Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stan Levey: Straight-Ahead and Always Swinging [From The Archives]

I initially learned to play Jazz drums by sitting just below where this picture was taken at The Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California and observing Stan Levey do it for almost two years.

Driving down to the club through the fog on Pacific Coast Highway, I couldn't wait to get there and here the thrill and excitement of Stan's drumming with bassist Howard Rumsey's [also pictured] Lighthouse All-Stars.

And I can't imagine having a Drummers Rule Week on JazzProfiles without a reprise of this early piece on Stan.

He was my hero.

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

“En fait, Stan a été influence par le jeu de Kenny Clarke sur la cymbal ride en accompagnement et par Max Roach pour les solos.”
Georges Paczynski, Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, Vol. 2

“The art of jazz drumming has come a long way since the days of the bass drum player in the marching bands of ole New Orleans. Today we have come to expect a drummer to be an excellent technician, a well rounded percussionist, capable of improvising as well as any solo instrumentalist in any musical aggregation. It would take a very thick book to discuss the requirements of being a jazz drummer, and even then, it would be necessary to interpret the printed word through skins, sticks, cymbals, and mechanical contrivances in order to express yourself and your feeling for the music.

No doubt about it, drums and drummers are popular subjects; whether you're an avid jazz enthusiast or a bandleader, it is always interesting to hear and compare notes on the way different drummers play.”
-Howard Rumsey, Bassist and Jazz Club Operator

“You could set your watch to his time. It was one less thing for me to think about when I was playing.”
- Victor Feldman, Jazz pianist, vibraphonist and drummer

“Mechanical, my foot. You try playing his stuff and see how ‘mechanical’ it is.”

The late drummer, Stan Levey, is the fellow using the strong language [“foot” is substituted here for another part of the anatomy which was actually used by Stan in the quoted remark].

The context for Stan’s reply was his response to a statement that another drummer made about the playing of Max Roach to wit: “Oh, I don’t listen to Max much. He’s too mechanical.”

There is a reason why in his two volume Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, which won the 2000 Prix Charles Delauney, author Georges Paczynski follows his chapter on Max Roach with one on Stan Levey.

Stan adored Max.

Indeed, Paczynski subtitles his chapter on Stan :”Stan Levey le virtuose: à l'école de Max Roach.”

Stan was a gruff, no nonsense guy who, at one time, was a prize fighter. He left school at fourteen to make his way in the world, taught himself how to play drums, and did this well enough to be playing with Dizzy Gillespie in his hometown of Philadelphia at the age of sixteen.

Four years later, in 1945, he was working with Diz and Charlie Parker on 52nd Street along with Al Haig on piano and Ray Brown on bass.

Not a bad way to begin a career as a Jazz drummer before even reaching the age of twenty-one [21]!

The early 1940s was also about the time that Max Roach was coming up in the world of bebop and he and Stan were to become lifelong friends. As Howard Rumsey, Jazz bassist, who also was in charge of the music at the Lighthouse Café for many years, explains in his insert notes to Max and Stan’s Drummin’ The Blues:

“Ever since they first met on New York's famous 52nd Street in 1942, Max Roach and Stan Levey have felt intuitively that each was the other's personal preference. Their professional careers are closely paralleled, starting with almost four years on the "Street" with "Diz" and "Bird". In fact, Max was with Diz at the Onyx and Stan was across the street at the Spotlight with Bird when the modern period of jazz was officially born. Since then they have exchanged jobs many times with many great bands.”

Max would eventually recommend that Stan take his place with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars at the famous 30 Pier Avenue Club in Hermosa BeachCA and Stan stayed at the club from about 1955 to 1960.

Stan described his early years in the business this way to Gordon Jack in Fifties Jazz Talk, An Oral Perspective:

“I was completely self-taught because we couldn't afford a teacher, and that's why I play left-handed although I am right-handed; it just felt easier that way. I didn't learn to read really well until I joined Kenton's band in 1952, once again teaching myself. By the time I was doing studio work in the sixties and playing all the mallet instruments, I had become an accom­plished reader. My first big influence was Chick Webb, who I saw with Ella when my father took me to the Earle Theater when I was about ten years old.” [p. 129]

And, about his first impressions of Max Roach’s drumming, Stan had this to say:

"The ferocity of the playing was new to me. I had never heard time split up like that. Max's playing had music within it. . . he changed the course of drumming." [p. 130]

I got to know Stan quite well during the last three years of his stint at The Lighthouse and I came to understand that he always had a chip on his shoulder about being self-taught. 

Young drummers bugged him; they were always asking him technical questions about the instrument.

And because he couldn’t explain his answers in terminology or “drum speak,” he usually mumbled something and walked toward the back of the club.

What were you going to do, chase after him? The man was huge. He blocked out the sun.

Stan was never menacing or unkind in any way, he was just self-conscious about the fact that he didn’t have a studied background in the instrument.

Even though he was self-taught, Stan took the most difficult path to becoming a Jazz drummer.

By this I mean that he played everything open; he didn’t cheat or fudge. He didn’t press; didn’t finesse; didn’t adopt shortcuts.

Ironically, for someone who had never formally studied drums, he played them in a more “legit” way than most of the other Jazz drummers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s – many of whom were also self-taught.

To comprehend an open or “legit” sound, think of the crackling snare drums that almost sound like gunshots while listening to a Scottish Black Watch fife, bagpipe and drum corps or, most other drum and bugle corps.

Every drum stroke is sounded; nothing is muffled; nothing is pressed into the drums. Everything is struck. Art Blakey’s famous snare drum press roll would be unacceptable in such an environment.

To play in this manner, one’s hands need to be strong and they need to be fast.

Enter Stan Levey.

Enter Max Roach.

Although they came to their respective styles from different directions – Max had taken lessons - both approached drums the same way. Each relied on open strokes.

In Max’s case, because he had a sound grasp of the basic, drum rudiments and learned to cleverly combine them in a syncopated manner that particularly fit the Bebop style of Jazz, his playing could be described as a “mechanical” in the sense of structured or fundamental.

This is especially the case when Max’s solo style is compared to that of other bebop and hard bop drummers such as Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

But Stan didn’t hear the loser and freer drumming of Blakey and Philly Joe when he was putting things together, he heard Max [and also Kenny Clarke, Sid Catlett, & Chick Webb].

And even though he didn’t know the technical names for them, he learned to play solos in a manner similar to Max’s “mechanical” or rudimental style.

I knew Stan to be a fiercely loyal person and a very competitive one.

When your hero and your friend is being “put down” or “disrespected,” isn’t it all the more reason to be defensive and perhaps curt with those implying such disapproval?

Stan knew that what Max was playing wasn’t easy to do. But to his ever-lasting credit, he broke it down and incorporated many elements of Roach’s approach into his own. And, he did it all by ear!

Stan didn’t like to solo. He loved to keep time. He referred to it as: “Doing my job back there.”

And “keep time” he did, with the best of them.

Louie Bellson once said: “Stan’s time is alive. It has a pulse that you can always feel.”

Ray Brown declared him to be – “A rock, and a magnificent one, at that.”

Ella Fitzgerald said: “He never strays and never gets in the way.”

Peggy Lee “loved the intensity [of his time-keeping].”

The other thing that Stan loved to do was keep time FAST!

Few could rival him, and this from a naturally right-handed guy who was playing an open, three stroke cymbal beat with his left hand!!

Some of the best recorded examples of Stan’s time-keeping speed can be found on the Bebop, Wee [Allen’s Alley] and Lover Come Back to Me tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s For Musicians Only album [Verve 837-435-2].

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