Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lou Levy: A Most Musical Pianist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For all of his modesty – and it is real, not affected – Lou, in an instrumental setting, is a fleet, inventive and brilliant soloist.”
- Gene Lees

“Lou Levy is quite a musician. Long an established and a highly respected pianist among his fellow musicians, he has been woefully neglected by the public and even by jazz fans. In his approach to the piano, there is always a great sense of assurance, of playing on a larger scale; there is intensity, reflection, humor and showmanship.”
- Andre’ Previn

Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers.”
- Gene Lees

Like so many other teenagers growing up in the 1940s, Lou Levy was captivated by the language of Bebop.

Unlike many of those teenagers, however, Lou Levy developed the facility, skills and melodic inventiveness to play piano with the best of the Beboppers.

Lou’s Dad played piano by ear and, as a result of his father’s encouragement, he began studying piano at the age of ten in his hometown of Chicago, IL.  Lou’s early idols were Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

In 1945, at the age of seventeen, Lou took his first professional gig with Georgie Auld’s band. Thereafter he performed with artists like Sarah Vaughan, Chubby Jackson and Flip Phillips and bands like the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra and Woody Herman's Second Herd, the bop band that featured saxophonists Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Al Cohn.

He joined Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1950. Tommy fired him after telling him: “Kid, you play good. But not for my band.”

In recounting this story to Gene Lees, Lou went on to say: “And he was right, I didn’t like it and he didn’t like it.”

Lou never got fired again.

In the early 1950's Lou dropped out of jazz for two years to live in Minneapolis and work in the medical-journal publishing business.

However, it has never been possible to keep a natural and accomplished a musician as Lou away from his chosen instrument for too long a time, and in 1954 he capitulated to numerous requests to return to music and opened at Frank Holzfeind's Blue Note in Chicago, playing solo intermission piano.

Woody's band was booked into the club, and suddenly the sidemen were paying Lou one of the great musi­cians' compliments: they were using their intermissions to sit around the stand, listening closely and passing the word around that Lou was back and in great form. On the last Sunday of their engagement, Al Porcino, the wonderful trumpet player, lugged in his tape recorder and took down some fifteen or twenty of Lou's solo efforts.

These tapes soon achieved almost a legendary status. Musicians all over the country heard them, some had them copied, others remembered them in detail, and "Hey, did you hear those Blue Note Lou Levy tapes?" became the opening gambit of many a jazz discussion.

In 1955, Lou moved out to Los Angeles and began gigging around: with Conte Candoli, Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers, on record dates and one-nighters.

He also began an 18-year association (including some breaks to take other jobs) with the singer Peggy Lee. From then on he became known as a particularly sympathetic accompanist for singers. Like Lester Young, one of his idols, he believed that a musician should know the lyrics of a song he was interpreting and said that a bandleader -- even if not a singer -- should be considered a voice.

As Gene Lees has observed: “Lou Levy is two things that seem incom­patible: the archetype of the bebop pianist and the most sympathetic possible accom­panist for singers, including three of the best: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee. Peggy calls him ‘my good gray fox,' both for the color of his hair and the clever yet sympathetic nature of his accompaniment.”

After settling in California, Lou became a staple of the studios.   

And he worked with a number of other singers: June Christy, Anita O'Day, Lena Home, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra.

He played with the big bands of Terry Gibbs and Benny Goodman, and with Med Flory’s group, Supersax, which specialized in the solos of Charlie Parker orchestrated for five saxophones.

When Gene Lees asked him about those jazz pianists who are reluctant to accompany singers, Lou simply said, "They're crazy.”

Gene observed: “Lou has a love for the words of songs. It is manifest in the way he plays. He has had a long personal rela­tionship with Pinky Winters, a subtle and sensitive singer little heard outside Cali­fornia.”

Over the years, Lou had a very close and long working relationship with composer, arranger and trumpeter, Shorty Rogers. Along with Pete Jolly, Lou was Shorty’s pianist-of-choice for his own quintet as was drummer Larry Bunker.

In the 1950s, Shorty was hired by RCA to become the head of its Jazz artists & repertoire department and, not surprisingly, Shorty signed Lou to a recording contract with the label.

Thank goodness that Shorty stepped up with the RCA offer as the limited discography of recordings under Lou’s own name would have been significantly smaller.

In addition to a solo piano recording and a trio LP, Lou put together a quartet album for RCA with Stan Levey on drums, whom Lou had worked with dating back to their days together with the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra in 1947, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, everyone’s favorite bassist on the West Coast Jazz scene in the 1950s and Larry Bunker, who in addition to being an excellent drummer, was also an outstanding vibraphonist.

Lou’s quartet album for RCA was entitled Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [reissued on CD as Fresh Sound ND-74401].

Here’s what Shorty had to say about the evolution of the album:

“In planning this album, Lou and I spent much time try­ing to figure out a "different" instrumentation. This was no small problem in face of the fact that so many albums are being made today. While trying to figure out an instrumentation, Lou went to work on a job that enabled him to renew one of his favorite musical acquaint­ances: Larry Bunker on vibes. Lou and Larry enjoyed playing together and made a wonderful nucleus for a quartet. This also presented the possibility of forming a group that could record and appear in public.

This album could be called "the birth of the Lou Levy Quartet," and I must say that it was a privilege and a great thrill to be a witness to the birth of this swingin', tasty, musical baby.”

The following video tribute has as its audio track Miles Davis' Tune Up as performed by Lou Levy on piano, Larry Bunker on vibes, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Stan Levey on drums. It is the lead track on Jazz in Four Colors: The Lou Levy Quartet [Fresh Sound CD; ND-74401].