From casual roots to hosting an international summit, the Route 66 Harmonica Club shows just how cool harmonicas can be.
David Berntson, a professional harmonica player and the former president of the group, and Jimmy Markham attended an out-of-state harmonica showcase in 2009 and decided to increase the numbers of those playing the mouth organ in Green Country.
“Tulsa is rich with gifted harmonica players with diverse styles,” Berntson says. “The majority are blues players. We call ourselves the Route 66 Harmonica Club because of our connection to the musical mother road. Our focus is on service to others, especially young people.
“The club provides opportunities for hundreds of kids and adults to learn about the harmonica through workshops and performances. We give lots of [harmonicas] to folks young and old in our community.”
The classic children’s book Lentil by Robert McCloskey is about a young boy who can’t sing, can’t even pucker his lips to whistle – but who can blow into a harmonica. A line from the story is a favorite of both Berntson and Brian Walker, the current Route 66 Harmonica Club president: “[S]o you never can tell what will happen when you learn to play the harmonica.”
“Showing people, especially children, how to play a harmonica is really special to the club,” Walker says. “David does a Blues In Schools program and passes out free harmonicas there, teaching kids to play simple songs.”
The club meets monthly and puts on a yearly spring summit, bringing in performers with seminars in the day and evening performances. The event is usually held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, but “last year we deviated because we were bringing in the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica with an international convention and needed more space for more than 500 attendees from all over the world,” Walker says. “We worked with the Hyatt Regency in downtown Tulsa. The headliner was Sugar Blue, [who] worked with the Rolling Stones.”
Walker isn’t a professional musician, but “I’ve always played an instrument and I always liked the sound of blues harmonica and picked it up in the early 2000s, learning mostly on my own. I just enjoy it with a passion, especially the blues. There is a lot of up-and-coming blues musicianship in Tulsa.”
Often associated with the blues, the harmonica is also a component for other genres, Walker says. The club has a group within the club, the Melody Makers, which focuses on traditional tunes rather than improvisational blues style. The group has outreach programs at senior facilities and the Children’s Hospital at Saint Francis.
As of this writing, the 2018 event for the club isn’t set, but the group will attend the annual international harmonica summit in St. Louis. Other club highlights this year include a two-hour workshop with Nashville’s Tim Gonzalez and his Latin-style harmonica.