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Half Note Records: Live from the Blue Note

Bob Kenselaar By

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From time to time, Levenson also teaches workshops on the business of jazz, most recently in Brussels, Hamburg and Rotterdam, in addition to having offered them at the New School in New York City in the past. "Kids in jazz programs learn how to master instruments, and they're really well equipped to become musicians in that regard. They learn the history and they learn the technical aspects of mastery. But once they complete their studies they have to apply their skills somewhere, somehow. The workshops I offer give a snapshot view of what real life looks like, what kids can expect once they enter the mainstream, keeping in mind that not every kid wants to make records and wants to be a leader of a jazz group, but may, in fact, want to do other things."

Looking back on his career, Levenson gets a bit nostalgic and philosophical. His start was actually as journalist, first writing jazz reviews and other articles for The Aquarian Weekly, an alternative newspaper based just outside New York City, in Montclair, New Jersey. Around that time, he remembers meeting Dan Morgenstern, the former Downbeat editor and director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. "Dan was very kind to me as an aspiring jazz writer. He was really great, and I'm going to be forever indebted to him." Levenson teamed up with his Aquarian editor, Gene Kalbacher, to found Hot House magazine, and ultimately went on to his longest run as a journalist as jazz editor for Billboard.

"It's so interesting to me that when you look backwards, sometimes it makes sense in ways that didn't makes sense when you were living your life. You're motivated by a desire to do things, and then you're in it. As I look back at the trajectory, I understand it. I had moved from the ranks of being a journalist to a record executive to a producer, and even now I continue to write. I do a column for JazzFM 91 in Toronto, Canada. So there's a full-circle dynamic in play. If you're immersed in a profession that gives you what you need or somehow satisfies whatever your professional desires are, you just do it."

Levenson illustrates his point further with a story about interviewing the late Max Gordon, the founder of the Village Vanguard, sometime in the early 1980s. "I was the East Coast Editor for Downbeat, and I went to interview Max Gordon. I start asking him, how did he know when he began the club in 1936 that he was going to change the course of popular culture? That he was going to redefine how we view jazz and folk singing and even comedy? Did he know how visionary he was? I'm gushing; I'm a kid in front of the great Max Gordon. And he was just so beautiful to me. He had a cigar, and he was listening to me, just going on and on. And then he said, 'Look. Just shut up, OK? I want to tell you how it works. This is it: I got up, and I went to work. And I walked down my steps, and I put on my show, and I counted my money, and I closed my door, and I went home. And then the next day, I did the same thing. I walked down the steps, I counted my money, and I went home. I went to work. I went home. I went to work. If you do that long enough, then, if you're lucky enough, some kid comes up to you and asks you what your great vision is about life and how you changed the course of popular culture. But in fact, I was just doing what I felt like doing.'

"I love that story, because the fact is, if you just do your thing, if you follow your passion and your heart and somehow carve out a way to do some version of what you deem is important, then at the end of this whole thing, poof!, you have a career. And then you can talk about it with great authority as if every part was a measured piece that you put in place. In fact, I just was doing what I was doing. It's like starting Hot House magazine with Gene Kalbacher. Wouldn't it be great if we had a magazine about jazz? And then one thing triggered the next thing, which triggered the next. It's very symmetrical, almost with bookends. It started with the pure enthusiasm about writing about music. I wanted free records. I wanted to go to shows. I wanted to be able to hang out. I like hanging out. And then, I start writing about it, and this happened and that happened, and the White House happened, and there it is. I think if there's any guiding principal here, it's really just about desire. What do you want to do? This is what I wanted to do."


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