© -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
“I wish I’d had a really good teacher. There weren't too many around in those days. … There wasn't anyone who really could show me what it was all about.”
- Stan Levey
“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 !
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 Beach, CA 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."
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 something of a chip on his shoulder about being self-taught.
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.
The following statement by Vernell Fournier speaks volume to the role that Max played in the development of modern Jazz drumming:
“What young drummers had been studying in challenging drum instruction book by Edward B. Straight and George Lawrence Stone began to make sense after we heard Max Roach. The great teachers laid out the raw materials. But we didn't know how to apply them — until we heard Max. When we got into his coordination, the way he used cymbals, the snare and bass drum, the answers to the puzzle began to fall into place.”
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 particular 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, and 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 everlasting 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].”
Here are a few more testimonials for those in the Jazz World who had the utmost respect for his musical ability and his professionalism:
Howard Rumsey, Leader of the Lighthouse All-Stars:” Stan Levey is living proof that if you want to do something, you can. I remember I needed a drummer in 1954 at the Lighthouse — the jazz club in Hermosa Beach, California — capable of replacing Max Roach. Stan had done a great job with Kenton and was ready to get off the road after two years. Max called him, and he accepted my offer.
Stan never came late — never was a disappointment in any way, He had the highest standards of performance of any drummer I've encountered. A lot of people in music who came to the club became familiar with him and his playing and were impressed. Many musicians and record people employed him.”
Burt Korall, author of Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years: "Levey was a central figure in the evolution of his instrument — an activist in a musical revolution that changed and enriched American music. A prime mover in many ways, the Philadelphian took his cue from visionaries of the drums — Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Shadow Wilson — and from such older key figures as Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, and Sid Catlett.
It was quite clear to Levey that the old ways were no longer feasible. By moving more and more deeply into the new music, by playing and associating with Gillespie and Parker, and particularly by listening to Max Roach, he came to realize what had to be done.
The music called for a more responsive, fleet manner of playing. Drumming based on a military approach to the instrument, emphasizing rudiments performed in a highly symmetrical manner, was not reasonable any longer. Time stated in an extremely straightforward, unbroken manner on the hi-hat, on the snare drum, and essentially on the bass drum suddenly seemed cumbersome and inappropriate. The music's design more than implied that breaking time also would work well and be helpful.
Levey worked hard and learned. His playing became increasingly live and relevant. He felt good to listeners and to his colleagues. He served the beat, and it served him.
His solos, like his ensemble playing, were relatively uncomplicated yet effective. Where Max Roach caught hold of you with his imaginative use of the instrument, Levey was more basic, offering pulsation, an undercurrent of rhythm and sound, notable for its undeniably positive feel. He made it possible for the players to be comfortable and to reach out and experiment. 52nd Street in Manhattan was the laboratory where the new music was emerging.”
Drummer Phil Brown; “Stan Levey was one of the originators — the first white drummer who could really play modern jazz. He had that fluid, relaxed, new kind of time. I loved his time, maybe even more than Max Roach's. A pivotal figure, he just sat down and played, and pleased the musicians. He didn't overplay. He influenced drummers all over the country. When I moved from New York to the West Coast in 1948, the young drummers out there were talking about Max and Stan. They were the guys who played and recorded with Diz and Bird.
Stan grasped the style. He learned quickly. When the music was being formulated in '44 and '45, there were very few white guys who really got into bop. In the beginning, it was terribly hard to learn what to do and how to do it.
An "in group" emerged. Al Haig was the white counterpart of the most influential modern pianist, Bud Powell. Stan and Max were interchangeable. Trumpeter Red Rodney was another young player who had the technical acumen and instinct for the new music. And they all worked with Diz and/or Bird.
Stan Levey was at the right place at the right time and knew how to use his talent.”
Drummer Irv Kluger: “Stan sounded sensational when I first heard him in the 1940s. The rhythm players at that time didn't know what to do with bebop. It was so verbalized and rapid. The music demanded technique and endurance. You had to be able to go on for twenty-five to thirty minutes, playing at those lightning tempos.
It wasn't the only adjustment that had to be made to the new music. But it certainly was a major one. The demands of bop drove a lot of people right out of the business because they felt they could never play it. Stan had no difficulty. He also played piano; I first heard him in a little jazz joint in Philly. He knew about form, the structure of songs, and was into harmony. All this certainly had a positive effect on his drumming.”
Trumpeter Red Rodney: “Like me, Stan was a hometown Philly guy. I looked up to him. He was an exceptional player — thrilling to he in front of on the bandstand. He always was very friendly with me — ready to help with something. And he wouldn’t hesitate to give me advise whether I asked for it or not.
He was the first one to explain the new music to me. I remember when Dizzy played "Lover Man," I was waiting for the pretty, Harry James-type tones. When I didn't hear them, I was a little disappointed. Stan promptly pointed out to me: ‘You have to listen harmonically. Don't listen for the vibrato.’ He was a good musician even back then when we both were babies.”
Vinnie Dean, alto sax: “When Stan first came on the Kenton band, he had to get used to the whole thing. He was really a small combo drummer. After a short while, he showed what he could do. He became very important to the music. A lot of drummers are all ego. They seem to say; "Look, man, here it is. You follow me!" Stan got right in there with everybody and brought something fresh to the music.
At first, he had some difficulty reading the charts. Some of them were hard to get through. But Kenton went along with that. He allowed Stan to develop, and he got better and better. But jam sessions were his thing. I remember going to many of them with him, after hours. Stan was very much in his element — free, loose, swinging.”
Bill Holman, tenor sax, composer-arranger: “It was a real eye-opener playing with Stan on the Kenton band. He was the first really great drummer I had ever worked with. For a while. he made it purely on his basic ability. Then he really got into it, and the result often was awe-inspiring. Such swing! He didn't get much help from us; the band was notorious for its bad time. But he moved right through it. He was incredibly strong on and off the stand.
When he makes up his mind about something — that's it. I remember one time we had to play for a couple of acts at a show someplace. The musical director came over to him and tried to hand him a whistle. He wanted him to blow it at a certain time during the show. Stan said: ‘Oh, no, I don't do that sort of thing!’ And that was that.”
In addition to timekeeping, another aspect of Jazz drumming that 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].
You can also hear Stan’s lighting swift left hand on the even faster version of Bebop that forms the audio track to the following video tribute to Stan with Victor Feldman on vibes and Scott LaFaro on bass which is taken from the November 10, 1958 broadcast of The Stars of Jazz television show.
There's also here a version of Bebop on The Arrival of Victor Feldman This recording, vintage 1958, is expressive and uncompromising. The set proves how much can be accomplished if peers work together. There's a lot of love and respect implicit in the playing. It's like three members of a close family exchanging views on light and heavy matters. Levey is essentially quiet, bringing underlying strength and swing and subtlety to the music.