Levy Concert Reflects Lifelong Love of Music
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Levy Concert Reflects Lifelong Love of Music

In more than six decades of music making, Levy has done it all from the classics to folk, pop, and jazz.

The Howard Levy 4 spent an hour discussing the rigor of a professional musician with music students at the Weber School.
The Howard Levy 4 spent an hour discussing the rigor of a professional musician with music students at the Weber School.

When he was just a small boy, Howard Levy would sneak out of his bedroom to listen quietly to the musical soirees that his parents would regularly create in their New York City home.

His mother was a talented cellist who had gone to the High School of Music and Art in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem. His father was a baritone in New York musical theater who gave up his dream of starring on Broadway for a regular paycheck in one of the family’s businesses.

But his parents never lost their love of music and from an early age Howard fell in love with the tunes he heard while secretly listening at night in his pajamas.

“They were always playing classical music. They were huge opera fans, but they liked Broadway tunes, too,” he recalls. “I only realized much later that a lot of the jazz standards that I ended up playing were originally written for Broadway musicals, which I had heard when I was a kid. My ears were attuned at a very early age to those types of harmonies. So, my parents’ musicality was a very important part of how I grew up.”

In the more than six decades of his musical journey, he has touched on an exceptional range of musical forms and genres. They were all on display when the Howard Levy 4 played last month at The Weber School in Sandy Springs sponsored by Neranenah.

Howard Levy is a virtuoso of one of the least expensive and most portable musical instruments, the diatonic harmonica.

There was some music inspired by Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions, some improvisations from Bach. There was also a tribute paid to the rhythms that reflected the influence of his Puerto Rican bass player, Joshua Ramos, his drummer, Luiz Ewerling, who hails from Brazil, and guitarist Chris Siebold.

“I really try to plan my sets in a way that draws the audience into, that where the set has a contour and I like to make sure that each of the band members are featured as soloists as well. So, I think that the skill of putting together a good set, which I learned from playing with some people who are absolute masters of that, really helps.”

The inspired arrangements were but one indication that he’s lost none of the deep passion for music he first developed as a child. Even though he has toured the world with such greats as Kenny Loggins and John Prine and won two Grammys during his years as a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, he still works hard at creating magic with his sharply honed musical craftsmanship.

Not only is he a keyboard jazz virtuoso, but Levy has pioneered and championed the humble diatonic harmonica as a respected member of the instrumental jazz family. Until Levy began playing it seriously in the 1980s, no one thought that this simple instrument — one that can still be purchased for a few dollars — could do what he can make it to do.

Howard Levy (second from right) won two Grammy awards as part of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.

“I realized also that the harmonica — it’s the only instrument that is totally invisible to the person playing it. So, you know, I play it when my eyes are closed … I’m seeing a piano keyboard. And that’s my frame of reference to play all the things that I do with the visualization of the piano keyboard.”

Levy has written a chamber suite for harmonica, and a concerto for diatonic harmonica and orchestra that he’s performed over three dozen times all over the world. He’s at work on a second concerto that has been commissioned by Florida’s Gulf Coast Sinfonia for a performance next year.

But the most unusual work the group performed at the Weber School was a blue number based on the blessings over the Torah that are recited each time the sacred scroll is read. They are also an integral part of the preparation for each bar or bat mitzvah.

“I’ve always loved that melody. It’s got a natural bluesy twist to it. Blues and Jews seem to go together, they just flow naturally into each other.”

Sitting in the front row of the performance were Howard’s father and mother, still going strong at 101 and 97, respectively, and still very committed to music as a lifelong inspiration.

A reminder, if one was needed, of the moments so long ago when he first peered out of the nighttime darkness into the bright light of the music making in his family’s living room.

Neranenah’s Executive Director Joe Alterman’s conversation with Howard Levy is on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQWD0aAyKqQ.

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