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John Levy: Nonagenarian Talks Music and Management


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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.
—John Levy
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 career—as 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 that—all 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.

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."

AAJ: Man.

JL: So you see what you're up against. Jim is in a very rare position. He's one of the few guitarists who's worked with all the top people and has gotten a reputation all over the world. He's been to Korea this year, and Japan. He's like one of those names. He's not looking for publicity. We just wanted to promote the fact that he was in town. The business is such today, that even an insider like my wife can't do it. It's impossible to get publicity. I don't care who you are. It's the business—the way it is. Young blacks in hip-hop opened up a whole new way of promoting the music. They sold records out of the backs of cars and whatever. They developed something that made you take notice of who they were. But I've got a pretty good idea of how to work this business. With the Internet there's an opening. There's a way.

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