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Have harmonicas, will perform

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2012 - A few years ago, while cleaning out his father’s things, Jay Hotze found an old rectangular box with a worn gold border, etched with the words “The Chromonica.”

Inside sat an M. Hohner harmonica, possibly pre-World War II.

Hotze’s father played trumpet in a band while in college, and he must have played harmonica, too, Hotze says.

Then, about six weeks ago, Hotze stepped into a basement room at the Brentwood campus of The Rock Church for his first ever meeting with the Gateway Harmonica Club.

The group, which has 80 members, meets every Tuesday for practice, preceded by informal lessons for newcomers and followed by an open mic session.

On a recent Tuesday, Hotze sat at a table in the back, listening, his freshly cleaned up harmonica resting on the table next to him, his foot swaying to “Blue Sky Waltz,” “New York, New York” and “Carolina in the Morning.”

As he listened, members of the Gateway Harmonica Club filled the room with resonating sound, practicing the host of songs they plan to play in concert at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 27 at the Sheldon Concert Hall. The group, which has been playing around St. Louis since 1986, has hosted four international conventions (their next one is here in 2013), played with conductor Richard Hayman and the St. Louis Symphony Pops Orchestra, and even for a Cardinals’ game.

Members such as Mary Ann Love, Frank Davis, Joe Fey and Bill Dulin have all been involved for years, some since the beginning. And playing the harmonica isn’t an easy thing, they agree. Within the group, there are chromatic harmonicas, which most play, polyphonic harmonicas, bass harmonicas and a tiny diatonic harmonica.

Like Hotze, Julie Melchers is another new member. She plays piano and guitar and started learning the harmonica a few months ago.

“It’s difficult,” she says, “in different ways.”

Hotze hopes to attend Tuesday night’s show at the Sheldon, though he’s not ready to play with the club just yet. His father now lives in an assisted living facility. Someday, Hotze plans to ask him what he remembers about the harmonica.

And maybe, when he’s ready, Hotze can even play for him.

Tickets for the Gateway Harmonica Club’s performance at the Sheldon cost $10. For more information, go to www.thesheldon.org, or www.gatewayharmonicaclub.org