Jack Hopkins Marks 88 Years Of Harmonizing On His Harmonicas | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Jack Hopkins Marks 88 Years Of Harmonizing On His Harmonicas

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Jack Hopkins, left, and Frank Jamison, right, jam together at weekly meetings of the Capital Harmonica Club, which Jack founded in 1991.
Eric Shimelonis
Jack Hopkins, left, and Frank Jamison, right, jam together at weekly meetings of the Capital Harmonica Club, which Jack founded in 1991.

This week’s show “Lifetime Achievement,” but Jack Hopkins may very well take exception to that title.

“People ask me if I've been playing all my life,” he says. “[I say] ‘No, not yet!’”

No, Jack has only been playing the harmonica for 88 years. The 94-year-old Virginia resident says he started when he was six years old. “My father and mother dropped into my Christmas stocking a small plastic harmonica; it even had plastic reeds,” he remembers.

Jack took to it instantly, and within weeks, his father came home from work, “and heard me playing ‘Yes Sir, She’s My Baby,’ or some other popular tune of the day, and I blew his non-musical mind!” he says with a laugh.

Eighty-eight years later, Jack has a harmonica collection that would blow anyone’s mind. He guesses the collection numbers somewhere in the hundreds, and includes more than 15 different types — from tiny harmonicas measuring just over an inch, to chord harmonicas measuring nearly two feet. He has chromatic harmonicas, with a push-button slide that moves up notes half a tone, and he has paddlewheel harmonicas, which are actually several harmonicas put together in a paddle-wheel shape, each one in a different key.

But the instrument Jack rocks the most has got to be the double-decker bass.

“The sharps and flats are up here,” he says, pointing to the upper harmonica, “and the natural notes are down below.”

The bass harmonica is an “all-blow” instrument. So while many harmonicas will give you different notes depending on whether you’re “blowing” (exhaling) or “drawing” (inhaling), with the bass you only get notes when you exhale. And for anyone — let alone a 94-year-old man — that’s no small feat.

Jack Hopkins, 94, is so passionate about the harmonica, he’s even devoted his license plate to the instrument. (Eric Shimelonis)

In fact, if you ask Hopkins what’s kept him interested in the harmonica all these years, his cheery response is: “Well, for one thing, it’s kept me breathing.”

Frank Jamison is a member of the Capital Harmonica Club, which Jack founded in 1991, and which has been meeting at Alexandria’s Wesley United Methodist Church every Tuesday night. He’s 82, so perhaps the harmonica is the key to staying in such spry shape.

“Well, I swim every day, too,” he says with a laugh.

“That keeps him clean!” quips Jack with an even bigger laugh.

Frank and Jack have quite the warm rapport, after playing together at so many meetings and gigs, from senior homes to civic-organization gatherings. And both men can remember a time when this little church classroom was bursting with harmonica devotees, as many as 15.

Nowadays, Frank says, “we're lucky if we get two or three.”

But at this week’s meeting, there’s some new blood in the room: Cliff Daniels, a recent retiree and a harmonica rookie.

“This is probably my fourth time,” he says. “And I am going to push myself to the level in which have a harmonica in my pocket and take it out and start playing if I want to. I feel there is a lot of hope for me.”

One of Frank and Jack’s favorite things is harmonizing. When Jack’s on bass, he’s providing a rhythmic, percussive element. But when both men are on chromatic harmonicas, Jack plays counterpoint to Frank’s melody.

In addition to jamming with Frank, Jack Hopkins has also kept himself busy reading about harmonicas — one of his favorite books is Al Smith’s "Confessions of Harmonica Addicts" — as well as attending harmonica conventions and teaching harmonica.

“But my wife kind of put a halt to that because I wasn't spending enough time with my seven kids,” he says. “So you see, I didn't play harmonica all the time!”

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