Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight
Frank R. Hayde
Santa Monica Press
When one thinks of Bebop, the names Bird and Dizzy along with Monk, Max and Bud immediately pop up. In the mind's eye, one can see those classic Herman Leonard
jazz photos of these Cats playin' in smoke-filled clubs like Minton's in Harlem and the 3 Deuces on 52nd Street. But someone else, virtually unknown, by comparison, deserves to be mentioned with these jazz titans: drummer Stan Levey.
As Frank R. Hayde tells it in Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight
(Santa Monica Press, 2016), one day, a 16 year old Stan Levey was walkin' down 11th Street in Philadelphia when he heard trumpet sounds soaring out from an upstairs window. The music compelled this kid to climb the stairs and find out who the hell was blowin' those crazy notes. In one of many logic-defying encounters, Stan not only met Dizzy Gillespie
but somehow found himself being invited to sit in with the band.
Hayde's biography sheds long overdue light on this seminal figure in Bebop history. Written in a style that will appeal to musical laymen, the reader will discover the remarkable path that Stan Levey, an only child who dropped out of school in 9th grade, forged for his life. As Levey tells it, even at a young age, " I was obsessed with rhythm. I'd tap my spoon and fork on a glass of milk or a dinner plate or the edge of the table." The boy's "drumming" often angered his father, Dave, a boxing manager with mob connections. But fortunately his mother, Essie, responded fatefully to one of these emotional outbursts by suggesting that Dave buy his son a set of drums.
One Christmas, Essie succeeded in convincing Dave to spring for a drum set, interesting timing for a Jewish family, though religion didn't play much of a role in their lives. Essie also persuaded Dave to take his son to Philly''s Earle Theater to see the legendary Chick Webb
and his orchestra. Soon the kid was cutting school in favor of watching and learning from drummers like Gene Krupa
and Buddy Rich
whenever they came to Philly to play matinees. This was how Stan Levey taught himself to play the drums, even playing in an unorthodox left handed style because "it felt right." These were the musical roots of Levey's future but first he would take a shot at a career in his father Dave's world.
Even as a teenager Stan was a big kid, six-foot-two, just under 180 pounds and born with a steely jaw that could take a punch. He fought as a heavyweight, even fighting in Madison Square Garden, but Levey admitted he " boxed a lot of very good fighters...who beat the crap out of me!" But the Mafia grip on the pugilists forced Levey to take his share of "dives" and, just as this seedy side of boxing has been portrayed in films like Body And Soul
and Requiem For A Heavyweight
, when the guy in the fancy suit shows you three fingers, you know you've got to go down in the third round.
Levey's life in the Bebop world, coincidentally, would keep him in that Mafia flavored milieu. Though he was still fighting occasionally, after his initial apprenticeship with Gillespie, the seventeen year old was already playing with many of the best bands around-including Art Tatum
, Erroll Garner
and George Shearing
-in clubs that were run by the mob. One of the more incredible bands he played in, that of Henry Jerome, was especially notable for the very unlikely musicians whom he joined on stage, the future head of the Federal Reserve system, Alan Greenspan, and a cat playing tenor named Lenny Garment, who one day would become Richard Nixon's lawyer. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up!
One night he was playing at the Downbeat Club on 52nd St when in walked Bird (not Bud). Bird was a mess, "his hair is standing straight up-looked like Don King. He's got his horn in a paper bag with rubber bands and cellophane on it and there he is, Charlie Parker
." Eventually, Bird got up on the stage, told either Hank Jones
or Monk to play a blues and suddenly seventeen year old Stan Levey was drumming in rarefied air. When Bird looked back and smiled at him, Levey knew he'd been paid as great a compliment as any young jazz musician could hope for.
But playing with Bird that night in 1944 came with a steep price; Stan Levey's life would become a roller coaster ride of dizzying highs and dope crazed lows. This kid had just joined what would be considered the first Bebop band, and, at the same time, Levey became Bird's room mate and dope buddy, sharing beds and needles as well as the hottest band stands in the country.
Levey would go out to LA with Dizzy and Bird, playing in the historic eight week Billy Berg gig where the West Coast cats got their introduction to this high flyin' Bebop that they had been hearing about. Levey would later join Bird again as part of the Jazz At the Philharmonic concert tour that producer Norman Granz put on.
Eventually, Levey's ride would take him to one of the most famous jazz clubs in the West, The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, just south of Los Angeles. He played with Howard Rumsey
's Lighthouse All Stars for years, a steady gig that allowed Levey to get married, have kids and settle down.
Then the jazz scene slowed down. Levey would take studio session gigs to pay the bills but then, in 1973, he put down his drum sticks and never played again. Although his decision seemed to surprise everyone, the taciturn Levey never discussed his reasons for abandoning his life in music. It was something he did, and then he moved on.
Hayde's biography is filled with stories and photos of Levey's exploits in the Bebop world. Much of the time, author Hayde wisely relies on Levey's own words to tell these enlightening and never before told stories. Stan Levey, who was there at the beginning, surely knew what went down and surely deserves wider recognition for providing the percussive fire behind the first true Bebop band.