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Claude Garden Biography, 1937-2004-(1)

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Back in 1952. A day of this particular year remains deeply engraved in my memory . It's a Saturday afternoon ; we are in an harmonica club called
" CHARM ", founded by Albert Raisner, when Claude Garden appears for the first time in our harmonicist universe, pushing the door of this legendary place, rue des Petites Écuries in Paris. Claude was just fifteen years old. Accompanied on the piano by his mother, he plaid the Mozart Turkish March; all of us were silent, amazed to discover this young boy giving a virtuoso performance with a sensibility promising an exceptional talent. His brilliant career will later confirm it. I still remember the radiant proudness in his mother's eyes. She was and she went on being his most faithful support all along his career. She will be 99 years old this year (2004).

" I began playing harmonica the day I heard Larry Adler playing, thanks to you Larry... ", he told me one day when I was interviewing him(2). His media explosion in the fifties was favoured by the exceptional craze for our instrument during those ten years, " the mouth music golden age ", well known among us who had lived through it. Happy time during which Claude, rapidly, took his place among the greatest. Radios, concerts, recordings, followed at a pace which leaves us dreaming, nowadays. Of this period a good number of recordings still remains, you'll find them listed in the discography at the end of this article. They are mostly classical music records, plus some remarkable variety ones, and among them the " Grisbi " which I personally prefer to Larry Adler's one.

At the beginning of the sixties, the fifties vogue was waning. With the arrival of rock'n roll and the Beatles, a new attractive music mode was offered to the audience, with new instruments, electronic effects, etc. Professional harmonica players do remember sadly this difficult time.

Claude Garden told me : " The fifties quickly ended. By the end of the sixties, I told myself that, just to earn enough to live on, I was going to be obliged to widen the range of my possibilities, to become a little more chameleon. I used to play variety and at that time I was seduced by jazz. I learn jazz with Martial Solal, Nicole Croisille, Luigi Trussardi, Maurice Vander. We often met at the " Living room " in Paris. It was a jazz club where many american jazzmen used to go ". Claude, belonging to the wellknown impresario Johnny Stark's stable, had the luck to go on tour with Jacques Brel, Zizi Jeanmaire, Johnny Halliday, Raymond Devos, etc. But this adventure was going to end badly : Stark had some character... Claude Garden too !

Then came the seventies. Claude added : " Luck came to my help. Thanks to André Dassary (wellknown singer of the time), I was engaged on the transatlantic liner " France ". And there it was again, New York, Montréal, a two years cruise over the North Atlantic, from 1970 to 1972.

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That's where I met Salvador Dali... sheer luck again. On the " France " liner, I was often playing Eric Satie pieces. This is how I come to know Dali, he and Satie being among the founders of surrealism, artistic movement popular at the end of the twenties, beginning of the thirties. And that's why, regularly during three or four years, Salvador Dali invited me to play at the Saint Regis Hotel in New York, where he was staying. Then I travelled the world with him. I was very disappointed by the States : in spite of Dali's help, I played there only twice, once in Boston with the Boston Pop Orchestra when I played Arthur Benjamin's Concerto, the second time in New York, at the Carnegie Hall where I played Henri Sauguet's Concerto. To have known Dali had changed my life and my view of things. "

Claude Garden discovered Canada more or less at the same moment. And he fell in love with that country ! After a TV show in Montreal, this french man from " l'aut' bord ", was adopted by his canadian cousins. Félix Leclerc (with whom he made a record), Charlebois, Vigneault, very often invited him to play with them. " Jeunesses Musicales du Quebec " will offer him a great tour in North America with a new formula ; " Duo Harmonica Guitare ", showing a new range of his talent. François Dompierre, composer native of Québec, will write for him " Harmonica Flash " that he will play in concert and will record with the Montréal Philarmonic Orchestra directed by Charles Dutoit, for Deutsche Grammophon. Not coming very often in France, he finally chose to live in Canada until 1985, adopting both nationalities. About Canada, he will say to " have found his roots there ".

He didn't go back directly to France, and always curious to discover the world, he stopped for six months in the Caribbean. He performed in the archipelago, all winter through, with a jazz quartet. He discovered Haïti and found there friends, musicians, dancers and painters who adopted him very quickly. (Claude was also a talented painter, he had studied arts, when he was young, at the Arts Deco in Paris.) During that period, he lived in Haïti, on Black Mountain (the heights of Port au Prince), where he is until now called : " Ti Blanc Gentil ".
By the end of 1985, engaged by the famous conductor Paul Mauriat, Claude toured for the first time in Japan. Discovering the country of the Rising Sun, he fell in love with it, a love that will only come to an end on a very sad autumn morning of 2004.

Since 1986, we have been, Claude and I, having a relationship, at the same time friendly and professional when I distributed two of his records under my label PSB. By the end of the eighties, during five years, he gave lessons in a music shop, the
" Ménétrier ", rue de Rome in Paris, street wellknown all around the world as the street of instruments builders.
It happened only once in the harmonica French history : the European Paris Conservatoire, rue des Francs Bourgeois, proposed Claude to open a chromatic harmonica class. There were not enough applications and so the project never came into existence. We can only regret it, this could have given to our instrument a nobility that we surely need.

In 1992, back for a tour in Japan where harmonica is king, Claude became in this country a worshipped star, giving every single year series of sold out concerts, tours and master classes, TV shows and private lessons. Following his advice an instrument manufacturer, Suzuki, created a fourteen holes chromatic harmonica, the
" Magic Garden ". Being myself often in Japan and Pete Pedersen also, we sometimes shared with Claude unforgettable moments. I keep in my mind a strong souvenir of his participation to the Atsugi Festival in 2002 ; the " Hotshot's ", the " Adler trio " and my friends Juko Saïto and Yasuho Watani were also there. Just for you to appreciate the interest for that kind of event in Japan, you must know that there were 28000 entries during this five days festival.

Since 1990 until the beginning of this century, Claude Garden, travelled from concert to concert around the world: Germany, USA, China, Korea, Malaysia, Canada, Taiwan,etc. But surprisingly, he performed scarcely in France.

But there is also Claude Garden the composer. Here is what he told me in the interview he gave me :
" My constant worry was to compose for the register of the technical and melodic possibilities of the instrument. I began writing twenty years ago. My first composition " Alexandra " was dedicated to my youngest daughter. She is now twenty three. " (Claude has got another daughter, Maud.) " At that time, my compositions were directed towards a New Age style putting particularly in advantage the harmonica tones. Then came my
" Suite enfantine ", etc. ". Claude composed many other harmonica pieces and among them, four compositions in his last jazz record " Garden Club ".

Very famous musicians composed for him : Henri Sauguet, Astor Piazzola, Charles Dutoit, François Dompierre. Here is a brief summary of what has been said, here and there, on Claude :
" I had the great pleasure to compose the " Garden Concerto " for Claude Garden. Because of him, harmonica has a new dimension, and he is the undisputed master of it. He has got the most intelligent technic and sound. " Henri Sauguet.
" I did not know that existed such an harmonicist able to play classical, jazz or latin music. When Claude Garden asked me to write him a concerto, I didn't know him. As soon as I heard him play I knew he was a great musician." Astor Piazzola.
" When I recorded " Harmonica Flash " with Claude Garden for Deutsche Grammophon, I discovered a new harmonica I had not imagined. " Charles Dutoit.
" Besides an unbelievable musicality and an unfailing technic, Claude Garden never lapsed into vulgarity. " François Dompierre.
" For me Claude Garden, being my friend... is not Claude Garden...He is the very symbol of harmonica. " Salvador Dali.

In 1995, at the IHO/FIH World Festival in Yokohama to which Larry Adler and Claude took part, during a breakfast at the Continental hotel, Larry told me : " He can do everything. With him and a few others like Watani, I am convinced that my succession is assured. "
At he beginning of August 2004, we were together at the 5th Asiatic Festival in Hong Kong. Although he was tired, Claude made once more the demonstration of his great talent during a jazz concert, greeted by a well deserved standing ovation.
It was in Hong Kong, at the Ramada hotel in Kowloon, during a hot summer evening, when, for the last time, we met Claude and I, for a friendly drink. The next morning he was taking a plane to Japan, where faithful to his audience, overcoming his suffering, Magic Garden brilliantly proved, for the last time, how great was his talent. We knew it, we won't forget it.

On Thursday December the 9th 2004, Claude died in St Joseph hospital in Paris. He now lies in Bagneux cemetery.
One day he had said : " The harmonica has been for me a symbol of liberty and also my best passport across the world. "

Sayonara Claude.

Jean Labre
English translation : Josette Labre
photo c/o Claude Garden

©2005 by Jean Labre

(1) Claude Garden was born at Verneuil sur Avre (Normandie), the 27th of Februar 1937.
(2) The mentioned above interview was realised by Jean Labre, in his residence, on November the 6th 2002. All the interventions of Claude Garden in this article are taken from this interview, published in the magazine " Echos France Harmonica " N°40 (Winter 2002/2003)


It is not an exhaustive list. Claude Garden has been recording so many times in half a century that I do not pretend to give you here the integrality of his works. My friends and myself are proposing you the essential of what we have selected .

9265410V FONTANA " Les Rois de l'Harmonica "
S63082 CBS " Claude Garden Harmonica "
839851 GSY PHILIPS " L'harmonica et son virtuose Soirée Musicale "
995021 BARCLAY " Inédits ORTF Garden Concerto "
AG35701 AGAVE SONOPRESS "Music Garden"
RC1443 RADIO CANADA "International Transcription"
9500999 PHILIPS "Claude Garden Mundharmonica"
G05578R PHILIPS " Harmonica et son virtuose Classique pour tous "
2531265 DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON " Harmonica Flash "
EPS 1222 VOGUE " Harmonica Concert Claude Garden "
460 072 VOGUE " Claude Garden Harmonica 1 "
EPS 1249 VOGUE " Claude Garden Harmonica 2 "
842851 PHILIPS " Texas Rider "
Collection Claude Garden Production
87701 PSB " Mes Rappels Préférés " Claude Garden Harmonica/classique vol.1 (cassette)
4232 PSB " L'Harmonica " Claude Garden
Harmonica/classique vol.2 (cassette)
AMPLITUDE/Canada/ CD Felix Leclerc - Claude Garden / Yvan Gadoua Productions
INCDCD 111 " Tender harmonica stories " INTERMÈDE COM
INCD 5001 " That's what friends are for " CD. Amplitude Canada (variety)
VICG-8069 Victor Ent. Japon " Mélodies Claude Garden " Classic CD: Gossec, Desportes, Mozart, Kriesler, and Japanese classics : Miyagi, Sugiyama

Série " Prestige de l'Harmonica " (3 CD. Bleu, Blanc, Rouge)
ILD 642206 " Claude Garden vol.1 " : Hasse, Vivaldi, Mozart, Pergolèse, Purcell, Sarasate,
Debussy, Gounod, Dinicu, St Saëns, Fauré.
ILD 642207 " Claude Garden vol.2 " : Paganini, Teleman, Bach, Schubert, Donizetti, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven, Bartok.
ILD 64208 " Claude Garden vol.3 "  : Bach, Marcello, Ibrt, Satie, Chopin, Schumann, Ravel, Katchaturian, Benjamin, De Falla.
These 3 CD are available. Contact ILD : tel : (33)
J.L.001 "Yokohama 95" compilation CD : Claude Garden, Larry Adler, Pete Pedersen, Charlie Mc Coy, Franz Chmel, Don Les, Mo Vint, Jean Labre, Juko Saito, Shigeaki Iwasaki... available on this website, in

CD Jazz " Garden Club ", his last album available on this website, in

Published December 16th 2014


Copyright © Jean Labre 2005-24 - Updated on May 22nd 2024 -