© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The following interview appeared in Vol. 35, 1982 of Jazz Journal International under the title of “Lou Levy Talks to Steve Voce” and Steve had kindly consented to allow its posting to these pages. Steve is a British journalist and music critic who has been broadcasting on the BBC for more than 50 years and contributing regularly to The Independent and to Jazz Journal for over 60 years.
© - Steve Voce/JazzJournal - used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The Stan Getz Quartet that took the honours at last year's Nice festival was full of both distinction and fine distinctions. Marc Johnson, its eloquent bassist, said of pianist Lou Levy "he is a genius with melody, and his main concern is to present the qualities of the melody to the audience, whilst I'm more concerned to use the melody as a basis for improvisation."
A quiet and modest man, Levy is content to take a subordinate role away from the limelight, preferring to support rather than lead, but with the Getz quartet Stan has subtly engineered a setting which makes Lou a prime mover and with this band Levy is playing with an authority that has probably not been apparent before.
"Stan and I have been together on and off with long periods of being apart, for more than 30 years, going right back to the time with Woody Herman in the forties. Off the stand we've been the closest friends for many years, so it's natural that we have a musical rapport. We understand each other's playing, agree on the format of tunes, on the length — just about everything musically. You'll notice with Stan that whenever anyone else is playing he listens. That's so rare in most of the bands I've worked with. Things will happen on the stand when a guy's soloing — the other musicians will talk to each other, maybe even go to the bar for a drink — I won't put up with that. I'll either tell them off right on the band stand or I'll just get up and walk. To me that's really an insult to the music, and also the audience doesn't go for it either. Those are usually the guys that don't play the best.
Stan always did play great, but now better than ever. I can feel him opening up from day to day, from set to set, from tune to tune. When you get guys like this who play so well, it's not easy to get them to play their best. It takes a while for every-body to really open up, and it's starting to happen now, on this festival especially.
Although we go back a quarter of a century in the quartet setting, this is new — has to be, because of our experiences in that time. Stan came from a totally different kind of band that he's had for some years, so his outlook is quite fresh. I brought in all the music, and I think that the standards we're using are as good material as you can find. I think it's assuming an awful lot when you come. across bands that use nothing but originals. All originals are not necessarily good. Once in a while you do come up with a good one, but a lot of the time it's ego trip stuff. Particularly when there are Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk! There's so much great material and you can do one tune in so many different ways. You got a lot of opportunity out there. And then if you write a great original, that's fine.
Stan's earlier groups used electric keyboards and electric bass, and oddly enough it's fresh to get back to acoustic instruments. Naturally I'm pleased. I don't mind playing an electric instrument once in a while, but I think it totally cancels out any-one's identity. You have no touch control, no personal contact with the thing other than your fingers are pushing down the keys and getting electrical impulses out of it. The only way you can possibly have any identity on an electric instrument is the way Chick Corea does where the composition is the identity. They have, or have had their place, but I see them going very fast, I really do. We used to use a celeste on dates with Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee, but just as a tender thing on the verse of a ballad. It's okay, but it should be short and sweet.
Peggy? I think I accompanied Peggy Lee half of my life. It really was over a period of 18 years off and on. I left her for three years to go with Ella Fitzgerald, a year or so with Nancy Wilson — it was back and forth. But over the 18 years it was well over half of them, and it was a great lesson in music, showmanship and stage presentation. She's a marvellous interpreter of songs and I learned a lot about the other side of a song, the lyrics as opposed to the purely musical part. Lyrics play a very important part in my playing. I always follow the lyrics when I'm playing and always think of the melody. No matter how far into improvising I am the lyric is going through my head. That makes a great difference to how you play. As you know, Lester Young was a great believer in lyrics, and Bill Evans sounded like he knew lyrics to a great degree. All the good players, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker made a point of knowing lyrics and it shows in their playing.
I teach a class in accompanying at the Dick Grove Music Workshop in Los Angeles and I stress that the strongest point is to know the melody, but really know the lyrics as well. The kids are really getting it and after six or seven weeks I see how it affects their playing. They play less, but they play deeper. It's nice. I've been doing those classes for some months now. It's a great school. Dick Grove is a very fine arranger who started it and he brings in lots of fine tutors like Mancini and Nelson Riddle for film writing, and he brings in great musicians like Dave Grusin, Herbie Ellis, Monty Budwig. He asked me to teach an accompanying class because I've done so much of it that they figured I'd be able to get the point across. And that's strictly what I'm doing now. I might branch out a little bit, but I think that accompanying is vitally important for all jazz players to know about and not just for vocalists. When I accompany Stan Getz I'm accompanying a voice, a very fine voice, and it's just as important to know what to do for a guy with a horn in his mouth as it is for somebody who opens his mouth and sings lyrics.
At the school the students are prepared for about six months to make sure they understand all the chord symbols and things that we usually encounter when accompanying. You know, they throw a chord sheet at us — it's not written out like a classical piano part usually, it's just chord symbols. So what they do is they get the students that do play the piano but may not have much knowledge of harmony, so they make sure, and then at the end of the six months they hand them over to me and I don't have to worry about the language of chords. I don't have to struggle with that and so we can go straight ahead into the next phase, which is interpretation.
You ask whether I can anticipate what someone like Stan or Ella is going to do next. Well that's a bit like the question of how do you teach improvising? It's instinctive and it happens instantaneously. There are logical paths to follow which you can anticipate, and then sometimes when you hear something different you adjust along that way very fast. Luckily it comes very naturally to me. I've heard a lot of great piano players who play better than me, but who can't accompany, and it always makes me wonder. A guy can play fantastically, but maybe he's not interested, never been interested in accompanying, and so it doesn't work, he can't do it.
My first accompanying job was for Sarah Vaughan in 1947. It was in Chicago and I'm not sure if I'd even left high school. She'd just made the record Mean to Me with Charlie Parker and hadn't become popular yet. We worked in Roger's Park in Chicago, which happened to be in my neighbourhood, and she used to pick me up from home each night and then bring me back again after the job. She taught me so much, because she plays piano, and it was from her I first learned about accompaniment. Then I worked a couple of weeks with June Christy in Milwaukee, but the first big accompanying job I had, other than playing for Mary Ann McCall with Woody's band was the job with Peggy when I moved to California in 1955. Max Bennett and Larry Bunker who were with her got me the job when Marty Paich left.
Pretty much around the same time I worked with Sarah I had my first full-time professional gig. Georgie Auld had a little band that included Red Rodney, Serge Chaloff, Curley Russell and the late Tiny Kahn on drums. I met Tiny in Chicago when they came to work there and they had George Wallington on piano. We had some local jam sessions and Tiny heard me play and I guess he thought 'well, for a local kid he doesn't play too bad.' All of a sudden George Wallington got sick and they needed a piano player immediately, so Tiny suggested to Georgie 'let's try the kid'. It didn't turn out too badly, they liked me, and every night Tiny would teach me things. He was my real mentor. He was the biggest influence on me in the music business. He showed me what to listen to — other than Charlie Parker, everyone knew about Parker. But Tiny was fantastic. You never expect a drummer to be a teacher, no insult to drummers, but he knew the keyboard, he knew the harmony, he was just a total natural, the most beautiful musician you could ever want to be. He was a wonderful arranger, but unfortunately he died too young to leave a lot of music, but he left his impression on every-one. In fact his influence is still there.
Tiny taught me some things about arranging, but I'm not really that big an arranger. I'm an accompanist, pianist and jazz player. I wish I could arrange, but if I could my standard would be too high because t have friends like Johnny Mandel (who I think is the epitome of arranging), Al Cohn and Nelson Riddle. I worked with all these guys, and they're so great that I'm way behind them in arranging, so I'll stick to what I do.
Ira Sullivan and I grew up together in Chicago. A lot of guys would come through and I'd play with them, do local jobs, Minneapolis and so on. The first thing that took me out of town was when Tiny Kahn got me the job to go to Europe on Chubby Jackson's Fifth Dimensional Jazz Group. We went to Sweden in 1947 and Sweden had never really had a band like that up to that time, so it was a great trip. We had Denzil Best on drums, Frank Socolow on tenor plus Conte Candoli and Terry Gibbs, and I met all these guys for the first time. When we got back we worked a little around Washington DC. Chubby went back with Woody, and a month or two later he got me in Woody's band. It was the Four Brothers band, of course, and there I met Stan Getz and Al Cohn, and that was the start of the whole ball of wax. I replaced Ralph Burns, but Ralph didn't leave the band, he stayed on the road with us but strictly as an arranger. He wanted time to write. I stayed with that band for two years until it broke up, and then I went on the road with a little band of Louis Bellson's, along with Charlie Shavers and Terry Gibbs. Then that whole little band joined Tommy Dorsey's band and I spent about three months with him. He was a great bandleader and I respected him very much, although musically it wasn't my cup of tea. I've never been fired by anybody but Tommy Dorsey, but what he said to me was classic: `Kid, you play real good, but not for my band.' I thought that was about as honest as you could get. I'm not offended when someone says you played rotten or you did something wrong, because constructive criticism is the best thing for anyone.
Tommy was a wonderful trombone player as well as a great bandleader, and it's always a lesson to see how someone handles a band, handles men. He had it all together. At first glance Tommy was stricter than Woody, but Woody commands a lot of respect. It's a quieter thing. He just stands there, he doesn't say too much. He'll look and listen and let the guys do their craziness off the band stand, but on the stand the guys always seem to respect him, and he's still a great leader after more than 40 years.
Bill Harris came back into the Herd after I joined, but I'd worked with him before in a three-trombone band with Shelly Manne on drums. I worked often with Shelly in the late forties and still play with him now. In the Herd I was very heavily influenced by Al Cohn, because I'd never heard anyone play that way. Al is really a gem, as Stan Getz will tell you. I'm pretty sure that, along with Zoot, Al is his favourite player. Those two guys! The band was so vital and sounded so clean, and it had so much energy. I've heard bands with as much energy, but I've never heard one with so much polish to go with it and still sound natural.
There was a lot of different music came into the band, with charts by Jimmy Giuffre, Shorty Rogers, a couple of real bebop arrangements by Gil Fuller and all the Ralph Burns arrangements, which go anywhere from jazz to semi-classical but always very original. I don't remember off the top of my head every chart that came in, but there were a hell of a lot. Gil arranged Bud Powell's Tempus Fugit for the band, and we're playing pretty much the same routine on that number now with Stan's quartet. We didn't play Gil's charts that often because I think Woody felt that they weren't quite in the style that he was used to. One arrangement that came into the band that we used to play a lot was Johnny Mandel's Not Really The Blues. Sometimes Woody would leave the stand for the last set in a ballroom and boy, as soon as he left we'd wail into that one and maybe again at the end of the set. We recorded a long version of it for Capitol, but unfortunately they cut it down to get it onto the 78 record length, which was still going at the time. It was a classic arrangement, like another that Johnny wrote at that time on What's New? as a Terry Gibbs feature. But I'm totally mad about anything that Johnny Mandel writes, because he's one of my idols, and I don't have too many idols.
I was never a New Yorker, although when I came back from Europe with Chubby I spent time living at his house and working out on Long Island, but I never had a Local 802 card. After I left Tommy Dorsey I went with a little band Bill Harris and Flip Philips had. While I was with the band I got married to a girl from Minneapolis. Her family had a business publishing medical journals and her father suggested that I should join the business. It was a very successful one, so I left the music business for three years and moved to Minneapolis. I kept in touch, though, played around the town, played with Conte and guys who came through. But the marriage didn't work out and after four years we split up so naturally I wasn't going to stay in the family business. I came back to music in Chicago, playing solo piano for the wonderful man that ran the Blue Note, the late Frank Holzfeind. I was still pretty young, and I went back with my folks and stayed there awhile, saved some money. I'd work opposite all the bands that came through to the Blue Note — Woody, Shorty Rogers and the Giants, and one day Shorty suggested that I moved out to California and said he'd give me his piano work. So I did, and I worked a lot with him and made quite a few of the Giants albums. Then he gave me my first movie call, for `The Man With The Golden Arm', and the next year the job with Peggy came up.
The only times I worked in the studios were when Shorty called me. They have guys in that job that can do anything, play anything at sight. I never was that kind of player. They'd call me if it was a jazz type of job, like `The Golden Arm' thing where we had two piano players — Ray Turner, who could do absolutely anything off the paper, and me, who could do very little off the paper, but I could make up something, and so that much studio work I did! Through the people I worked with and was friendly with like Shorty, Nelson Riddle and Billy May, who would do a movie score occasionally, I got to do some movie work, but I was never a movie studio musician.
On the other hand, I did a lot of record studio dates. 1 recorded with Nat Cole, and played piano through a whole album of his `Wild Is Love'. It was a good album, but then everything he did was fantastic. I knew him very well, and he was one of my all-time favourite piano players. When I was with Woody he did a tour with us with his trio, and I spent all my time with him and would sit and listen to him for hours. He got married at that time and his wife was with him on the tour, and we'd all go shopping together. Just being around him was a real pleasure, but he was a magnificent player in such a low-keyed way. Then when he got his own TV show in Los Angeles I appeared on it in the orchestra quite often. He was a great man, a perfect musician and a beautiful guy.
In the earlier days the first of my favourites was Al Haig, because he was on most of the records that I heard first. I played with Charlie Parker when I was very young. The first time I sat in with him he called me over afterwards and he said 'Kid, you ever heard Bud Powell?' I said that I'd heard about him, and Charlie blew a kiss to the heavens and said `You go check him out.' And he was so right!
If I sort of double back I can give you the order of my favourite piano players. Before those guys I heard records of Teddy Wilson with Benny Goodman, but I would say that my favourite players in order would be Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Al Haig, Bud Powell and of course Bill Evans, probably the biggest influence of the last ten years on piano players. I like Chick Corea very much. He brought something startling into jazz. I don't know if he plays anything that's so much new. He doesn't play memorable, everlasting things like Lester Young played on the tenor — little phrases you could make songs out of. It's not so much that, it's just something sparkling and electrifying. I love the first record I heard of his, with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous, a trio record from 1969. That floored me. I think a lot of people don't realise how brilliant Fats Waller really was. He was like Nat Cole to me but maybe even more facile on the piano. He had this independent voice, and three things going at once — he was great to watch, great to listen to and he wrote wonderful songs.
If Nat Cole was missing anything it was that he was not a composer himself, otherwise he'd be a duplicate. Art Tatum still amazes me, and he still amazes anyone who knows anything about the piano. He did it all, and he was exquisite in so many ways. Harmonically he was so complex and logical at the same time, and his technique was so ridiculous. He was just something that came along and nobody can explain it and it will never be equalled. He's an influence on me harmonically, but I can't do it technically! Bud Powell is much more of an element in my playing as far as single line and melodic lines are concerned. In fact J S Bach is a bigger influence on me than Art Tatum as far as that's concerned. Nat had a wonderful loose way of playing that Tatum sometimes showed, as indeed Fats Waller. Two of my other favourites of course are Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones.
I'm an admirer of Oscar Peterson. It's a touchy subject to say something critical, but if you want me to be really honest, I've always liked Oscar least for the creative part of his playing. Maybe that sounds harsh, and I hope Oscar doesn't take it the wrong way, but I look at Oscar as being strong in all other departments. Here's a sort of left-handed thing: Thelonious Monk, who sounds as if he's playing with his knuckles, is very intensely creative at times. He plays a lot of memorable things. I worked opposite Oscar a lot when I was with Ella, and he's just brilliant, amazing, you know — beautiful touch, brilliant dynamics and that time feel he has! He's a giant, but he's not an influence on me.
I worked for Sinatra when his piano player had a bad accident. I'd do concerts and benefits with him, and I did some record dates with him — it's inconsequential, but I played piano on I Did It My Way. I've played a lot of private parties at his house and I played solo a lot on those occasions. I remember one time I played at a dinner party he gave for about ten people. He had Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny and his wife, James Stewart and Cary Grant. I spent a lot of time around Jack Benny because my ex-wife was hairdresser for Mary Benny, and I used to go over to their home with her. Jack would be in his robe, walking round the pool playing the violin, and I used to talk to him a lot. He was a fantastic guy as you know, funny in any language.
We always looked forward to Frank singing at the parties, because he sings so great when it's informal. He'd come over to me and say `What'll we do?' and I'd say All Of Me and he'd just start right in, not tell me the key or anything, and he was wonderful. It's a thrill to play for him.
As an all-round singer I like Ella, but Peggy's interpretation of a song is unbeatable. She lives that thing. She actually cries — I've seen tears many times. Lena Horne? Probably I was never more impressed with all-round stage presence than when I worked with Lena. When I first got a call from her she had just moved to a place about 70 miles away from where I live in Studio City, California. So I drove up there, and met her out in the garden — she was gracious and beautiful in her blue jeans. She took me into the house, sat me down at the piano, put some music in front of me and said `okay, go ahead and play.' Then she'd put more music in front of me, and each time she'd say `that's right', and that's all the rehearsal we ever had. Then we went to Las Vegas where we were working and she listened to the band, still didn't sing, and she" said `That's right'. Then when she hit the stage at the show that night my hair stood on end. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and seeing. I actually got goosebumps. I was conducting and trying to look round at her, and it paralysed me for a minute. I didn't blow the cues, but what a revelation! There's nothing in the world like Lena Horne on stage. I went to see her one-woman show in New York just recently and I just sat open-mouthed and watched her. Boy, it's even better from out front! I don't think there'll ever be anything like Lena Horne again. I don't think there could be.
Ella is probably the most wonderful natural person you could ever want to work with. There's no pretence about her. She's really beautiful, and as far as her singing goes, no one can swing like her, no one can sing more in tune than her, and nobody knows more tunes than she does. I learned a lot of new songs from her. I had to learn verses to things like I Got Rhythm. I didn't even know there was a verse to I Got Rhythm. Most of the material I play now, I learned the majority of it from working with Ella. We'd go out there and do 40 tunes. And then the next night do 40 different tunes. She'd give you a list of numbers at the beginning of a concert and by the second tune you're already off the list! She'll turn around on the spot and give you something different or, for example, if there's a kid in the audience she'll sing Three Little Pigs or nursery rhymes, Jingle Bells if it's Christmas time — you never knew what was going to happen. But it was always in tune and it always swung. I think my favourite album I ever made with any singer is the Ella Fitzgerald Gershwin — the five records in the box of Nelson Riddle's arrangements. That was a fantastic music lesson for me. The different ways that they did the songs — Lady Be Good so slow and beautiful. That was a great influence on me, and as a result I do a lot of fast ones slow now. It was like going to school.
With Peggy we rehearsed everything down to the footwork and the lights. But that's alright, too, it works out fine. I did it night after night, the same thing, and it never got boring. There was always room for creating and you still had the feeling conducting the orchestra that you were inspired. She was quite an inspirationalist — a great entertainer and a great musician.
I worked a lot in jazz clubs in Los Angeles but these days a lot of my work is out of the city. Recently I've been doing tours with Zoot and Benny Goodman as well as with Stan. A couple of times a year I have a duo gig at a place in New York called The Knickerbocker, which I love, so I'm actually going out of town a lot.
There are lots of great jazz musicians in LA, but unfortunately jazz is not as important there as it should be.
Stan lives in San Francisco, a place I love, and it's only 55 minutes by plane from LA. As long as Stan wants me, I'm sure I'll be around. I've never had the ambition so far of being Oscar Peterson and conquering the world. I like what I'm doing and I like playing with another instrument as in the quartet. I do take trio jobs and I make trio albums, of course, and they're fine. But I've always been an accompanist and I don't see me changing. I don't feel there's anything that relegates it to a lower station in life at all, especially if you get to play with the kind of people I'm playing with. Working with Ella is a pure jazz job, like being with Stan, and then I love to work with Al Cohn because he's such a great player. There are differences between Al and Stan when you play for them. You don't have the variety of material with Al. Mainly it's just a question of listening to Al and playing simpler things. The standards Stan uses are more challenging, and I enjoy those. He's a great teacher, too. We agree on most things, but there's lots of little things that we pick up on the way, like the format of the tune, that I mentioned earlier. He plays short solos — sometimes he'll play the first chorus on a ballad and let me play the second chorus and finish the number without him. I never worked with anyone else who did that before, but it makes a lot of sense — why go any farther? You've done two choruses of the ballad: it's lovely, so why spin it out? Stan knows just where to put the bass solo, the drums, you know. I don't like a guy who stands up there and plays chorus after chorus and if it doesn't work out tries another chorus. That's very boring. The good guys make their statements and get out fast.
I like to think there is fire in my playing as you suggest, but I hope it's the kind of fire that Bud Powell had. I like dynamics and I don't put the fire in there on purpose, and it's not the kind of bombastic fire that you get with McCoy Tyner. If the tune is Johnny Mandel's Time For Love, well naturally it's going to be tender and beautiful, but if it's The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, that's fun because you can just throw caution to the winds and sort of throw your hands at the piano and maybe punch it once in a while. It can take it, it's a darned strong instrument really.
We found we had too many endings that sounded the same, so the other day we sat down and said let's do this on the end of this and that on the end of that and sorted it out between us. I'm very proud of this quartet. That little guy Marc Johnson, young compared to me, every day I marvel at him. And Victor Lewis with that touch of his is one of the all-time best drummers I know. Stan's got everything you could want. I call him the Jascha Heifetz of the saxophone. Flawless. I'm not a saxophone player, but people who are that I talk to tell me that what he does nobody else can do. Technically some of the stuff he does is so hard that I can't describe it because I'm a piano player. We made that Concord album with Monte Budwig in for Marc when we first got together in our first week, and naturally we all feel that the quartet's better now, but the album's good. Incidentally, we use Marc when we're on the East Coast and Monte when we're in California.
If we're winding up now, I'd like to talk about the songs again. I see marvellous standards coming back into use again, and with them sane-ness and good taste are coming back, too. All that ego that was so apparent with some of the younger musicians is beginning to disappear, too, and the good is rising to the surface again. I'm not putting down everybody that's young and wants to play all their own tunes, but they've got to learn to do something out there besides them, you know. It's working out well for me, too. The music's come back. Thank God!"”