John Levy: Nonagenarian Talks Music and Management
“ Years ago, when people were under contract with record companies, they took some time to build up talent. That's gone. If you don't have the hot hit right now, forget it. ”
Ever heard of Nancy Wilson? How about George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery? What do these great artists all have in common? They were all managed by John Levy.
Who is John Levy, you ask? Born in New Orleans in 1911, Levy grew up in Chicago taking in some of the finest music ever to grace the ears of America. He was raised on big band, jazz, blues, and anything else he heard on the radio. A good student, he received counsel at a young age from an elementary school teacher. "Take a good job in the Post Office...something with a pension," she told a young Levy. But Levy's ambition went far beyond the Post Office. "From a very young age, I saw myself behind a big desk in an office," he recounts over the phone in our November conversation.
The Original George Shearing Quintet with John Levy playing bass, Margie Hyams on vibes, Chuck Wayne on guitar, and Denzil Best on drums.
It would not be until many years later that Levy finally had the opportunity to marry his love of music with his dream of sitting behind that desk. A talented bassist, Levy played early on with the Stuff Smith Trio at the Onyx Club on 54th Street in New York. He also worked with Ben Webster, Errol Garner, and Lady Day.
As a charter member of the George Shearing Quintet in 1954, Levy formed a strong bond with the British pianist that exists to this day. Shearing would arguably be the defining factor in launching Levy's second careeras a manager. On the road, the blind pianist experienced racism towards blacks for the first time in his life. Though Shearing never thought much of leading an integrated band, much of America seemed perturbed by integrated bands. Soon, Mr. Shearing would indulge Mr. Levy in a request to be his road manager. This meant a lot of responsibility but both men knew he was up to it. In fact he was already the band's impromptu road manager. From there on, Levy would become the first black manager in the business. His business later flourished into a thriving company named John Levy Enterprises. At the pinnacle of his career, Levy had management offices in both New York and Los Angeles and was managing as many as twenty artists at once.
If you're talking about jazz, there's only one John Levy. He's done it all: booked national and international tours, arranged record contracts, television appearances, radio play, and numerous other tasks acts for countless artists. In a book entitled Men, Women, and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Manager, Levy recounts his life experiences in first person. This book is a must for jazz fans. Here is a condensed vignette of the nonagenarian in his own words.
All About Jazz: What was it that you found so glorious in a desk job? Most people today loathe the idea of a job pushing paper?
John Levy: It came from when I was in grammar school really. I don't know why and I've never been able to pinpoint the reason (since no one in my family was doing office work), but we're talking about the late 20s, early 30s. For some reason I saw myself behind a desk.
I did have a very good teacher in grammar school who thought she had my interests at heart, and she said, "You know what you should do? When you get out of school and take your examinations, take a job in the Post Office or something like that where you have a good career and a pension." But it was my ambition to have a job behind a desk.
AAJ: You talk in your autobiography about George Shearing as the person who gave you your big break into the managerial side of. How did George compare to other musicians of his time?
The Phil Moore Four: (l to r) bassist John Levy, trumpeter John Letman, drummer Walter Bishop, and pianist Phil Moore.
JL: George Shearing was from England and he never had any racial prejudices about color. He had a different frame of mind, coming from England, which at that time had practically no experience with black people. They had some West Indians and others who had come over to do labor but generally there was no contact with blacks. There were no prejudices about anybody. You know, being blind, he obviously couldn't see. So color didn't make a difference to him in any way.
He was very well-schooled in what the black jazz musicians were about. His favorite musicians were Fats Waller and Tatum and people like thatall black artists, black pianists and entertainers. That's what he had learned about in England before he came to this country. He didn't come with that kind of racist baggage. He would judge someone as a musician, on their ability to play.
AAJ: In your book you talk about your knack for spotting great talent. What have you looked for in artists over the years? Have any of these criteria changed over time or have they remained constant?
JL: The criteria has changed over time because the type of talent that's successful in today's market I don't relate to at all, so... [laughs]
AAJ: Me neither!
JL: I dunno. When you're talking about singers it's different than with [instrumentalits]. With [instrumentalists] you look for their basic abilities, you look for ability to improvise, you look for elements of sound, and feel...you know...the Ben Websters and Dizzy Gillespies and all the great musicians that came out of that era. You comparent players to the greats. I didn't come to managing singers until I was pretty well into the management field. In other words, I started out managing just [instrumentalits]. Then it was brought to my attention by Cannonball especially, about this singer from Ohio who he said could really bring everything to the table.