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Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight

David A. Orthmann By

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Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight
Frank R. Hayde
224 Pages
ISBN: #13-978-1-59580-086-2
Santa Monica Press
2016

During the course of Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight, Frank R. Hayde integrates Levey's personal perspective by frequently including excerpts of interviews released with the cooperation of the drummer's family. In a little over two hundred pages, Hayde's third person narrative and Levey's commentary illuminate a large complicated life filled with musical and personal transformations. Not unlike a masterful jazz duo playing a late night set, their words support and enhance one another, each of them providing abundant detail and briskly moving the story forward. While chronicling Levey's interactions with figures in and outside of the jazz life, Hayde consolidates jazz history, as well as raising complex and complicated issues surrounding the music and mid-twentieth-century racial politics. Levey (who died in 2005) offers frank, no nonsense, corresponding observations about his life and times that are devoid of sentimentality and self pity.

A short list of the ground that Hayde covers includes Levey's turbulent childhood; a brief career as a professional boxer that overlapped his early years as a jazz drummer, and entailed unavoidable dealings with organized crime; his entry, while still a teenager, into elite performance circles of the incipient bebop movement in groups led by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; insights into Levey's style of playing in combos and big bands; the trials and tribulations of his heroin addiction, incarceration and rehabilitation; a successful, financially rewarding move into West Coast jazz and studio scenes; the joys of Levey's marriage, fatherhood and conventional middle-class lifestyle; and his evolution into a career as a professional photographer.

In addition to Hayde's astute way of directing the narrative, Levey's forthright voice, and an abundance of riveting stories and revelations, the book explores a handful of fundamental themes that appear in large swaths of the book. One is the issue of American race relations as they apply to Levey's life and in broader terms within the world of jazz. Hayde doesn't contend that his subject was an advocate of civil rights, a champion of the liberation of black men and women, or a self-conscious promoter of enlightened race relations; rather, Levey was a white man driven to participate in a form of music originated by African Americans, and he played in bands—especially in the early years of his career—led by and comprised mostly of blacks. Moreover, to his credit, Hayde doesn't attempt to put a gloss on or underestimate the importance of race-related issues that, to this day, remain contentious.

As a youngster in Philadelphia, Levey accompanied his father, a part-time boxing manager, to the gym, where he became a "little white mascot," (p. 20) readily accepted into a world of African-American males with whom he eventually trained. A couple of years later, he met and received invaluable, hands-on tutelage from Dizzy Gillespie. Despite his youth and inexperience, he subsequently joined the trumpeter's Philadelphia-based band. Levey became, in the words of one member of the group, "a white guy who played well and sort of passed for black." (p. 26)

When the story moves to New York City's 52nd Street, a beehive of jazz activity in the 1940s, Hayde stresses the importance of bebop as an African-American art form that "presented the American black man as an intellectual virtuoso, proud and non-subservient" (p. 60). In the same instance he asserts, "the interracial aspects of bop, as personified by Stan Levey, are also vital to the music's history" (p. 61). When Gillespie hired and recommended Levey to other black bandleaders in New York City on the basis of merit rather than racial preference, he "asserted himself as an independent participant in the free market" (p. 61). Hayde notes that Gillespie and Miles Davis stood their ground in the face of critical comments by some black musicians for employing white sidemen such as Levey and Lee Konitz. (p. 62 and p. 118)

Levey's immersion in the musical ferment of bebop and disregard of America's rigid racial boundaries extended to his living arrangements, when, at various times, he shared apartments with Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. "It was like the gym in Philly," he says about one particularly harmonious apartment building filled with jazz musicians, "with me the only white face." (p. 69) There was, however, the occasional downside to Levey's prominent role in the early years of bebop. He contends that "for awhile there was a movement to get the white guys out of the music" for taking jobs that were perceived as rightfully belonging to blacks. "We called it Crow Jim." (p. 80)

Hayde writes about Levey's playing in Jazz At The Philharmonic tours in which promoter Norman Granz presented interracial groups of musicians (relatively rare in concert halls during the late 1940s), insisted on integrated accommodations, and sometimes lost money by "refusing to play for segregated audiences." (p. 82) The author also notes that the competition in the 1950s between West Coast jazz—perceived as white—and East Coast jazz—perceived as black—made for a powerful marketing tool, exploiting underlying racial prejudice and ignoring the fact that "jazz remained interracial on both coasts." (p. 123) After moving to the West Coast, Levey continued "to work closely with many of the best black artists in the business." (p. 123)

When he first met Charlie Parker, Levey was an impressionable seventeen year old, already making his mark on 52nd Street in the bands of Barney Bigard and Coleman Hawkins. (p. 55) His account of the night of their first encounter reads like a religious experience, the sudden conversion to a deeply flawed god from whom it was impossible to ignore or walk away from. Bedraggled and unkempt, Parker walked into a jam session at a prominent club, carrying a battered horn in a paper sack, and stared to play. To Levey, it was "like he's talking to my brain in words. In sentences! I'm hearing what he's saying to me, he's speaking to me. It makes musical sense—punctuation, exclamation marks! I can't believe it...I've been waiting all my life to play with this guy I've never heard until tonight..." (p. 56) A mere eight bars into a blues Parker looked back and grinned his approval to Levey. They were, from that moment, "musically bonded." It was "an out-of-body experience. I would have followed him anywhere. Over the cliff, whatever." (p. 56)

A few hours later one life changing experience was followed by another as Levey took a flying leap into heroin addiction when Parker shot him up for the first time. For years afterword Levey thrives on the strength of their musical bond, with Parker hiring him in the first of his New York City bands, and bringing him to play on countless jam sessions in which all comers are vanquished. The drummer readily handled the rapid tempos demanded by his idol, and learned valuable on the job lessons about phrasing and shaping time. (p. 69) The downside of playing night after night and hanging out with this particular musical genius was Parker's callous exploitation. Levey was often expected, among other things, to find money for Parker's fixes, proffer dope from his own supply, and provide protection on the occasions when pushers and other junkies got rough. (p. 58) Parker was, in Levey's words, "an unguided missile. Minute-to-minute, not even day-to-day. You couldn't nail him down. You took him as he was. You didn't try to change him." (p. 62)

In the early 1950s, after serving a nineteen-month prison sentence for selling heroin, Levey was the one who had changed. He returned to society determined to stay off of drugs and to make his way in the world as a responsible adult. Though he briefly played some engagements with Parker, Levey knew that being around his idol was contrary to the all-important goal of leading a straight life. Levey's wife Angela positioned herself between the two men, incurring Parker's wrath while making sure his pernicious extra-musical influence, as well as an existence in which nothing was more important than a jam session, was over for good. (p. 111-112)

Levey's journey from a self-taught jazz drummer, who couldn't read music and successfully faked his way through engagements with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, to a master percussionist able to handle the most demanding assignments in the Los Angeles studios, is perhaps the most interesting aspect of his story. Even in his salad days as a jazzman, Levey was very clear about the drummer's proper role in jazz in general and bebop combos in particular. "I wasn't interested in players whose pulse didn't flow. There had to be a sense of motion. I didn't want to plod through four beats of each bar just to get to the end of the tune. I wanted everything to swing." (p. 46) Hayde's remarks about Levey's style emphasize the drummer's commitment to optimizing his bandmates solo flights. "His innate rhythm gave rise to a natural sound that seemed effortless and free. He played fast tempos with a fluidity that allowed soloists to fly on steady currents of unwavering time, uncluttered by bombast or affectation, yet strong with the potent accents of modern jazz." (p. 45) These elements reflect ideas instilled by Dizzy Gillespie about modern jazz drumming as—in part—punctuation (p. 26) (recall Levey's grammar analogy in the remarks about his initial impression of Parker), and the influence of Max Roach in terms of always playing the drums as a musical instrument, and giving the music "a more well-rounded feeling." (p. 44-45)

Working with the likes of Gillespie and Parker, or with small groups organized by bassist Howard Rumsey at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA during the mid-1950s, allowed Levey a measure of freedom and self-expression, even while he took care of business in terms of the music as a whole. (The analogy between playing bebop and flying is made more than once.) Conversely, working in Stan Kenton's brass heavy behemoth of a big band, where Levey learned to read music in the early 1950s, demanded different—physical and mental—skills and resources. He hit hard to compete with ten brass instruments, frequently breaking cymbals while doing his best to keep everyone in line. In a description that includes an inadvertent comical side, Levey describes a job that sounds like a cross between a parent of difficult children, a herdsman of an unruly flock, and a drill sergeant. "With a big band...you've got to play the arrangement, and there's only so much you can do with that...you have to shepherd the herd. Move it around the way it should be moved. It's not easy. Takes a lot of concentration and a lot of devotion to the beat. You've got to keep all of the ends tucked in...If you don't do that, you're going to lose them. They'll just stop...You have to be Big Daddy. You've always trying to whip people into order, while doing your best to establish a good feeling and move the band forward." (p. 108-109)

After five years with the Lighthouse All-Stars and numerous jazz record dates, Levey started a photography business and began to make a transition into the world of popular music. In addition to drumming anonymously with some of the brightest stars in show business (the Supremes, Bobby Darin, and Pat Boone, to name a few), and going back on the road for long stretches with singers Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald, he began to study mallet instruments and timpani in order to work full-time in the studios. Levey's emergence as a complete, well-rounded musician, contributing to innumerable movie and TV sound tracks, making a good living to support his family, as well as earning the respect of his peers in an intensely competitive business, contained one major drawback: Unlike his years as a struggling, often poorly paid jazzman, he took little pleasure in the work. Playing good time, supporting others, and making them feel good in the improvised jazz arena had given Levey so much satisfaction. Now it was time to "just read it and record it." (p. 144) Running from instrument to instrument, always attached to a headset, ever mindful of a click track, proved to be stressful and soul-sucking. "There's no joy in doing studio work," Levey explains. "It's not music, it's sound effects. Just cues and bridges, bridges and cues...It'll put you in the nuthouse." (p. 148) In 1973, rather than continue to endure his dissatisfaction with studio work, and coming to the realization that he would soon be replaced by younger musicians and synthesizers, Levey simply quit playing, and devoted his creative energy to photography.

Readers of Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight are advised against skipping through the Recommended Listening and Epilogue sections that follow the main body of the text. In Recommended Listening, Hayde offers insightful analysis and stories connected to Levey's major jazz recordings as a leader and sideman, many of which are currently available on compact disc. The Epilogue comprises brief accounts and the fates of some of the major people and places in Levey's life, ranging from Harry Anslinger, the federal narcotics commissioner who despised jazz musicians and once busted Levey for a drug charge that didn't stick; to Billy Berg's, the club that introduced bebop to the West Coast by booking Dizzy Gillespie and a band that included Charlie Parker and Levey; to Shelly Manne, the great jazz drummer, studio musician and businessman who, like Levey, got his start on the East Coast and moved to (and thrived) in Los Angeles. These additions are a fitting conclusion to one of the finest jazz biographies in recent years.

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