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Drummer Stan Levey Improvised His Life with a Steady Beat

Victor L. Schermer By

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Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight
Frank R. Hayde
224 Pages
ISBN: # 13-978-1595800862
Santa Monica Press
2016

The word "Heavyweight" in the title of this fast-paced biography of the late great jazz drummer Stan Levey is not just a metaphor for his reputation as a musician. Levey, in addition to having been a revered drummer who helped jump-start the bebop movement, was also a fair to middlin' prize fighter! Growing up in Prohibition and Depression era Philadelphia, his father was a fight promoter. Whenever Stan, coming of age in the 1940-50s, needed some bread to pay expenses or feed his heroin habit, he got in the ring and either duked it out or threw the fight for mob money. Eventually, he cleaned up his addiction, stopped boxing, had a great marriage, and worked in the Hollywood studios. Conspicuously white among black musicians, and looking like a narc or a bouncer, Levey was still beloved by his fellows, and was the perfect hire for gigs on account of his natural ability, loyalty, and near-perfect rhythmic grasp of the then new music of modern jazz.

Levey grew up in South and West Philadelphia. His mother was an alcoholic and his father, rude and sometimes violent, cared only for his stable of prize fighters. Left to his own devices, Levey had a natural penchant for rhythm and percussion. Totally self-taught and mistakenly using his left hand on the ride cymbal, he was taken under Dizzy Gillespie's wing when the latter was just forming his own groups in the City of Brotherly Love. First Gillespie, then Benny Goodman and Earl Hines hired him, and soon he was touring the country, winding up in the L.A. and New York circuits, and participating in the nascent bebop movement fostered by Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It was a meteoric rise that seemed to happen without any real intention on Levey's part.

Parker, sadly, got Levey strung out on dope, ultimately leading to a prison sentence and an epiphany in which Levey got clean and sober for the rest of his life. Soon a first call drummer as well as a responsible husband and family man, he eventually settled down to regular gigs at the Lighthouse club in Hermosa Beach, record dates, and tours with the likes of Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. Becoming still more responsible to his family, he took steady work in the Hollywood studios, which he despised, raised two sons, and decided to give up music and make a fairly good living as a photographer. In the meantime, celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts became acquaintances, and he finished up his life as a reliable family man and a revered elder beloved of jazz fans and musicians alike. Nice work if you can get it, and he got it by virtue of talent, genuine humility, and always being a quintessential team player.

This book takes the reader bouncing through Levey's life and times with a lively narrative by author Frank Hayde interspersed with quotes by Levey, his wife Angela, his family, and many luminaries of jazz such as Goodman, Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Jay McShann and many others. Levy's recollections, taken from various tapes, notes, and letters, push the book forward with their percussive style: for example, "It cost nothing to go to the Lighthouse. You walk in, sit down, have a drink, maybe dinner. Everybody sat in. Miles. Dizzy. Dexter. Pick a name, they've been there." It's a book that, like jazz, tells stories, one after the other, about the jazz greats, the rich and famous, mobsters, crazy people, prison life, families, gigs, nightclubs. Most poignant are Levey's recollections of Parker's deterioration from heroin and alcohol. Dissipated, sick, and wiped out from his addictions, Parker would show up late at a gig completely disheveled (one time Gillespie had to buy him a suit right on the spot!), yet he played stunningly like the master he was (not always, but often). Levey roomed with Bird for a while and takes verbal snapshots that are among the most vivid descriptions in print or film of the tragedy that was Bird.

This is a book about one of the most exciting times in the history of jazz when everyone in the country was trying to find his or her own way. A time of guts, glory, and turmoil of which Stan Levey was a prime representative. Hayde is a good writer and weaves all the stories into an exciting single narrative. The only thing you're going to miss in this book is a deep analysis of Levey, the people, the events, and the music of the time. It's more as if you're sitting around the kitchen table or at a bar reminiscing than like the analyst's couch or a professor pontificating. It's a great read, but short on insight.

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