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Gordon Jack is a frequent contributor to the Jazz Journal and a very generous friend to these pages in his allowance of JazzProfiles re-publishings of his excellent writings. Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk An Oral Retrospective and he developed the Gerry Mulligan discography in Raymond Horricks’ book Gerry Mulligan’s Ark.
The following article was first published in Jazz Journal September 1999.
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Stan Levey was one of the first drummers to apply the new rhythms introduced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the early forties. At the same time, though, he was fighting professionally as a heavyweight boxer, once on the same bill as the great Joe Louis. Burt Korall accurately described him as a "Bop Pioneer," but in 1973 he stopped playing to become a highly successful commercial photographer. This interview took place in 1998, when he replied on cassette tape to my written list of questions.
“I was born in Philadelphia, and my actual birth date is April 5, 1926. The mistake in the jazz reference books, which quote 1925, occurred many years ago, but I never bothered to correct it. 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, I who I saw with Ella when my father took me to the Earle
Theater when I was about ten years old.
School didn't have anything for me, so by the time I was fourteen I was on the street. A little later, in 1943, I started playing piano in the Downbeat club, which was close to the Earle Theater, although looking back it seems more like 1843! Anyway, I played by ear because I knew all the tunes, and guys like Coltrane. Jimmy Heath, Mulligan, and Ziggy Vines used to play there, too. Ziggy and I grew up together, and he was a great tenor player, but he was insane — mentally deficient for real. They had to put him away several times, but it didn't affect his talent because he could really play. I knew Gerry [Mulligan] pretty well, but in those days he was a cocky little kid with a bad attitude. Around this time I was playing drums with Dizzy Gillespie. I was one of his first drummers, and he taught me a lot, because he was a carload of information which he was happy to share. As you know, he could play a little drums, and if you didn't understand something, he would sit down and demonstrate. He was a great guy, and "it" for me, and race was never a problem, because Dizzy was musically color-blind. Black musicians would sometimes ask him why he had a white drummer, and he would just tell them that if they could find a black drummer as good to let him know.
Another one of my early jobs was with Oscar Pettiford at the Tick Tock club in Boston, and he was a sweetheart — the best — as long as you could do the work, and if you couldn't, you would not be in the band. He liked to drink, and being a Native American he could get pretty rough, but with me he was always great, just a beautiful guy.
By 1944 Levey had made the move to New York, and he told Bun Korall about the first time he heard Max Roach with Gillespie at the Onyx dub on 52nd Street: "The ferocity of the playing was new to me. I had never heard time split up like that. Max's playing had music within if... he changed the course of drumming." During World War II, Stan worked a lot in the clubs along 52nd Street, often opposite his friend Max Roach, but as he told writer John Tynan, "At the time, the street was a sideshow for most people. Not many dug what we were trying to do and most of them came by the Deuces, the Onyx, or the Spotlite because they heard there was some weird music being played. It was like a freak show I guess, and the musicians were the freaks."
I worked with Allen Eager at the Three Deuces, and he was another guy with an attitude — really sold on himself. He was a pretty good swing player, rather like a hard-edged Lester Young, though not as laid back, and of course he stole from Prez, but they all stole from Prez; everybody steals from somebody. I also worked with Charlie Parker on his first date as a leader at the Spotlite club, with Hank Jones or sometimes Joe Albany on piano. We played there on Mondays as a trio, because we couldn't afford a bass player, and Joe of course was an incomplete player and he was the first to admit it. He loved the music but he couldn't play it the way he wanted to. Around that time, Charlie and I were hired by Ben Webster because Ben wanted to upgrade his sound, but after about three nights he said, "You two — get out of here." Ben was a great guy and a wonderful player, and much later we became friends, but we were not playing his type of music.
In 1945 I made the trip to Billy Berg's in Hollywood with Dizzy and Bird. Dizzy decided to add Lucky Thompson to the group because Bird could be unreliable, so Lucky was hired as an "off the bench hitter." He was there to fill in if Bird was late or didn't show, which happened a lot. Nineteen forty-five was also the year I played with Woody Herman's First Herd, probably the greatest band he ever had. I took Davey Tough's place, and the band was so fantastic, it didn't really need a drummer. I was with him for about six months, and he had the Candoli brothers. Flip Phillips, and Bill Harris. It was just unbelievable. I wasn't too good with big bands in those days, and eventually Don Lamond took over.
A little earlier, before I left Philly, I had been with Benny Goodman on the road for a couple of months. I must have been about sixteen or maybe seventeen, so I was a little green for the band, and anyway, Benny was weird; he never looked at me or talked to me while I was with him, and when he got rid of me, his brother Irving came over and said, "Benny says you should go home," and that was it. Another big band I worked with in the forties was Charlie Ventura's at the Spotlite club. Charlie was straight down the middle and a nice guy, but over the years he got taken for a ride and ended up broke. I wasn't too crazy about his approach, but he played his horn pretty well. He just wanted to blow, so you didn't really connect with him, because he wasn't a talker, just a lot of "Yeah, man, that's great"; one of those sort of guys.
In those early years around 1943 and 1944, I was boxing professionally as a heavyweight to earn a few extra dollars. I fought at Madison Square Garden, and I was one of the preliminary bouts at the Polo Grounds in the Bronx when Joe Louis was the headliner. I carried on fighting until 1949, and I boxed a lot of very good fighters who beat the crap out of me! The story Ira Gitler mentions in his book [Jazz Masters of the 40s] about Max Roach, Art Mardigan, and me sharing an apartment near 52nd Street in 1946 is something I don't remember, unless my memory has gone, which it might have done. Art was a very private person and a middle of the road player who had some good points but didn't do anything outstanding. He didn't have a lot of drive, but he was a swinger and a nice guy. I liked him very much, and we got along fine. I also played with George Shearing when he first came to the States and had just got off the boat, but this wasn't the Shearing you know from his famous quintet. He was a very rigid player in those days, and his time was very up and down, rushing like crazy; he was just not terrific. Of course later on, George developed into more of an act, and he played some damn good music. I worked with Dizzy at the Spotlite when he had Leo Parker on baritone, who was a very good player. He got all over the horn and had all of Bird's licks down, but he died much too young. In 1947 I worked at a Long Island restaurant called the Happy Monster with Lennie Tristano and Chubby Jackson. Tristano was another very private guy whose style was a little brutal, but it was different harmonically and advanced for the time. He was interesting to listen to, and I enjoyed playing with him.
By 1951 I had decided to return to Philadelphia. Apparently [vocalist] David Allyn once said that he and I worked with Art Mooney's band around this time, but I was never in Art Mooney's band unless I was drunk; they're not going to pin that on me, man! Anyway, I formed a little quartet in Philly with Richie Kamuca. Red Garland, and Nelson Boyd, and it was a great little group. All the singers that came to town, like Ella and Sarah Vaughan, would ask for us to accompany them, and it was a lot of fun.
In 1952 Stan Kenton was playing in Philadelphia, and this is when he asked me to join the band, thanks to recommendations from Conte Candoli and Buddy Childers. I took Frank Capp's place, who was an excellent drummer, but in those days he was not strong enough to handle the band. Gerry Mulligan, who was a wonderful arranger, was writing for the band, although I think he felt we were too loud most of the time. Personality-wise, he had mellowed a little since I had first known him when we were kids, and he had become a premier baritone player, having really brought that instrument to the forefront. I loved the group he had with Chet at the Haig, because they created a new sound, and when that happens you have really achieved something. Those guys were great. Bob Graettinger was another one of the writers, and we roomed together for a while. His charts were really out there and not my cup of tea. But what did I know; I was only the drummer! I was on "City of Glass," and he knew what he was writing but I didn't. With the soloists, Stan would allow the guys to play to the limit of their ability but no further, and if someone got too far out and it was getting a little nuts, he would put the brakes on. When I was with him, the rhythm section was not the greatest, because a couple of players, whose names I won't mention, had an agenda of their own. In other words, they were not good team players, which made it difficult, because it put most of the work on my back. It was a hard job, but we got it done. Kenton was about forty when I was in the band, and we were all in our mid twenties, so he was something of a father-figure. He was a great guy, and we all miss him.
In 1954 Max Roach wanted to get out of his contract at the Lighthouse, and he called me to see if I would take over. I was ready to leave Kenton, so I joined Howard Rumsey and the All-Stars and stayed for the next five years. Howard was very innovative as far as putting groups together, and he was a good, honest guy, but I was at the Lighthouse too long. It started to get to me, because you can't do the same thing over and over. How long can you stay in one place? While I was there, I did some recordings with Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz, and there is nobody better than Oscar in his style; he is just wonderful. Stan, of course, could stand up with the best of them, like Parker and Gillespie. and it was a big loss when he died. He could be tough, especially with money, where he would screw you pretty good, but he didn't try it with me, so we didn't have any trouble at all. We got along just fine, and I did some of my best work with him. like the album For Musicians Only. The date also featured Sonny Stitt and Dizzy, and although there was no real leader, Gillespie chose the material, and it was his idea to play most of the tunes at such a breakneck tempo. It was a bebop album, and there was some competitiveness between the three of them, because they were the front-runners of that music. Having said that, there were no real egos, and Stan and Sonny got on well together, but it was strictly work; no fooling around. I think Stan stole the whole thing, because he was the most creative player on the album, out-blowing everybody, and his solo on "Wee" was just fantastic. Sonny Stitt, for me, was just a clone of Charlie Parker, droning out chorus after chorus of licks and then more licks. He just would not stop playing, and he rushed like crazy. Parker once said that if you played more than four choruses, you were only practicing, but it took Sonny four choruses just to get going! I liked him better on tenor, believe it or not.
I recorded a lot in the fifties with Shorty Rogers, who was an innovator in the West Coast sound, whatever that is. He was a great little guy who never gave anybody any trouble in his life. One of the best trumpeters of all time is Conte Candoli, who is still underrated. He is a terrific player, and I would like to see more things happen for him. Another one who falls into that category is Jack Sheldon, who has become more well known for his comedy act, but he can really play, and he is also a fine singer. One of my favorite tenor players was Zoot Sims, who was one of the top three who ever lived. I always enjoyed him, because he was a great guy, and I'm sorry he had to leave. Dexter Gordon, like Zoot, was another one of the real swingers who used the Lester Young approach, but with a more modern sound and swing. He played on one of my best albums, and he was a helluva guy and a wonderful player.
In the early sixties I worked with Victor Feldman, Dennis Budimir, and Max Bennett, backing Peggy Lee, who was a very nice lady, a great musician, and a terrific singer. She was always fair about the money, which was never a big problem, but sometimes she added a bongo drummer to the group, and that was a drag. I also toured all over the world with Ella Fitzgerald, along with Paul Smith and Wilfred Middlebrooks. She was another wonderful musician, just fantastic, and although she was shy, she could be very tough when it was necessary. Like Peggy, Ella was very fair with the money, and she always mentioned the guys' names when we played. In 1964 I toured Japan with Pat Boone, and I would like to forget that! Actually Pat was alright, because he was a nice guy and he treated us O.K., but he wasn't a musical icon, and once again Paul Smith was the musical director. I also worked on an ABC television show for Frank Sinatra with a whole bunch of jazz guys like Bud Shank and Plas Johnson. We didn't talk to Frank, and we never saw him until showtime, when he would come in, do his shtick, and get off. But if things weren't going well, he would be real tough. Bill Miller, who was a lovely guy as well as being a good pianist and writer, used to rehearse the band without Frank, and he was with him until the end. One of the pianists who accompanied Peggy, Ella, and Frank was Lou Levy. I have known him for about fifty years, and he is a wonderful guy and a mainstay of the piano. He is still working and looking good.
As far as some of my contemporary drummers are concerned. Shelly Manne was an innovator, because he did many different things that had never been done before. He was a good swinger who had everything. Technique-wise, Art Blakey was like a diamond in the rough, but he had that hard swing that could swing you right off the bandstand. Joe Morello, of course, was a good technician. I remember one time in Washington, when I was with Ella and he was with Brubeck, we were hanging out the way drummers do. Now Joe has very bad eyesight, maybe as bad as legally blind. Anyway, I asked him what his hobbies were and he said, "Target practice," and I remember saying, "Not with me, Joe!" There is nothing to say about Buddy Rich that has not been said before. You can't add anything because he is just the top, the cream of the cream. Kenny Clarke was another swinger and one of the originators of bebop music, and Jo Jones created the hi-hat sound that you hear today. Boy, was he something. He had that floating rhythm, and he was a nice guy.
In a 1961 interview with Alun Morgan [Alun Morgan, "Stan Levey," Jazz Monthly, September 1961], Stan said that he was going to carry on "Hitting those drums until the drums start hitting back at me," but by 1973 he had slopped playing completely."
I already had my photography business, so I cut out the drumming and I don't miss it at all. I never played again because the music business changed and I went on to other things."
As a coda to the interview, he mentioned some of his all-time favorite musicians:
Trumpet—Dizzy Gillespie. Trombone—Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana. Alto—Charlie Parker. Tenor—Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz. Baritone—Gerry Mulligan. Clarinet—Benny Goodman. Flute—Frank Wess, Bud Shank. Vibes—Victor Feldman, Milt Jackson. Piano—Bud Powell. Guitar—Charlie Christian. Bass—Oscar Pettiford. Drums—Max Roach. Singers—Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald. Arranger—Bill Holman. Big band—Count Basie. Small group—Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker.