”, he smiles. “That worked for James’ album. And I never forgot whose album it was. I played that way to enhance James’ album, not to make me stand out. You’re listening and then fitting in – how do you fit in to the overall picture? That’s the main question.”

And the ability to fit into a musical score, whether classical or pop, labelled Morgan as a team-player, embraced by the Hollywood session world.

“It’s all about blending. I did seven years of the Waltons, playing with probably the finest woodwind section in the world. Flute, oboe and clarinet all have different vibrato and I matched my sound to theirs. I took a lot of care over tuning. When you blow the harmonica hard it goes a little flat. I developed a very pure sound where I don’t cut off too many vibrations [cycles per second] but I also beat the problem by carrying chromatics tuned to 441, 442, 443 and 444 kHz. My diatonics are blues and equal-tempered [one is better for chords, the other for individual melodies].”

In case this all sounds very cosy, it should be remembered that Morgan did not walk into a ready-made studio career. “When I started, the job didn’t exist in Hollywood. George Fields had done some good things in the studios, but to be able to play full-time did not exist as a possibility. Then I did a session for Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith said, “You read pretty well. I’m going to write you like a third clarinet. Instead of having two harmonica solos, we’ll have you come in and play nine cues.” And when people found I could read pretty well, they started to use me. On one occasion, a composer asked Eddy Manson to play a melody up a third. It didn’t work out, but I was there and because of my training I was able to do it. And after that one thing led to another.”

Morgan sees preparation as a vital component in his success. “I played piano when I was young, plus some guitar. When I got out of the service I could see the nightclub and theatre industry was dying. My folks suggested I go back to school, so I did. I was studying for my masters degree in music, writing up my thesis, when I started getting called for sessions. And that’s when I thought, “This is what I want to do. Recording.” And I’ve used my experience as an orchestrator to interpret, or interpolate, a part. Interpolation is when I try to work out the effect a composer is trying to get, and then try to improve it. Sometimes I won’t even tell him what I’ve done. As an example, if I got asked to play a trill from D# to E [difficult on chromatic], I’ll do it on an E harmonica. Then the trill sounds much better….it kind of floats more. But I never tell anybody what I’m doing. Another player will work with the same composer and say it’s impossible. Then the composer will say “Well, Morgan did it.” I carry 45 pounds of harmonicas, all the chromatics and diatonics. So I can do stuff that nobody else can because nobody else has figured out how to do it.” Morgan shrugs and smiles nonchalantly, seemingly at ease with divulging these tricks of the trade.

But working for John Barry didn’t require a huge stack of harmonicas, just the ability to convert Barry’s melodicism onto tape as purely as possible. Tommy is unstinting in his praise for Barry. “John can say more with a unison string line than most people can with a full orchestra. John has a melodic sense that is incredible and he writes great harmonica. Take “Dances With Wolves”…people say to me, I know your sound from “Dances”. And do you know how many cues I played for “Dances”? One. It’s so poignant, and so correctly used. I played a 2 minute 15 second cue and people remember my sound. Two takes. Twenty minutes. That was it. “That’s gorgeous”, said John. “You can go home.””

I ask about the tricky F to F octave leap from hole 2 (draw) to hole 6 (draw) on the “Dances” theme. Morgan explains the use of portamento, the classical violinist’s technique of leaning up to an expressivo high note. “It’s not quite a bend, you just lean up to and into the note,” Tommy explains, singing the phrase by way of explanation. But he is quick to add that technique, while important, is just the means of achieving musical communication and not an end in itself. He says, “I get asked “Which way do you practise C major? Which holes do you play going up, and which coming down? And I reply that I practise it every way. I worked on several different slide/hole combinations for a passage in “Ritual Fire Dance” before deciding on the best one. Which was not the easiest one to play – but was the one which sounded best. And my answer to every technical question is “What does it sound like?”

I realise that Tommy has sung several musical examples during our conversation. I quiz him on this. “I’ve been a choir director for 25 years [amongst his other achievements – Morgan is also a qualified glider pilot, a black-belt Hapiko Karate expert and has an accountancy qualification]. I pattern my playing on vocals,” he confides. “My vibrato is similar to a vocalist – I establish the sound and then add vibrato afterwards. If you can’t sing what you’re trying to do – and it doesn’t matter how good or bad your voice is – then you can’t play it. And whatever style of music you are playing, I would recommend you go to the source for your inspiration. If you want to play blues harp, don’t just listen to the players – although there are some amazing ones, like Howard Levy and Jason Ricci. Listen to BB King. And I would suggest to a jazz clarinettist to listen to Toots. As a friend of mine once said, Toots would have been a giant on any instrument he chose to play. But while I have studied the way oboe, flute and clarinet players produce a sound, I pattern my own sound on the human voice.”

Perhaps it is that very vocal quality of Tommy Morgan’s sound which explains why it has communicated its message so unerringly to so many people for so many years.

I ask Morgan to help me summarise his contribution (and by extension the harmonica’s) to the Hollywood industry in the 500-plus movies his playing has graced. “I was an extra dimension for composers,” he explains. “Another colour in the sound palette. I lived at the right time and I had the opportunity. But I worked for it.”

Morgan feels that his playing is best represented away from the commercial world, on his discs Classics Lite 1 and 2. “The weird thing is, you spend 20 minutes on something like the theme from “The Rockford Files” and you are judged on it for the rest of your life. But I think the Classics Lite albums represent the full range of my playing.”

You can see and order Tommy’s solo CDs here

There are more examples of Tommy Morgan’s playing on my Tribute Page 

Here is Phil Hopkins home page

Max Geldray

The First Harmonica Jazz Playerby Art M. Daane

The Beginning.

Max Geldray

Max Geldray was born Max van Gelder in Amsterdam in 1916. It was not until 1932 that he first saw a chromatic harmonica; the shop owner offered it to him when he was taking refuge from a torrential rainstorm in his shop.
By 1934 Max had become a star on national radio and on two occasions he was asked to change his name. Max van Gelder was too Dutch. After listening to the Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals and watching them on the screen, it occurred to him that harmonica bands would be the thing of the future.

The Bands.
In those days harmonica players were far from, and yet he found seven other harmonica players of his own age. When they found an agent they were soon told that a name had to be found the “Max van Gelder Harmonica Band” was too amatuerish, and too Dutch.
They soon became “Mac Geldray and his Mouth-Accordeon Band”. Max gave in but re-named himself Max at a later occasion.
The showbusiness didn’t pay very well and four members quit the band and returned to a more seriously way of life. The remaining four, Henk Lodema, Geert van Driesten, Rob Lodema and Max himself began taking it more serious and were engaged to tour Great Britain. Tom Moss, a very popular English comedian, was in Amsterdam for a few weeks seeking entertainers for his vaudeville show. He renamed their act. They became “The Hollander Boys”.
Their tour was a success, but after returning to the Continent again, they could not find work. Max had taken a fancy to travelling, and made plans to go to Brussels to see if he could get any bookings. The other three weren’t as enthusiastic as he, and told him to go by himself.

The Jazzplayer.
Brussels wasn’t actually waiting for a Dutch harmonica player, and after a couple of weeks Max started to get desperate for work. It was at the “Le Boeuf sur la Toit” that Max was allowed to play a piece with the house orchestra. At the end of the song the public broke down the house, and he was offered a job as a Jazz Harmonica Player, which lasted over a year.
A boyhood friend, Johnny Fresco, came to see Max at the “Bull on the Roof” the English translation of “Le Boeuf sur la Toit”. Johnny had formed a successful danceband, and offered him a job with his band in a dance palace in The Hague. It was the first time that he played in front of a Dutch audience, and this was also the first time he ever performed in front of his father, who seemed happy to see his son on stage.
Because of the warm family atmosphere, the time in The Hague was very memorable to Max but he was pleased to hear from Johnny that he had another engagement in Ostend, Belgium. This would be a nice working holiday and an investment in his future as the Ostend Casino was just across the road from where they were playing. The Casino was the place where aristocracy, industrialists and other rich people of Europe came gambling. The Casino also hosted great artist like Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Stauffer from Switzerland, Jo Bouillon from France and Ambrose and his orchestra from England.
It wasn’t the fame Max was looking for but the players in the groups. He was learning so much so fast that he felt like a real jazzman. Non of the musicians ever looked down on him because he played the harmonica and became good friends.

The Paris Connection.
It was during his stay in Ostend that Max met Ray Ventura. Ray told him that whenever he would come to Paris he would set him up with a place to live. Ray kept his promise and Max became a full member of the “Ray Ventura Orchestra” untill the second world war broke out.
It was early in 1938 when Max met Django Reinhardt at the “Hot Club de France”, Django had already heard about Max. There were about six musicians playing some light melodic jazz and after about 15 minutes Max was asked to join in. The friendship with Django lasted till early 1940 when Max fled to England. He was jewish and didn’t like the idea of falling into the hands of the Nazis. The fact that Holland was a neutral country made it easier for him to leave.

The Soldier.
The vessel that took him across the channel docked in Liverpool but it wasn’t untill The 20th of September of that year that he was introduced to the Royal Dutch Army Brigade “Prinses Irene”, and was send off to camp. By 1942 Max had become very popular by the people at the BBC, and Max’s harmonica was on radio very often in wartime Britain. It was on Princess Elizabeth’s sixteenth birthday that Max and his friend, pianist Ben de Koning, were part of the entertainment to the Princess’s party. At no lesser place than Windsor Castle.
Max was wounded during the landing at Normandy, 4 months later he set foot again in Brussel, but had to wait untill May 1945 to go Amsterdam where he was unable to find his family. Sadly, both his parents and younger sister had been killed by the Nazis. Having nothing to stay in Amsterdam for he went back to Ray Ventura for two years before returning to England.

The Goons.
Max [The Conk] was a member of the Goons from start to finish. The show was first called “Crazy People” in May 1951 and re- named “The Goon Show” in November 1952. The end came on the 28th of January 1960. During those years he acclaimed International recognition. He was invited by the Austrlian Broadcasting authorities to appear on a Nation-wide television show in 1961, On his way back to England he made a stop- over in Hawaii and Los Angeles where he looked up his old friend Johnny Fresco and some other musicians he had known in Europe, most of them had become studio musicians. This wasn’t what he was looking for and returned to England.

The change in his life.
He had only be back in England a few days when he had another job offer, this time as an entertainer on board the Queen Elizabeth. Four crossings later Max decided to pack his bags and take a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, not because it was the place to be for a musician, but because of old friends. His first booking was in Reno, Nevada, where he had some marvellous opportunities, working with Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Shore, Billy Daniels and many more others. He didn’t feel at ease in Reno though and went back to L.A., where he landed a job in a local bar as a harmonica player.
He was longing to settle down permenantly and met Suzan, a small, gentle and pretty mother of three just at the right time. She was divorced, just like him. It was only a matter of weeks before he proposed to her, and soon after the five of them moved into a small bungalow in the San Fernando Valley. Max got a steady job in a department store as a clothing salesman. Two years later Philip was born; he was a gift from heaven for Max and Susan, and adored by the other kids.
Two years after they moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Max worked for the the “Christian Science Monitor” as a regional sales supervisor. They missed the warmth of California and decided to return there. While in the midst of planning their move back to L.A., a letter from England arrived. They were going on a short trip to England first.

The very last Goon Show.
During all the years that he had been away from England, Max had kept contact with Peter, Spike and Harry and often saw Peter when he was in Hollywood. The Goons had never lost track of each other. The reason for the Goon Show reunion was the fact that the B.B.C radio was to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Max, Susan and Philip arrived just one day before the production in London. Everyone had arrived except Wally Stott, the musical arranger from the beginning who declined for personal reasons.

The Final Chapter.
After returning home from England it would take another seven years before they returned to L.A. Max and his family often visited Palm Springs where Susan’s relatives lived. By April 1973 her father became ill and they decided to move to Palm Springs to take care of her dad. Max had found himself a job in the “Trinidad Bar”, hardly a name for a place that featured jazz. One evening he was approached by a man who introduced himself as Doctor Hirshleifer. He told him that he was a jazz fan, and that he had founded the “Stroke Center” in Palm Springs. He asked Max to volunteer to put up a show for the patients, and this he did just one week later. Max returned every week, much to the pleasure of the patients. They formed a group and called themselves “The Blow Hards”. A wonderful co-operation that lasted nine years! The combination of taking care of her father and their son Timmy, who tragically died after being very ill for a year, took their toll of Suzan who eventually was treated at the “Betty Ford Center” in Rancho Mirage, California. Max immediately volunteered his services, and after a short period of volunteer work he joined the staff full time. Considering the hand of cards dealt him by fate. He is a truly remarkable man, and an example to us all. Let’s take a few minutes silence to pay homage to this great man.

Max and Art at the 1995 Dutch Harmonica Festival

When he visited me in September 1995, for the Dutch Harmonica Festival in Rotterdam, he was still working full time.

Early 1996 Max was advised by his physician to stop working. At the age of 80 he still found it difficult not to go to the Betty Ford Center daily.

Max was still playing in 2002, but 2002 had not been a good year as it slowed him down quite a bit. But he’s on the mend.But as of November, at least, all the maladies had been cured and Max was just trying to regain his former strength, something that doesn’t happen quickly at his stage of life.

Max’s son in law, Dr. Roger Blomquist, recorded a new jazz album; Jazz for Charity. This jazz album features Max, and each of the following tracks Roger played the same song on the alto saxophone.

Max lives in scenic splendor on the edge of a golf course in Palm Springs, enjoying the company of his wife of over forty years, Susan, and entertained by two delightfully frisky small dogs, Ruth Ann and Ebby.
Max turned 87 on February 12, 2003, and still plays gigs at jazz clubs around his home town Palm Springs. Max played Hering 12 hole harmonicas exclusively.

 Listen to Max playing Crazy Rhythm during an episode of The Goon Show

You can listen to Max and other players of his vintage on “Harmonica Swing

Max passed away on 2 October 2004.

He will be sadly missed by his family and friends.

“Max and Susan Geldray at their home in Palm Springs with Ruth Ann, the newest member of the Geldray household.”

Photo by Dick Baker – Auburn, California, USA, archivist of the Goon Show Preservation Society and webmaster of the US Archives 

Contact Art: e-mail

Webmaster: The-Archivist/Art Daane
Copyright © The-Arctivist/Art Daane©
All rights reserved

Jim Hughes “Live @ Stratford (UK)”, 1983

This concert was recorded by someone and a CD-R of the concert was found in the archive I got from John Bryan.

This was the second annual convention of the independent National Harmonica League run at that time by John Walton. He had taken it over from Hohner in 1981 and it was run by a committee of members.

The concert was a part of a day long event in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare.

Jim was accompanied by Harold Rich (piano) and Richard Wright (guitar). One of Jim’s pupils, World Champion Ivan Richards, joined Jim to play the Mozart Double Flute Concerto.

Jim Hughes “Live at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1983”

01, STAR EYES, 00:00
06, FIREBRAND, 15:25
07, MOZART FLUTE DUO (with Ivan Richards), 19:56
09, CAPRICE-CRADLE SONG by Gordon Jacob , 28:57
11, MOON RIVER, 37:43
14, MARCH HARE,49:06

Dror Adler – The Classical Project

I originally published this article in Harmonica World in June 2006. I think it is worth including it here. Dror wrote:

I have been a member of the Adler Trio since we formed it in 1963.

Here is a little bit of history and the background that led to the recording of my new CD, The Classical Project. A unique 8 year activity in which full symphonic works were recorded by myself playing all the parts on harmonica.

I have been a recording freak ever since professional tape recorders became affordable. The Adler Trio’s first LP record was recorded on a British made ‘Brenell’. Other LPs were recorded using Swiss ‘Revox’ recorders. At the end of the tape recorder era we owned an 8 track Tascam machine with DBX noise reduction system, on which we recorded our last vinyl record of Israeli music.

Next came hard disk recording, which revolutionised the recording industry and made it affordable for anyone to achieve recordings of unprecedented quality. When I first started recording on a computer it was not possible to handle more than about 6 separate tracks of music and yet the feeling was like leaping from the Stone Age to the Space Age. The pristine sound, the editing possibilities and the ease of work were amazing. After gaining reasonable control of the computer recording I started an experiment – the experiment that led to the Classical Project.

Since I can play chord, lead and bass harmonicas, I decided to record a classical piece that I loved – all by myself – playing the different harmonicas on different tracks. That was in 1997.

The piece was taken from Khachaturian’s ‘Spartacus’ ­ Variations of Aegina-Bacchanal.

The score I had was for two pianos, out of which I made an arrangement for two chromatics, chords and bass. In some cases the bass role was separated to two different tracks.

I was so excited by the results that I decided to record another piece, and this time, a more ambitious one – Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance March Op. 39 No.1’. For this I went to the Tel Aviv Music Academy and got the orchestral score from which I made an arrangement for about 8 different roles. For trombones and french horns I used several tracks of bass harmonicas. I also used Hohner special effects chromatic harmonicas and any other type of harmonicas to get different ‘colours’ of sound.

After completing the second piece I knew that I would not rest until I had completed a full CD. As time went by, the computers got more powerful and the software smarter and I got more ambitious. The last piece recorded was the most ambitious one: again, from Khachaturian’s Spartacus – Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (This was used as soundtrack of the British TV series ‘The Onedin Line’). Here I recorded all the different roles of the original orchestral score. This is a short extract to show what I achieved.

I did the same with the full ‘Dance of the hours’ by Ponchieli. These are the two most demanding works in this project. The fact that I was able to record each role in it in short phrases or musical sentences made the whole thing possible. Here is how I did it.

I learned the phrase on the Lead, bass or chords and recorded it by loop recording, playing it again and again until I got a good take, and then on to the next phrase. The auto punch-in function of the computer enabled seamless continuity. I always started with the lead role. Each role was recorded on a different track. For all the treble instruments I used chromatics – Hohner 270 and Suzuki Magic Garden. For a piece of ballet music from Faust I even played the harp arpeggios on chromatic. For violas, bassoons, contrabasses, horns, etc., I used standard Suzuki bass harmonicas and the Tombo Contrabass harmonica. Chords were played by my unique slide chord, developed by me and built for me by Suzuki.

In order to play the score as written I sometimes had to retune my harmonicas to produce the correct trills or passages. I tuned a bass harmonica so that impossible passages would be on one deck only, and in a row, to allow them to be to be played as written. In fact, this project can be compared to the movie making process where small segments become a one full length creation. There were many times when I almost decided to quit, but when I listened again to what I had already done, I could not help going back to it. It was finally completed in October 2005.

For further information and copies of the CD, contact Dror Adler

Visit the Classical Project website for the rest of the music.

HarpTalk Tumblr Blog

I stepped down as editor of Harmonica World magazine after the August 2019 issue and I decided to do the simple blog I never seemed to have time to do before .

I used to use the blog to announce when the new magazine was being mailed out. Now I want to make it more of a diary where I can share bits of research or news.

Your can check it out here –

Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.

This is an extended version of the review that was published in the Aug/Sept 2019 issue of Harmonica World.

Cover from Tommy Reilly CD

Tommy Reilly – A Life in Music – Vintage Tommy Reilly.
Chandos CD2014
3 – CD Review by Cheng Jang Ming

Tommy Reilly is widely recognised as the master of the chromatic harmonica. He was born 100 years ago and he died 19 years ago. This collection of tracks was selected and lovingly assembled by his son David and Sigmund Groven. They have also written the extensive CD booklet covering his life and music. It is a great tribute to a unique virtuoso and giant of the chromatic harmonica.

Tommy learned violin and harmonica as a schoolboy in Canada. He started touring Europe at the age of 17, playing chromatic harmonica after his family returned to live in London. He was arrested in Leipzig in 1939 where he was studying violin and he was held in internment camps in Germany and Poland for the whole of the Second World War. The camps contained many other musicians and the imprisonment gave him the chance to practice and develop his approach to the harmonica. Being a violinist, he based his techniques on the playing of his idol, the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Tommy had access to food parcels from the Canadian Red Cross and he exchanged the coffee he received with a prison officer for Hohner harmonicas, a very precious instrument at that time. He managed to keep his violin all through the war, but it was stolen on the flight back to Britain at the end of the war in 1945.

Once he was back in London, he began to build a career playing harmonica in music halls and on the BBC.

The tracks range from his first recording, Deep Purple, made on his return to England in 1945, to his early 78rpms, and unreleased and commercial recordings made up to 1980. All the tracks have been carefully restored to bring them up modern standards.

There are tracks from Tommy’s many appearances on BBC Radio in the 1950s where he played classical music and standards. These led to 78rpm recordings on Parlophone where he was one of George Martin’s first artists. Together they employed new techniques such as echo and overdubbing on tracks like Bop! goes the Weasel and Dinah.

Tommy was a violinist in his youth and much of the inspiration for his harmonica playing came from studying Jascha Heifetz, I believe that although his instrument is harmonica, he still thinks like a violinist. You can hear his violinist style at play in his versions of Scarlatti’s Sonata, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Rachmaninoff’s Serenade, and in David Reilly’s Age of Innocence.

In fact, Zigeunerweisen is for advanced violinists, and in recent three decades several harmonica players have performed it in its entirety. But no matter how well they manage it, it always sounds to me like a tremendous effort from them. It would surprise many people that way back in 1953, Tommy Reilly had already conquered this song, not with great effort but with ease. He did it not by playing the entire work, but by picking the relevant parts. His version, rendered with impeccable ease, rhythm and vigour, truly sounds as fluid as a violin version.

Tommy’s own arrangements of El Cumbanchero, Jealousy, Begin the Beguine, The Breeze and I, are full of playfulness and ingenuity. These songs, in their original form, are rather easy ones for harmonica. But after being arranged by Tommy, they become advanced pieces for harmonica while still keeping their original lyrical flavours.

I first heard Gigue played by Tommy in one of his early videos. This is from Bach’s “Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006” for unaccompanied violin, a rather unusual piece to play on harmonica. The partita contains 6 pieces, the most famous one for harmonica players is Gavotte en Rondeau, made famous on harmonica by both Tommy Reilly and Larry Adler. They have their own arrangements (both transposed to key of C major). This Gigue is played by Tommy in the key of G major instead of the original E major. It is a very nice study piece for harmonica.

Voice from the Past, this is the first time I have heard this orchestra version. I really love this arrangement for harmonica accompanied by strings and guitar. It brings to me a deep sense of nostalgia. I couldn’t help it, I listened to it over and over again several times, as I consider this to be one of Tommy’s best performances.

I have the opportunity to listen to many old recordings of Tommy and also all his published CDs and many LPs. I actually prefer his vibrato from his early years, more intense, more violin-like. And this CD again confirms my feeling, because all tracks are from 1970 or earlier, except the last two.

The Red Flame is an original composition by Tommy. This song, and Hora Staccato, showcase his unmistakable throat staccato, so incredibly fast and yet distinctly clean. How on earth can anyone play throat staccato in octave at such high speed? He invented the Silver Concert harmonica only in 1967; I wonder how he could play so fluidly using those old 270 Super Chromonicas in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of these recordings have not been easy to find in the past and I was pleased to be able to hear some old favourite again. The 30 tracks on this CD cover all the music styles Tommy is known for – classical pieces, popular music, Irish music, pieces written for harmonica, his own composition and arrangements and musical novelties.

This retrospective look back at Tommy’s recordings is a great introduction for anyone who is unfamiliar with his work, as well as providing some great listening for lovers of music everywhere.

In the CD booklet, Sigmund Groven provides very comprehensive background details on all the songs in this collection. Tommy’s son, David, also recalls his vivid memories of his father playing his harmonica. You will never regret reading their writings!

At £9.99, it is a real bargain. The tracks are available for streaming and as a download from Chandos .

You can hear Tommy speaking and playing in these interviews by the BBC.

Here is a musical tribute to Tommy Reilly