© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Bebop was causing the swing drummers fits because of the jabs and stabs required of the left hand and right foot — snare drum and bass drum — against the ride cymbal pattern. The stuff Kenny Clarke had started ten years earlier had developed into a new complex way of playing that meant the "new" drummers had to really develop their ability to play four different patterns all at the same time. The left foot played the hi hats, the right hand the ride pattern — the left hand and right foot played the drums. The bass drum sound needed to punch out the patterns with a kind of "thud" sound, while the snare drum was often tuned loose — kind of funky — with the snares barely against the bottom head.
Although the following interview with drummer Stan Levey took place primarily in 1997 when I called him to ask for his input regarding a feature I was writing on the late pianist and vibraphonist Victor Feldman, it really had been going on for over 40 years
By the mid-1990’s, Stan had been retired from active work as a Jazz drummer and studio percussionist for about 25 years.
Stan was always a very straight-talking man and this composite interview reflects that quality which is why I prize it so much.
During the late 1950s, I got to know Stan quite well. He was performing weekly with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, CA and I was attempting to flunk out of high school while I studied his drumming technique in-person, as often as possible.
He was always kind and generous with his help, fatherly in his advice and I learned from him the greatest lesson for any Jazz drummer - to keep time that you could set a watch to. Some of the questions and answers in the interview date back to this early period.
In those days, Stan “The Man” shared the town [the Los Angeles Jazz scene] with Mel Lewis and Shelly Manne and the three of them - along with Larry Bunker who always claimed that he picked up their left-overs- provide an aspiring, young Jazz drummer with a terrific laboratory in which to study.
[Their style of drumming, individually and collectively, may also be one answer to the perennial question about how East and West Coast Jazz differ. But that’s a topic to be addressed in a future JazzProfiles entry.]
As a point in passing, you can see and hear Stan talking about his career on his self-produced DVD - Stan Levey “The Original Original: The Jazz Bop Pioneer Tells His Story. The reference is from Dizzy Gillespie who was fond of calling Stan - “the original, original.” I’ve embedded the YouTube version of this video at the conclusion of this piece.
Posting this interview is a small way of remembering Stan Levey and of saying “Thank you.”
JazzProfiles [JP]: Do you feel that the drummer has other roles besides time-keeping?
Stan Levey [SL]: Sure, absolutely. You have musical statements to make. To enhance whatever is going on in the front line.
JP: What was the equipment like in the early 1940s when you started playing compared to today?
SL: By the ‘40s you had pretty good equipment. The Ludwig Company had good stuff. They had pretty good drums. Actually the wood was very good, too. But the ‘20s and ‘30s stuff was a little weird. It just wasn’t that good. By the middle of the ‘40s everything was worked out.
JP: Being a contemporary of players like Max Roach and Art Blakey, did you notice a lot of competition among yourself and other drummers or was there an effort to try and share the idea? Shelly once said that “42nd Street was like a garden.”
SL: A lot of camaraderie, actually. Max and I were very close. We were all good friends. There wasn’t that much work around, so we all split it up. Everybody kind of helped everybody; like Shelly said.
JP: I wasn’t sure of how that might have played out considering it was such a new style.
SL: Yeah, but there were so few guys who were playing it or could play it. What’s the point of hiding something? You can’t hide anything anyway, wherever you play someone picks up on it.
JP: When you were making a lot of those bebop records in the 1940s, would you have predicted the kind of longevity they’ve had?
SL: Yeah, because it was musically valid. It was good music. The musical content was very good. If you listen to it, it holds up today. Mozart is good, that was 200 years ago. I’m not trying to make it sound like we were as good as Mozart. Good is good, bad is bad. Bad stinks and that’s the end of it. That’s the way I look at it.
JP: Why do you think that drummers are considered to be less worthy as musicians; or not as competent as those that play other instruments?
SL: Mostly because in the early times they had no real musical knowledge. They didn’t know the keyboard and a lot of them couldn’t read. Today that’s not true. They’re all just great.
JP: Did you find your early recording sessions to be difficult, as far as getting a good sound or playing together as a unit?
SL: Well, there was no intercutting. You made a record from the top. They cut the record right there. If you didn’t like it, you would start again. It was a little more stressful. And the micing was a little primitive.
JP: Did you prefer to play live as opposed to make records?
SL: Live playing is always more fun; less confining.
JP: What value do you see in a drum solo?
SL: It depends on how good it is, how it’s constructed. Does it make sense? When you listen to the masters play a drum solo you never stop listening, you’re locked into it. It takes you somewhere. Listen to Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson or Joe Morello - they know how to build things to generate excitement and to keep you interested. It’s not just about technique. Those guys have it to burn and they all put on a show with it but they know how to take you with them.
JP: Were there certain repertories or melodies that you thought of when you soloed?
SL: Yeah, you think musically. Not a melody, but where you’re going with it. You’re going to build and come back. I am not a fan of long drums solos, unless it’s a guy like Buddy or Louie or Joe. That was not my forte anyway.
JP: Do you like trading fours over a solo?
SL: That’s fun, fours and eights. If it makes good musical sense then I think it’s good, but not to do it just for the sake of doing it.
JP: Would you say that drums could be approached melodically?
SL: Oh, absolutely. In fact they should be tuned to a note. I’ve always done that. Instead of tensioning it, it should be tuned.
JP: Was there a specific pitch you would tune your drums to?
SL: I’m trying to remember, it was so long ago. Probably an “F” on the bass drum and then a “C” on the small tom. You try to make some musical sounds out of them instead of just cranking them up.
JP: Do you ever think colors or use terms like color or texture?
SL: No. Well, texture, yes. Cymbal textures which are at a higher pitch. Not color.
JP: Did you use riveted cymbals; so-called “Chinese” cymbals; crash cymbals?
SL: Yeah, we just punched a hole in them and put a rivet in. We all did that for different sounds or textures, getting back to that. I fooled around with a Chinese for a while in Stan’s [Kenton’s] band and you had to have big cymbals to project power over the band, but I went with 18” cymbals in a small group: one with rivets and one without.
JP: What about brush playing? It almost seems to be becoming a dying art.
SL: I hear guys today that are good brush players. I could play the hell out of brushes. The old masters always argued that almost anything you could play with sticks you should be able to play using brushes.
JP: Were there any specific guys that you preferred to play with?
SL: I played with all of them, [Charlie] Parker, [Dizzy] Gillespie, Miles [Davis], Dexter [Gordon], Ben Webster, Coleman [Hawkins]. I loved them all. These guys were just great. They’re all dead, too. But the new guys are good; there’s a lot of good players out there today.
JP: Did you give lessons to other drummers?
SL: I used to have a few students in the ‘50s, but teaching drums is not my thing. I’m self-taught, both to play and to read, but I was never much into drum rudiment books
JP: Did you ever get stage fright playing with these people who are now referred to as giants?
SL: Yeah. One guy, Ben Webster, scared the hell out of me. He looked like he was about nine feet tall and fifteen feet wide; big shoulders. He was just that kind of guy, but he really was a pussycat. We didn’t get along well at the beginning, but later we became very good friends. We did a lot of records together. He just scared me because of his presence.
JP: Were a lot of your influences from people like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, and Sid Catlett?
SL: Sid very much so. Sid, Max [Roach], Davey Tough. We all go to the same well. Nobody invents anything; everybody stands on somebody’s shoulders. So we all took from the best and Sid was one of the best.
JP: Would you consider the bebop style as coming from Max Roach and Kenny Clarke?
SL: It didn’t come from any one person. The same way that Parker didn’t come from just Parker. Parker came from Lester Young. When I started playing with Parker in the early ‘40s, he sounded like Lester on alto. Then he’d take a left-hand turn every once in a while. And you’d say, “Whoa, what was that?” And I think drumming is the same thing. Shadow Wilson had something different. Each one had a little flap, it would open another door. It just developed, and Max would take it, of course. Max was the front runner.
JP: How about guys like Roy Haynes?
SL: Roy was later. I like Roy. He’s a real nice imitator and he did it well.
JP: What do you think separated Max and Art Blakey?
SL: Art was just like a rough, uncut diamond. Where Max was highly polished, very good chops, very good technique. Max was more studied. Art was just rough. He had a great heart. Another guy who was great, Denzil Best. Man, I want to tell you that guy could play. He was a trumpet player first. He worked with Coleman Hawkins. I heard him in New York when he first joined George Shearing’s group. Beautiful brush work.
JP: There’s a lot of talk of how bebop eliminated the bass drum on all four beats. Did you do that?
SL: What really happened … the way Dizzy played, he would do his high notes and then back off for maybe half a bar. He needed something to fill that; it’s called a fill or they’d call it “dropping bombs.” The idea was to fill the little spot and keep the momentum going. That was what it was all about. The drummer felt obligated to do that. The thump-thump-thump-thump four beats to the bar thing on bass drum was still used by some drummers, even later, but it was quieter. We called it feathering. So guys just found it easier to come off that to “drop bombs.” Some guys played the hat on 2 and 4 and the bass drum on 1 and 3.
JP: Did you have a lot of interplay between your two hands in terms of keeping ride patterns with one hand and other patterns or accents in the other?
SL: Sure, but you always had to keep the momentum going to make sure it swung. The left-hand accents are used to emphasize and push the swing.
JP: Did the swing or groove come out of the hi-hat?
SL: If we are talking about small bands then it would be the ride cymbal. In those days you didn’t get real technical about what you were doing. You related what you heard to what was coming out of your drums. You were just supposed to know what goes with what and lay it in.
JP: Was there anything specific that you listened for, or you just got up there and did your thing?
SL: Well, we usually had real good players because one weak link and you were in trouble. First of all, they wouldn’t be there. Usually, it was Parker, Gillespie, Haig, Ray Brown and myself. Each guy was a premier player; they knew what the hell to do. I mean we rehearsed, but it was about the unspoken word. If you had to speak about it, you were in trouble.
JP: Did you go to Minton’s [Playhouse in Harlem] a lot?
SL: Oh yeah, sure.
JP: I’m sure you get this question a lot but for the record are you a lefty player, a “southpaw”?
SL: I’m a right-handed player that plays drums left-handed. Don’t ask me why. There were no drums teachers to ask; it just felt good.
JP: Did you have trouble going to the jam session nights having to switch everything around?
SL: That was always a pain.
JP: Is there anything that you would say that made you’re playing unique?
SL: I had a God-given gift; it was nothing I studied for. I had a very good technique and could play fast as a son of a bitch. I don’t know how it happened, I could just do it all night long. I played through my ears. If you don’t play through your ears, it becomes just mechanical.
JP: All night and almost all day, too, I heard.
SL: We’d finish on 52nd Street at four in the morning, then go uptown and play until ten. We didn’t care about the money, anything; in those days, the music was the thing. The music was new, and we were new. We were young and we just wanted to do it.
JP: Did you find it, at any time, disheartening with a lot of the critics talking down about bebop or rebop- the new music?
SL: Nah, we knew the music was great.
JP: They say a lot of the swing guys couldn’t make the transition to bop. Davey Tough for instance.
SL: No, he couldn’t. Davey’s from the ‘20s. Well, Davey had other problems, too. Whatever the hell “swing” means, that’s what he played: Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins – that kind of thing. The change came in the early ‘40s; ’44 was really the year and it just went from there. Just the way it went from ragtime to Duke Ellington. I guess what I played with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s was swing.
JP: Did you feel that you had those big shoes to fill, Krupa’s, for example?
SL: Yeah, I took Gene’s place, sure, big shoes. But when you are 17 or 18 years old, who gives a shit? You just go out and do it. The worst thing that could happen is the guy don’t like me. That’s being young, that’s the great part about it. Young and stupid, or whatever you want to call it. You just do it because you love it and you know it’s going to be okay.
JP: It seems the scene was very welcoming to new players.
SL: Well, there weren’t many players. There weren’t many good drummers around, maybe eight or ten. Today, for young people who want to be drummers; they have all the information on tape and in books. We had no tapes, no books and not that many records. We used to wait six months for a good drummer to come to town and try to soak up everything he could do.
JP: Did you guys used to go together, you and other drummers, just go and check it out and talk about it?
SL: If there was a good drummer or a good band in town we’d all wind up there. It was just that way; we’d all be there to see what was going on. Today’s everybody’s in their homes with their twenty-four track machines; it’s a different world.
JP: Did you like being on the road touring?
SL: I liked working. If the music was good, I didn’t care where it was playing. Wherever the music took you, that’s where I went.
JP: Did you play for yourself; or the audience; or the group?
SL: Never the audience. Not one minute in all my years. Not for myself, for the group. For the music. That’s purist talk, but that’s the way it was. It couldn’t be any other way.
JP: How did a bad review of one of your performances or records affect you?
SL: Oh, yeah. On one of my first albums, the guy said that I was playing like a street drummer; like a marching drummer.
JP: How did that make you feel?
SL: I quieted down because he was right. I was playing too loud.
JP: Do you like being a leader versus a so-called sideman?
SL: On records, sure, because you can put material together, bring in guys that I think are great.
JP: What would you think if you heard guys copying your licks?
SL: I’d be very happy. In fact, a lot of guys are doing it and have been doing it for years.
JP: Do you ever listen to records that you’ve made?
SL: Once in a while, but very seldom.
JP: You don’t play much anymore?
SL: I haven’t played in over 25 years.
JP: Is there a reason why you gave it up?
SL: The music changed and I became a mallet player. I worked in the studios for about eleven years and then things started to change. The young composers came in and they just wanted their own people, which is the way it should be. I saw what was happening and I always had my own other business [Stan was a very successful commercial photographer]. Then the electronics came in and nobody’s working now!
JP: Did you ever go to Boston to pick out your cymbals at the Zildjian factory? If so, was there a specific thing or tone you would look for?
SL: Sure, many times. Every drummer has a cymbal sound in their ears they know they like. You go in and ask for it.
JP: Do you listen to Jazz now?
SL: If it’s good, straight-ahead Jazz.
JP: What about the stuff in the 60s, the Ornette Coleman type?
SL: That’s crazy. That was just one chord horse shit.
JP: Do you think that they are saying the same thing about you?
SL: I don’t care what they say. I didn’t worry about it. It’s not my business what they say, and it’s not their business what I say.
JP: Was race ever an issue for you as far as getting gigs?
SL: That was never a problem. In fact when I was with Dizzy, a lot of Black drummers would say, ‘Hey Dizzy how come you got a White drummer?’ He’d say: ‘If you could do the job better than him you’d have the job.’ That’s the way he was. Race never entered into anything. I worked with all those guys and it was never a problem. But around 1948 or ’49 things started to change and the Black players got a little weird. They were saying things like: ‘You’re taking or stealing my music.’ They started the race things about White guys working on jobs they felt should be all Black players. That kind of bull shit. So that did happen, but it didn’t affect me. Dizzy made the statement: ‘The guy who can do the job best will have the job.’
JP: Did you find you needed a different approach for different types of instrumentalists or groups?
SL: Each situation requires its own touch, it’s own sound. Being a musician is knowing what to do and when to do it. With Stan Getz it’s one approach with Sonny Rollins it’s another. Each player has a different sound and a different freedom. But if a guy has to tell you what to do, you wouldn’t be there.
JP: What was your first drum set like when you started to play professionally?
SL: In the ‘early days’ when I first started playing, nobody had a drum set. You just played on whatever was at the club. Max didn’t have a set; I didn’t have a set. Wherever we went, whatever was there we played. I only played on the job and I never practiced. I never had a record player, either. If it was a gig, then you played; no gig, no play.
JP: Is there anything that sticks out that connects players like yourself, Max, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe [Jones], and all those guys?
SL: Well, they are all different and they are all great. They all went down their own road, but there is a thread through all of us, we never discarded that. The approach to the music, to bop or whatever you want to call it. The thread of the music from Parker and Gillespie was always there but each of these guys decorated it with his own thing. Even Elvin Jones, as far out as he gets, is part of that thread because he feels its momentum. And I think that’s what we all have basically in common, a forward motion feeling that grows with everyone adding to it.
JP: Do you think that there are people who were greatly overlooked?
SL: Sure, there were a lot of guys.
JP: Do you feel that you were overlooked?
SL: I didn’t get as much mention as I should have, but whatever happens, happens.
JP: Does that bother you?
SL: Nope. I played with the best. They know it and I know it. I wasn’t in vaudeville, you know what I’m saying? I wanted to play with the best and I did what I wanted to do.
JP: Do you miss playing?
SL: I miss good stuff, good players. Guys like Victor Feldman and Scott LaFaro; they’re all gone. And there are some very good guys around today. But the business is so awful that I know guys my age that are still trying to play. There’s no work.
JP: Are there any recordings of yours that you can suggest that one should check out?
SL: One is called The Arrival of Victor Feldman [Contemporary S7549; OJCCD 268-2] with Scott LaFaro and myself. A trio album it is one of the best things I’ve made. I have one originally called This Time The Drum’s On Me [Bethlehem BCP-37; Toshiba-EMI TOCJ-62027]. It’s been bought and re-released by different companies. That’s with Dexter Gordon. I also did some things with Parker on Dial Records.
JP: As far as solos go, did you ever develop a repertoire that you play during solos or as the solos came you just went with it?
SL: Everybody develops patterns, even horn players. I did a record with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy, Ray Brown and John Lewis called For Musicians Only [Verve 837-435-2]. It’s a great record and Stan stole the whole goddamn thing. Everything was really super fast, and he played one thing that was absolutely incredible. It seemed like he came up with this off the seat of his pants. About five years later, I heard a record that he had made four years before this record and he played the same solo! We all have patterns, but you embellish on them.