Jazz harmonica players may not be as common as saxophones, trumpets or pianos when it comes to jazz instruments, but it has produced some virtuosic performers and iconic albums – as you’ll see in this article!
Also known as the French harp or mouth organ, the harmonica is apparently the best-selling musical instrument in the world, with over 3 million units sold each year!
But whilst it’s perhaps most commonly known as a teaching aid for beginner music students or for its use in blues and country music, it has been a part of jazz since the mid-20th Century.
We’ve picked out 9 famous jazz harmonica players responsible for starting and continuing the great tradition.
Stay tuned until the end where we’ve put together a list of 10 essential jazz harmonica tracks to listen to.
Toots Thielemans (1922)
The grandfather of jazz harmonica, Toots Thielemans was a Belgian jazz musician best known as a chromatic harmonica player.
Originally influenced by guitarist Django Reinhardt, Thielemans is steeped in jazz history from swing through to bebop.
He played with Benny Goodman’s band and famously in a jam session with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in Paris.
Upon relocating the United States in 1952, the harmonica player would join Parker’s Allstars.
Stateside, Thieleman’s playing found widespread popularity and he recorded his debut album as leader, The Sound, in 1955.
As well as his own groups, Thielemans would also work with the Billy Eckstine band, Dinah Washington, and later in his career would record with Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Stephane Grappelli and Bill Evans amongst others.
Howard Levy (1951)
A versatile musician who plays multiple instruments including, most famously, the diatonic harmonica, Brooklyn-born Howard Levy was a prolific force across jazz, pop, folk and even rock-music.
A co-founder of Bela Flack and the Flecktones with whom he won a Grammy, he has toured and performed with a whos-who of the music scene including Dolly Parton, Bobby McFerrin, Donald Fagen, Chuck Mangione and Paquito D’Rivera.
An innovative harmonica player, he who developed techniques such as overblowing which have come to be part of the regular player’s repertoire nowadays.
William Galison (1958)
Starting on piano and later guitar, William Galison got turned onto the harmonica while studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
There as a guitarist, he discovered to switch to the less-popular harmonica, thus becoming the first harmonica player to study at the iconic music school.
Galison has performed at prestigious New York venues such as The Village Gate and the Blue Note with a CV that includes work with Jaco Pastorius, Jaki Byard, Astrud Gilberto, Peggy Lee and Madeleine Peyroux.
Originally influenced by Toots Thielemans, Galison has gone on to become an innovative and influential harmonica player in his own right.
Playing harmonica for over forty years, Chris Bauer started as something of a child prodigy. Influenced by his father, he joined Bauer Snr’s band aged 13 and, at sixteen, came third in a worldwide harmonica competition.
Bauer’s musical interests range from harmonica trios to church worship bands. He also has a passion for jazz and has recorded several albums featuring jazz standards, bebop and Latin number.
Antonio Serrano (1974)
Receiving his first harmonica at the age of seven, Antonio Serrano was initially taught by his father, and was later mentored by Larry Adler.
Active in many different genres, the Spanish musician switches easily between classical music, jazz, flamenco, blues and pop music.
He is largely credited for introducing the harmonica to Flamenco music, performing with guitarist Paco De Lucia’s band for a decade.
Notable credits in the jazz world include work with Paquito D’Rivera, Wynton Marsalis, and Perico Sambeat.
His 2020 album Tootsology is not just a tribute to the jazz harmonica great, but also features a live recording of the two of them performing Autumn Leaves together.
Grégoire Maret (1975)
Swiss-born, but now residing in New York, Grégoire Maret is one of the most prominent jazz harmonica players of the modern era.
Move to the US to study at the prestigious New School, he released his debut album as a bandleader in 2012 and has gone on to be featured at many of the worlds most famous jazz festivals.
In the rarefied field of jazz harmonica players, Maret is not (as many others) a multi-instrumentalist and channels all his musical energies through the harmonica.
Whilst his albums as a bandleader are few and far between (the most recent being 2020’s ‘Americana’) he has been in huge demand as a sideman, performing with likes of Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, Marcus Miller and Pat Metheny.
Like many jazz harmonica players, Prené started out on guitar.
Switching to diatonic harmonica and later the chromatic instrument he began playing around the clubs in the French capital Paris.
Relocating to the United States where he was awarded full scholarship at three different music colleges, along with the opportunity to study with Lee Konitz and Reggie Workman.
A prolific performing, Prené plays over 100 concerts annually, including art top New York jazz venues such as the Blue Note, the Django, Zinc Bar, The Iridium, Dizzy’s Club, Birdland, The Jazz Gallery and Smalls.
His 6 albums as a bandleader include recording for the renowned Steeplechase imprint and, as a sideman, he’s collaborated with the likes of Peter Bernstein, Rich Perry, and Ira Coleman.
A keen educator, he founded the New York Harmonica School.
Considered one of the leading figures in contemporary harmonica playing, Dutch musician, composer and arranger Hermine Deurloo has gained international recognition for her innovative approach to the instrument.
She has released several critically acclaimed albums and recorded/performed internationally with musicians such as Steve Gadd, Jim Black, Han Bennink, Tony Scherr, Willem Breuker Kollektief, Candy Dulfer, Al Jarreau, and the Metropole Orchestra.
Her style on the chromatic harmonica is characterised as being “rich, lyrical, and varied, combined with effortless fluency”.
She actually started out as a saxophone student at the Amsterdam Conservatory, before teaching herself to play the harmonica.
Brought up in Liverpool in a musical family, Julian Jackson was the first and only harmonica to enrol at both the Royal Academy of Music and The Guildhall School of Music.
Naturally influenced by the great Toots Thielemans with whom he studied, Jackson also cites Larry Adler, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane as important influences on his music.
As well as being active in music for film and television, Jackson has also performed with pianist Julian Joseph and vocalist, Claire Martin, and has recorded as leader for the UK label 33jazz.
Essential Listening: Jazz Harmonica Players Playlist
Here are a selection of our favourite tracks from these jazz harmonica players, available via Youtube or Spotify.
More about the jazz harmonica
The most often-used harmonicas in jazz are the diatonic and chromatic harmonicas.
The diatonic harmonica refers to one that is designed to play in a single key, although virtuoso players using the Richter-tuned harmonica can force the reeds within the instrument to play tones not within the basic scale.
The chromatic harmonica utilises a sliding bar activated by a button that redirects the air through the mouthpiece to the reed plate selected by the musician.
Again, the Richter-tuned 10-hole chromatic harmonic is constructed to only play in one key, there are 12, 14 and 16 hole harmonicas that permit the instrument to be played in any key.