Every year, the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) accepts nominations for a few awards that represent great contributions to the harmonica, the music it makes, and the people who support it. Those awards include:
The Bernie Bray Harmonica Player of the Year Award for excellence in playing the instrument;
The Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award, whose name is self-explanatory; and
The Stan Harper Award of Special Merit (formerly the SPAH Award of Special Merit), which can be awarded either to a person or an organization that’s benefited the harmonica community in a manner specially deserving of singular honor.
Every one of these awards is named for a great musician and harmonica player. I never met Bernie Bray, the Canadian player whose jazz harmonica work is legendary. I was fortunate enough to meet Stan Harper when, at the age of 80, he played a recent SPAH convention, exhibiting his mastery of the chromatic harmonica. And I was very fortunate to meet Pete Pedersen in the early 1980s, when he told me that my book “Jazz Harp” was the best book for harmonica players that he’d seen, and to see him again in 1999 at the Buckeye Harmonica Festival, where he played an amazing set on chromatic harmonica, backed by a jazz piano trio, opening with one of the best rockin’ performances of Thelonius Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” I’ve heard, a performance that effortlessly mixed funk grooves and jazz lines, and which prompted my wife, who has seen them all, to say “That is one funky old man.” Ain’t that the truth.
This year’s award nominees, as per past years, include players whose names will be instantly recognizable to musicians and harmonica devotees worldwide. The nominees are:
Bernie Bray Harmonica Player of the Year Award
Carlos Del Junco is one of the best-known and highly regarded diatonica harmonica players in the word, with a career spanning decades. Will Galison is one of the top jazz chromatic harmonica players in New York City, and his work has been heard onstage with Sting and in numerous recordings for TV, film, and record releases. Diatonic blues and rock virtuoso Jason Ricci, whose ability to build an extended solo from the ground up to a screaming climax–check out his 18 minute version of “Whammer Jammer” sometime–is absolutely amazing, a player I’ve watched for years, and it’s great to see him nominated. Kim Wilson needs no introduction to harmonica devotees, Koei Tanaka is a leading exponent of the blues in Japan and elsewhere, and Bob McFarlane is one of the stalwarts of the New York/New Jersey scene. I won’t tell you who I’m rooting for.
Pete Pedersen Lifetime Achievement Award
All of these players have put in a lifetime of great work as players and promoters of the harmonica. Do I need to say much about Stevie Wonder here? Billy Branch is a longtime exponent of Chicago blues harp and a 3-time Grammy nominee. Michael Burton’s work goes back to the 1940s and Johnny Puleo’s band. Mike caldwell is a great country harmonica player whose work as sideman with Loretta Lynn and others has graced hundreds of recordings and thousands of performances; I had the pleasure of playing with Mike at a SPAH convention a few years ago. Joe Filisko is a great blues player, and was one of the most influential forces in harmonica design and construction in the last 30 years. PT Gazell is a fixture on the Nashville scene, and has pioneered the use of half-valving on diatonic harmonicas to extend the chromatic range of the instrument. John Long is a master of country blues guitar and harmonica. Manfred Wewers is a player, teacher, harmonica historian, and longtime organizer for seminars at SPAH and elsewhere.
Stan Harper Award of Special Merit
The nominations in this category include a well-known player or two, but are mainly oriented to people working tirelessly behind the scenes to advance the instrument. Jerl Welch has been active in HOOT (Harmonica Organization Of Texas) for decades. Harland Crain’s harmonica collection–a big chunk of harmonica history there–is one of the world’s largest. Greg Heumann has devoted much of his life to designing and building equipment for harmonica players; I have two pieces of Greg’s gear in my stage and studio kit, and I don’t leave home without them. Howard Reich writes music reviews for the Chicago Tribune, and has written plenty of articles promoting harmonica players like Howard Levy and James Cotton over the years. Phil Sardo is a player and inventor who has devoted decades to designing and building exceptional instruments. Dottie Pispeckie has been an invaluable contributor to SPAH conventions for years.
Those are the awards and the nominees. Stay tuned for news about which of these worthy harmonica players and contributors won the 2017 awards! In the meantime, take a look at this impressive list of previous award winners.