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John Levy: Nonagenarian Talks Music and Management

By Published: January 14, 2005
AAJ: That was Nancy Wilson?

JL: Yes. And although I enjoyed listening to singers—you know, Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McCrae—I knew all those people and I enjoyed 'em but I had never thought of getting in the managerial side with 'em. But I guess Nancy was one of the first. If a singer really moves me, and it's related in my book, I get goose bumps. When I get that, it just motivates me to want to help someone with talent.

AAJ: I got goose bumps a few weeks ago listening to the Monk Competition on the radio when Jimmy Scott sang "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." It took me to another place.

JL: I know exactly what you mean. You know what's important? The artist has to know what the lyric is about! If you don't know a tune, if you can't sing it, then there's no way you can play it or perform it or improvise on it. Like "Lush Life." That's the greatest song there ever was. Now everybody recorded that. But only a few really got it and Nancy Wilson was one of 'em.

AAJ: Was Ella another?

JL: No. Neither was Nat Cole. They didn't know what the lyric was about. They didn't get the emotional thing—what Billy was talking about when he wrote that tune.

AAJ: Yeah, that tune as I understand it, was about Billy's sexual orientation.

JL: Yes.

AAJ: This business about knowing the story behind a song's lyrics is something that one of your old clients has been known best for over the years. I'm talking of course, about Shirley Horn.

JL: I was her first manager. When I heard her I happened to be sitting in my office in L.A. and I had the radio on when I heard this woman singing. I thought to myself, "That sounds like Jimmy Jones playing piano, but who is the singer?" So I called Jimmy and he said, "No, I haven't recorded anything with any Shirley Horn. I don't even know her." So I had my secretary get a hold of the record company and found out that she was singing and playing piano for herself and that she was living in Washington, DC. And from then on I was on her case until I finally met her and when we met, we worked out a deal (with a handshake, something that was and is unheard of in the music business), and I managed her for quite a few years in her early career.

AAJ: In terms of signing new talent today, tell our readers a bit about the Vocal Legacy band. How did this project come about? I'm familiar with Victor Fields but I haven't heard of the female singer Clairdee.

JL: Well I hadn't heard of her either. She had been in the Bay Area raising a family and working locally—almost like Shirley Horn did. When people wanted her to go out on the road, she wouldn't go, she'd stay home and work around town. Finally, she started moving a little bit and I happened to hear her record, which was sent to me recently, and out of all the people that are comin' along now, I said to myself, "Wow, this is somebody who knows what she's singing about." She has a great voice. She really knows the lyric. My wife and I listened to it and I said, "She would work well with Victor." So I called Victor and her knew her. And he said he'd like to work with her. So this is how the idea got started about putting a male and female artist together to really do standard material, good songs. There's a market for this kind of thing!

AAJ: Anyone who argues there's no market for vocal jazz is nuts. Vocal jazz is what carries the major jazz labels.

John Levy with Nancy Wilson and Oscar Brown, Jr. at an engagement at the Waldorf in New York.

JL: It's often for different reasons but it still works out good for jazz. Except that it often excludes black artists in that category. There's a market for jazz. But the people out there today, in my estimation, are just cocktail pianists and singers. And they can break into the pop field with the general audience for pop because they fit a mold—young, white girl or guy. The record companies then label it jazz but its often not. These people don't have the voice or the chops to be real jazz singers or musicians.

I always say that Wall Street—the bottom line—is the basis for everything. 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.

Even the critics, even the guy out here writes about Diana Krall like she's the greatest thing. And I told him, "I'm surprised at you."

AAJ: Well maybe he feels like he's got to hold the line. Often times it seem critics for major publications are essentially in bed with the record companies.

JL: And he works for a company—a newspaper—that is interested in that genre. We had a pitched about [my wife's] father who's in town now, Jim Hall. And we wanted to get an interview or write-up about him. It's the first time he's played a club in California in many years And the critic just admitted to me that he could not do it. He said, "I'd love to do it, but my editor won't let me." A great jazz artist in his seventies and had all those hits! "I can't write anything about him. I can't get clearance to write a story on him."

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