[JPL] John Levy - An Original Jazz Master

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sat Apr 22 10:04:34 EDT 2006


John Levy - An Original Jazz Master
By Ivy Dai, Staff Writer
U-Entertainment

Jazz master John Levy just turned 94, but he's down with the times. Sitting 
in his Altadena home on a recent morning, he wore a plaid shirt, corduroys 
and brown sandals. He had his bling on, too: large gold rings, and a gold 
medallion of the Aries ram, his zodiac sign.

"Some female gave it to me," he said of the necklace. "I wear it whenever 
I'm going out."

Though Levy puts on his jewelry almost every day, he can't remember exactly 
who gave him the medallion. He has nearly a century of exciting times to 
recount, so sometimes the little details slip away, he said.

Levy is one of the unsung heros of jazz. A musician himself, he has managed 
the careers of more than 85 top singers, jazz artists and entertainers, 
including comedian Arsenio Hall. His work helped define how the American 
public thinks of jazz.

Levy's clients have included jazz vocalists Nancy Wilson, Roberta Flack, 
Joe Williams, Shirley Horn, Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughan, Wes 
Montgomery, and the George Shearing Quintet.

The National Endowment of the Arts recently awarded Levy the A.B. Spellman 
award for Jazz Advocacy, which came with a $25,000 prize and the title Jazz 
Master of 2006. He was also inducted into the International Jazz Hall of 
Hame in 1997.

Previous honorees include jazz festivals organizer George Wein and music 
journalist Nat Hentoff.

"I have arrived," Levy said, chuckling. He is the oldest living recipient 
of the Jazz Master award.

Levy was born on April 11, 1912, in New Orleans. His family moved to 
Chicago, where he grew up. He began his journey in music as a bass player, 
and played on stage with Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall in 1948. He has 
played all over the world, and was a member of the multi-racial George 
Shearing Quintet.

That was back in the 1950s. African-American musicians on tour were not 
allowed to stay in the same hotels with their white bandmates.

Though Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie became the first black artists to 
win Grammy awards in 1959, black musicians were not allowed to stay at the 
same hotels as their white bandmates.

When traveling to Salt Lake City in 1949, the band arrived at a hotel where 
they had made reservations. When Levy, his black bandmate and a little dog 
came in, the clerk immediately said, "No ni**ers or dogs in this hotel."

The band found another hotel for the night. While traveling,They often 
slept in rooming houses or at people's homes to avoid the trouble of hotels.

Shearing, a blind white British pianist, discovered that his band members 
couldn't even dine together in restaurants, so he bought take-out food and 
everyone ate in the car. In Las Vegas, even fast-food restaurants refused 
to serve African-Americans, Levy said, so he had to place his order at the 
service entrance in the back.

After several years with Shearing, Levy became the group's manager, and was 
the first African-American manager in the jazz world. He opened John Levy 
Enterprises Inc. in 1954.

Despite the racism and hostility in the music industry, Levy managed to 
expand his clientele. Within four years, he was managing the top three jazz 
acts in the country: Shearing, Ahmad Jamal and Dakota Stanton.

In his book, "Men, Women and Girl Singers," he wrote that he always dreamed 
of sitting behind the "big desk.

"I didn't consider myself to be that great of a bass player," Levy wrote. 
"I didn't want to be playing in some little joint for the rest of my life. 
I knew where the money is, and it's in the business end."

Arsenio Hall called Levy a soft-spoken genius, andin a note for the book, 
Hall said Levy taught him that he didn't have to be a heartless animal to 
get ahead.

Levy made a personal investment in his clients, and said he always put 
their interests first. He never signed contracts with artists in the early 
days.

"It is increasingly difficult to do business based on a handshake today, 
but my word is still stronger than any piece of paper," Levy said. "Joe 
Williams and I shook hands in the early 1960s, and that was it until the 
day he died in 1999."

Levy was influential during the jazz era, and wasgood friends with music 
legends Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones.

Jones is a whole generation younger than Levy, but the two men bonded 
because of their love for music and interest in the business side. Jones 
wrote the foreword to Levy's book.

Levy admired Jones for his business sense, but admits their philosophies 
are different.

"He had that certain knack and personality," Levy said. "But Quincy was a 
workaholic, and he was chasing the money."

Though managing artists was lucrative, Levy said he got into the business 
side of music for the personal rewards.

"I like to work with people, and you're one-on-one with another human 
being, and helping their career," Levy said.

"It's the idea of trying to bring that person into the industry."

Levy made a personal investment in his clients, and said he always put 
their interests first. He never signed contracts with artists in the early 
days.

"It is increasingly difficult to do business based on a handshake today, 
but my word is still stronger than any piece of paper," Levy said. "Joe 
Williams and I shook hands in the early 1960s, and that was it until the 
day he died in 1999."

Not having contracts sometimes backfired on him, though. He would make a 
deal for a client, and the client would offer to cut the pay and take money 
under the table. That would mean no commission for Levy.

Managing stars was not easy. Levy managed singer Roberta Flack for a year, 
but ended the relationship because, he said, she was a know-it-all diva 
after she had two giant hits in the early 1970s: "First time I Ever Saw 
Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly." In an interview with Time magazine, 
Levy wrote, Flack took all the credit for her success.

"She was consistently and deliberately late, wasting time in the studio, 
and going over budget," Levy wrote.

Female artists in general proved especially difficult because they had 
family obligations, Levy said. He called his book "Men, Women and Girl 
Singers" because girl singers proved to be a challenging category all on 
their own, he said.

"A woman's a wife, and she's a mother, and she brings a personal element 
into what's important in life," he said. "Shirley Horn started late, then 
had a daughter, and didn't work on her career. For Nancy Wilson, family 
came first, then her career. The average man didn't have to deal with 
(those issues.)"

Though women are sometimes better artists because they can express their 
emotions, they bring a lot of different aspects of life to the table, Levy 
said.

Some women though they had to sleep their way to the top. After Levy 
divorced from his second wife, his new client Randy Crawford had just 
relocated to Los Angeles from Cincinnati. Levy offered Crawford a place to 
stay, but Crawford misunderstand his offer, and Levy had to reject her 
advances.

"Perhaps some managers sleep with their artists, but I'm not one of them," 
Levy said.

When he wasn't dealing with difficult artistsLevy had his own share of 
problems at home. As a manager, he was on the road most of the time, and 
stayed at his Brooklyn home only three or four months a year. He has been 
divorced three times.

There's no doubt the music business affected his personal life. However, 
despite failed marriages, life on the road and getting burned from time to 
time, Levy says he couldn't stay away from the music.

"Jazz is a part of my culture, and the biggest thing going at the time," 
Levy said. "It's as important as hip-hop is today."

Levy's fourth wife, Devra Hall, helped him write his book. She is 55 years 
his junior. He has five children with his first two wives.

In his free time, Levy and his wife go to the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, 
Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood or The Vic in Santa Monica. They like to 
listen to Hank Jones, Ron Carter, Ahmad Jamal and Jim Hail.

While he just celebrated his 94th birthday, he acts like a man 30 years 
younger.

He is easygoing, with a sharp wit. Talk with him long enough, though, and 
he can get intense.

He has no secrets for a long life. He used to smoke, but doesn't anymore, 
and he has a drink every so often. He can walk for several hours at a time, 
and still drives. He doesn't have any aches or pains from old age. The only 
thing he's been losing over the years is his hearing: it's hard for him to 
hear conversation when he's in a social setting, he said.

Levy is still working. He still manages Clairdee, Henry Johnson and Nancy 
Wilson. His latest endeavor is the Vocal Legacy album, which is intended to 
introduce the current generation to jazz.

Levy has also partnered with CrossHart, a jazz duo with Ryan Cross and 
Lorca Hart, son of drummer Billy Hart. Though Cross is much younger, Levy 
connected with him because they share similar management philosophies. 
Cross taught Levy about new marketing strategies, like the hugely popular 
internet community, Myspace.com.

Levy says he has no immediate plans to stop working.

"I'll retire when I can't function anymore," Levy said. "I'm invested in 
people and I still a,do."

Levy sat with his wife and publicist while chatting in his office. The 
walls of the mahogany-lined room told their own stories. There is a plaque 
of Roberta Flack when her album went gold, several photos of Nancy Wilson, 
an autographed picture of Arsenio Hall with the inscription "Look what you 
started," as well as commendations from the City of Los Angeles.

Levy has Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan and Errol Garner in 
his CD collection.

Levy's old bass sits in the corner of his office, collecting dust.

In his free time, Levy and his wife go to the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, 
Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood or The Vic in Santa Monica. They like to 
listen to Hank Jones, Ron Carter, Ahmad Jamal and Jim Hail.

Yet, Levy's wife is 55 years his junior. The one sad thing is that Levy has 
outlived all his colleagues, and he is the last remaining member of the 
golden jazz era.

"It's a drag," he said. "You don't have anyone to communicate with."

He isn't sure why he's still around when everyone else has gone. He figures 
he must have more work to do.

"We're put here on earth for a certain purpose - to help one another," Levy 
said. "That's what life is all about. If it's just about making money, then 
it's just a waste."

ivy.dai at sgvn.com

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2507

-- "Men, Women and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Manager"

By John Levy with Devra Hall; foreword by Quincy Jones

Beckham, $15


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