[Harp-L] Remembering Chris Mickalek

What a shock to open harp-l and Facebook this morning and learn the sad news 
about Chris Michalek. His death was completely unexpected. He was in his 
mid-40s, I believe, had no health problems I was aware of, and, while he was 
carrying a lot of weight (he was called for the Buddha partly for that reason) 
seemed to have no damaging habits.

Everything that Brendan Power wrote about Chris on harp-l is spot-on.

When I met Chris at my first SPAH in 1992 he was in his mid-20s and already a 
fluent player. That year I also met many others, including Joe Filisko and Larry 
Eisenberg. Later, with the addition of Dennis Gruenling, Chris, Joe, and Larry 
would become the first lineup of Winslow's Bunch O'Guys harmonica ensemble, and 
each of them contributed a unique solo voice. Chris always found a way to get 
inside his part, and then turn it inside out in exotic and fun ways. Later, he 
developed what seemed like an effortless, almost floating way of improvising 
with rhythms, collaborating with whatever musicians he was playing with, and 
spinning long, fluid lines or sweet, funky licks in his preferred 11th and 12th 

The two things that always struck me about Chris were his fearlessness  and his 
fluid, effortless-seeming powers of invention. When I first met him Chris was 
either in pre-med or a medical student. But not much later, he was a software 
developed building websites. Then it was something else, and eventually I lost 
track - it seemed like he had re-invented his career every time I saw him.I used 
to tell  him that I could picture him jumping off a building and learning  to 
fly on the way down. 

He waded right in and organized the Harmonica Summit 2000, one of the  biggest, 
most talent-rich harmonica events ever, hiring all the greatest  artists he 
could and bringing in the public - but then got in way too  deep financially (he 
worked his way back out, as far as I know, but it  took time). After his move to 
Arizona, Chris quickly found the best talent in the  local scene, and for a few 
years his Michalek-Strone band did some fine  work, and made the fine CD Monk 
Alters Chi.  A couple of years ago he decided to start building harps, including  
making his own combs. With no prior training in being a machinist, he  
researched the possibilities, techniques, and available equipment, then  located 
and purchased a used milling machine and started making harmonica combs that 
were both beautiful and subtly innovate. I have one of those harps in my kit, 
and now it will be a keepsake.

His activities, while often brilliant and beneficial to all concerned  and to 
the harmonica community at large, were at times buffeted either  with the 
mishaps that attend risk-taking or with the social friction  that comes from 
being outspoken and willing to upset the "way  things are done." Also, his 
audacious sense of humor did not always translate from the spoken to then 
written medium, and some people formed a distorted impression of this gentle, 
generous man from his writings which, if read carefully, often meant the exact 
opposite of the initial impression they might create.

During the time I knew him, Chris developed his gifts to become not only a fine 
player and  recording artist, but a builder, teacher, and organizer of harmonica  
activities - and, as noted, a mentor to a whole new crop of  up-and-coming 
players. He didn't hold back; he did it all. In the end I'd have to say that the 
harmonica  community - and many of the individuals in it - are far the better 
for  his activities.

Chris, I used to tell you I thought you could fly. Now I know for sure. 


 Winslow Yerxa
Author, Harmonica For Dummies ISBN 978-0-470-33729-5
Harmonica instructor, The Jazzschool for Music Study and Performance
Resident expert, bluesharmonica.com
Columnist, harmonicasessions.com


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