[Editor's Note: Interview conducted by Eleanor Brietel, New York Editor of The Drill Press. Most of this interview, originally published on the Buzzle website, was conducted via email.]
Eleanor Brietel: You've published fiction and you also write essays on a variety of subjects. I want, however, to confine this discussion to your thoughts about jazz, a special interest of yours that has resulted in a couple of books, a lot of liner notes and numerous articles in places like Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Metronome, Jazz & Pop Magazine (where you were the Jazz Editor) and The Village Voice (where you earned a reputation as an avidsome would say, zealoussupporter of the so-called "jazz revolution" in the '60s). What got you into jazz in the first place? Who were your guides and teachers?
Robert Levin: Working at Sam Goody's record store got me into it. My father, Abner Levin, a classical music critiche wrote a much-praised book, The Disc Book, with David Hallwas Sam Goody's partner from the early 1950s, when the Long Playing Record was introduced, into the mid-1960s. In 1954, when I was fifteen, I started working part-time at the main store (on West 49th Street, midway between the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and the Brill Building and Colony Records on Broadway) and it was there that I met George Sprung and Joe Goldberg. George, who was the head jazz salesman, played a recording of Bix Beiderbecke's for me on my very first day and, upon noting my enthusiastic response, suggested that I check out albums by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Erroll Garner, among others.
I did, and I was fully hooked in a matter of weeks. Then Joe Goldberg, who came to work as a salesman at Goody's a year or two later, expanded the field of what I was listening to by turning me on to people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Joewho'd later write Jazz Masters of the Fiftieswas six years older than me and a big influence. He was writing plays then and Frank Perry wanted to direct one of thema marvelously poetic three-act play called Mexican Blues. It got as far as a backers' audition, which Joe invited me to. Zero Mostel, who was still unknown then, read one of the parts. (Joe was rooming with Jerry Orbach around that time and I remember Orbach joining us for coffee next door to Goody's just moments after he'd auditioned, unsuccessfully it turned out, for West Side Story.) Someone else who worked at Goody's, a trumpet player named Dick Schwartzhe'd recorded an album with Steve Lacy called Progressive Dixielandalso made valuable recommendations and he played an important role in how I listened.
Other guides and teachers were visitors to the store. Goody's location and enormous inventory (it stocked virtually every LP in existence and sold them at deep discounts) made it a kind of mecca, and besides all of the celebrities who came inI recall an entrance by Marilyn Monroe very vividlya lot of musicians and people in the jazz business showed up. I met Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People's Music, Harry Lim, Martin Williams and Marshall Stearns there. And Nat Hentoff, as well. The Farmer brothers, Art and Addison, were regulars and Tony Scott, known then as the "first bebop clarinetist," would stop by often. He took a liking to me for some reason and brought me with him to a couple of his recording sessions. Lee Konitz had worked at Goody's before I did and he'd come back to buy records from time to time.
And it was at Goody's, where he was paying a call on Joe Goldberg, that I met Cecil Taylor.
EB: I want to ask you about Taylor, of course, but first: Are you musical yourself? Do you play an instrument?
RL: No. I tried to play the saxophone when I was in my teens but I realized fairly quickly that I had no aptitude for it. I am on a record though. I was part of a chorus on Ornette Coleman's Friends and Neighbors album, which was recorded by Bob Thiele for his pre-Impulse Flying Dutchman label. On the title track, it was the chorus's job to shout, "Friends and neighbors, that's where it's at!" That line (and my reading of it) notwithstanding, Friends & Neighbors is actually a pretty good album.
EB: Was it when you realized you weren't going to be a musician that you decided to become a writer and critic instead?
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good
I was first exposed to jazz when I discovered that one of Jimi Hendrix's influences was Wes Montgomery. I played guitar growing up and idolized Hendrix, so I knew that anyone he looked up to must be good. I was 16 at the time. I went to Tower Records and purchased a CD by Wes, and I was hooked from the very first ten seconds. The sound of the song Lolita illuminated my bedroom, as I just sat back amazed at how colorful and soulful this music was--I understood it, even though at the time I didn't understand how to go about playing it. I get chills listening to Wes' solo on Lolita, and I can still listen to that song ten times in a row and never get tired of it. There is a truly timeless quality to genuinely spontaneous jazz music, and it is that quality that has inspired me to devote my life to studying and playing this music.