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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

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)


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