Saturday, March 2, 2024

Stan Levey - The Alun Morgan Interview [From the Archives with Additions]

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

“Like Max Roach, Levey was an essential figure in the progression and development of bebop. Unlike the swing music of the 1930s and ’40s, bebop was designed for listeners instead of dancers. The tempos were often extremely fast, the harmonic progressions were more sophisticated, and the rhythmic feel was more “broken up” and less predictable. Listening to Levey on recordings, you hear a drummer who played for the musicians he accompanied. His approach to timekeeping was straight-ahead and uncluttered. His strengths were his articulate sound, his purposeful ideas, and the unique pulse that he provided in small and large ensemble settings.”  
- Steve Fidyk, Modern Drummer

I’ve been looking for this interview for some time and thanks to a friend in England, I now have a copy to share with you.

Alun Morgan conducted it with Stan Levey during the drummer’s 1961 stay in
London as part of a quartet backing singer Peggy Lee appearance at The Pigalle Club, a supper club and music venue in Piccadilly, St. James’ in the West End.

It was first published in the September 1961 edition of Jazz Monthly.

Born in Wales in 1928, Alun Morgan became a Jazz fan as a teenage and was an early devotee of the bebop movement. In the 1950s he began contributing articles to Melody Maker, Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly, and Gramophone and for twenty years, beginning in 1969, he wrote a regular column for a local newspaper in Kent. From 1954 onward he contributed to BBC programs on Jazz, authored and co-authored books on modern Jazz and Jazz in England and wrote over 2,500 liner notes for Jazz recordings.

His writing style is succinct, accurate and easy to read and understand. It’s an honor to have Alun Morgan featured on these pages.

© -  Alun Morgan, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“All too infrequently, Britain is visited by a jazz musician who has played an important part in our music's history. Consequently, when I heard that Stan Levey was coming to London for four weeks, as part of the quartet backing Peggy Lee during her "Pigalle" engagement, I took steps to secure an interview with him. Stan, as I soon discovered, is as articulate a conversationalist as he is a drummer, although it was necessary to demolish some of his natural modesty before he would talk of his own achievement in jazz.

At the age of thirty-five, he can now look back on nearly nineteen years service with jazz commencing in his home city of Philadelphia during 1942. "There were quite a few young musicians playing in Philadelphia at the time.  Buddy De Franco, drummer Jerry Gilgor (he was here in Britain recently with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme) pianist Johnny Acea and, of course, Dizzy Gillespie. I was Dizzy's drummer in the quartet he led and it was Dizzy who told me how he wanted me to play. My first big inspiration, so far as taking up the drums is concerned, was Chick Webb whose band I heard in 1938, but when I started working with Dizzy I'd not heard Kenny Clarke or   Max Roach. So Dizzy told me how to play, and he used to talk about this drummer I'd never heard of before, Shadow Wilson. You can say that Dizzy was my first teacher".

Towards the end of 1942, Gillespie gave up his quartet in Philadelphia and moved to New York: Levey was not long in following him.   "In New York, I heard Max Roach for the first time. It was unbelievable. I wanted to pack rip my drums and go back to Philadelphia, he scared me so much. Stan was reluctant to acknowledge that he was one of the earliest of the so-called bop drummers. "There were others,” he insists. "Denzil Best and Eddie Nicholson are just two of the names I can recall now. Some of the new drummers seemed to drop out of circulation or prominence later but there were others who were making contributions at that time.” He spoke warmly of Fifty-Second Street: "You would find all the big names in jazz playing there. Dizzy, Hawkins, Bird It’s sad to see the street now though. Do you know what they’ve done to it? It’s just a big hole in the ground. They're putting up a lot of new buildings in that area".   

In 1944 he played on a record date for the Black and White label with Art Tatum and Barney Bigard.  "Leonard Feather set up the session. Those tracks have been reissued in America on the Tops label.” (The Top LP featuring Bigard, Tatum and Cliff Jackson, is available on Gala Records in  Britain). "There was this sharp division of musicians into categories in those days. You could say there were only two classes, the boppers and the rest. But it wasn’t unusual to find musicians of differing styles and tastes working together.” The clubs along Fifty-Second Street kept Levey busy and he worked regularly with Gillespie and Charlie Parker, then, in the spring of 1945, he joined a big band.  "Not many people seem to remember this but I was the drummer with Woody Herman’s First Herd for nearly six months. I took over when Davey Tough left and I played drums with that band until that November, or December when Don Lamond came in. I left Woody to rejoin Dizzy and Bird when Max Roach had to leave. That was shortly after the Savoy session when they cut Billie’s Bounce, Ko-ko and Now’s The Time.” I've been kicking myself ever since because I wasn't on that date! I wasn’t on the Musicraft sessions which produced Shaw ‘Nuff and Lover Man although I’d been with Dizzy until up to a few weeks before. And I never recorded with Woody. The Herd didn’t make any records while I was with them.

Alter rejoining Gillespie at the end of 1945 Levey came to Los Angeles with the sextet. "Dizzy said, ‘Let's go to Hollywood' so we packed and took off for BilK Berg’s Club. We were there for ten weeks. Bird, Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Rav Brown and myself Bird was getting to be pretty unreliable at that time and to maintain a three-piece front line Billy Berg suggested to Dizzy tha he hire Lucky Thompson as a kind of permanent standby. While we were out on the coast we did the first session for Dial Records. The first track we cut was Diggin’ for Diz you know the tune based on Lover chord changes. That first take was more or less a trial run-through that Bird played on. It was George Handy’s tune (he was working with Boyd Raeburn at the time) so George played piano on the take. After that Al Haig took over and we made the rest of the session with the regular group except that Bird wasn't well enough to play. As you probably know we did Confirmation, Diggin’ for Diz (this time with Bird) Dynamo A., Dynamo B. and When I Grow Too Old To Dream.  I asked Stan about a mysterious acetate in a friend’s possession. “This is Dynamo or Dizzy Atmosphere (to give it the alternative title) played by Parker, Gillespie, Jackson and Haig and what sounds like Brown and Levey. There is no audience applause and the overall balance (which is excellent) and sound gives the impression that it was recorded in a studio I suggested that it might have been made at that first Dial session, although the quality of Parker’s playing implies that he was enjoying a peak form which was absent when he made the first Diggin’ for Diz take. "No, we didn't make that at the session, for Ross Russell" replied Stan. "I'm certain that Bird played on only one take, the one with Handy on piano. I would say that your friend's acetate of Dizzy Atmosphere comes from a radio broadcast we did in Hollywood at that time. Also, there was a guy [Dean Benedetti] who used to come to Billy Berg's and tape everything we played on the stand.” I explained that information of this kind was of tremendous interest to the many Parker enthusiasts in Britain who jealously hoarded every scrap of music ever placed on record by this singular musician. "There are people back home too who collect everything by Bird they can lay hands on" he replied. "Why not? He was a very great man.”

At the end of the engagement at Billy Berg's the band was due to fly back east, but as most Parker enthusiasts know, Bird stayed in Los Angeles and finally collapsed after playing on the infamous Lover man session a few months later. "There was no mysterious reason why Bird didn't come back to New York with the rest of us" explained Levey. "He missed the plane. I had all the tickets and I spent twenty-five dollars in cab fares trying to find Charlie the morning we were due to leave. I couldn't find him anywhere and in the end I had to leave his ticket at the Burbank Airport in case he showed up after we'd gone". Back in New York, Stan spent some time with Gillespie's group and several other jazz units. "Those were great days" he recalls. "There were some fine bands around at that time including the group Coleman Hawkins had at the 'Spotlite' club which had Thelonious Monk on piano".

The next time we in Britain became aware of Stan's playing was with the new band Stan Kenton formed in 1952. "There were a great number of really fine jazz soloists in that band" explained Levey. "Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Zoot Sims (he took over from Richie Kamuca) and guys like that. Then at the end of 1954 the band was playing a concert at the Shrine Auditorium with Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and several other big attractions. Right after the concert Max Roach rang me and asked if I'd like to take over from him at the Lighthouse. Now I never intended settling in Southern California but Max's telephone call came at a time when I felt tired of travelling and in need of a change. That was how I came to settle in Los Angeles. Max went back east, picked up Clifford Brown and came back to the coast where they formed their own group. They had trouble with finding a suitable pianist and bass player capable of fitting in with the type of music they wanted to play. Carl Perkins was their first choice on piano but Carl was never happy with the kind of tempos Max was setting and Max eventually brought in Richie Powell.

I stayed at the Lighthouse for quite some time. We had some good musicians there, men like Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino and Bob Cooper. Playing at the Lighthouse gave me financial stability and the opportunity to make contacts with the people who fix the film, radio and television sessions. Since I've left the Lighthouse I'm sorry to say that I don't get as many opportunities to play jazz as I would like. I work two nights a week at Shelly Manne’s club with Frank Rosolino but there aren't more than a handful of places where you can play jazz in L.A. now.

Why has there been a recession of interest in jazz out there? Well, it could be due to a number of reasons I suppose. For one thing most people have to travel about forty miles to hear jazz in the evenings. Then again a guy has only just so much money to spend and after he's bought a television, radio, record-player and records he figures that he might as well enjoy these things at home. I don't know why there is this recession, I only know it exists. I'm still surprised that I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm just grateful for the opportunities I get to do all kinds of studio work. In a way I suppose it makes me appreciate those two nights a week at a jazz club even more, in
the sense that I look forward to playing for myself the kind of music I still love. As far as work in the studios is concerned it's nearly always interesting. And you get these jobs on ability you know, not on name value. You get booked to play on the soundtrack of, say, Pepe not because you are Stan Levey or Rosolino or Bud Shank but because you have proved that you can do the job. The people in the studios usually know nothing of any reputation you may have as a jazz musician. To them you are simply musicians who turn up on time and do the job reliably and efficiently. But Hollywood is a funny place in some respects, and I find it difficult to explain the tempo of work to anyone who's never experienced it. For, say, ten days my date book will be filled up; I couldn't take another job if I wanted to because there are only twenty-fours hours in each day. And during those ten days it will be the same for other musicians, studio technicians, everyone connected with the industry. Then the next ten days I may not have a single date, and the same will go for everyone else too. There doesn't seem to be any reason for it at the time but over a period of, say, twelve months the number of jobs work out to everyone's advantage financially".

Having seen a number of Stan's photographs on LP sleeves (there is a remarkable study of a tapestry gracing the front of the Bud Shank-Laurindo Almeida ''Holiday In Brazil" album on World Pacific/Vogue which is credited to him) I asked how long this second career had been in existence. "I've been doing photography on a commercial basis for nine or ten years. It's not a hobby with me, it's a business. Taking photos for jazz sleeves is only a small part of it. I do industrial photography, fashion photography; you name it, I've probably done it! Quite a lot of my photographs appear in advertisements in all kinds of magazines. You've probably seen quite a lot of my work without realising it because not all of my pictures are captioned with my credit.

Does it interfere with music? WelL it hasn't done so far. It's just a matter of fitting the two things together. I play on sessions on certain dates and at certain times and I have to get photographic assignments done by certain deadlines. It's simply a matter of organization". On the subject of jazz records Stan remarked that he had nine or ten LPs out under his own name. "That second album I did for Bethlehem turned out quite well. I chose the guys for the date, Conte, Rosolino, Lou Levy, Leroy Vinnegar and Dexter Gordon. I’ve always admired - Dexter as a musician. He has such a fine sound. You read about 'soul' and 'funky' and other kinds of jazz these days and as far as I can see all the tenor players try to sound like Dexter. But Dexter has never changed his style since he was working wkh Wardell Gray (there's another musician I had the greatest admiration for) so in that respect you can say that Dexter has been an influence. On my session he came along to the studio and said he had this tune, so I said "okay, go ahead, we’ll do it". That's how we cut Stanley The Steamer. It was done in one take and everyone was very relaxed and happy with it. Dexter gives the impression that he's going to play just that much." Levey held the palms of his hands apart, like an angler tefling a fishing story "not a note too many, just a solo of perfect length. Most of those Bethlehem sessions I was on were done in a matter of hours, and the "Kenton Presents" things I was on with Claude Williamson and Frank Rosolino were done in a hurry too.

Nowadays there are a great number of records being made in the shortest possible time. So many different record companies! A lot of these labels come onto the market and, in a matter of months sometimes, they're out of business. I was on a session with Warne Marsh and Ronnie Ball for Mode but until I saw your piece on Warne in the June Jazz Monthly, I had no idea that the LP was ever issued. I was never paid for that date incidentally.”

For Peggy Lee's "Pigalle" engagement during July and August this year he was working with guitarist Dennis Budimir (late of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), bass player Max Bennett and Vic Feldman. "You'll know about Victor of course" he said. "I just want to say he's one of the best things to have happened to American jazz for some time. You have every reason to feel proud of him over here. Since I've been in London I've been impressed by Tubby Hayes too and I'd like to hear Phil Seamen. He sounds so good on records".

But visiting jazz clubs was not Levey's only occupation during his London trip. Anyone who has ever seen Stan will know that he is perhaps the most athletic-looking musician in jazz today. "People tell me I don't look like a drummer". He smiled and looked at his hands. “I’m  a boxer you know. At least I was; I don't do any actual fighting nowadays but since I've been here I spend most afternoons at Joe Bloom's Cambridge Gymnasium in Earlham Street. Joe's about sixty now but he knows how to keep me on my toes. My father was a fight promoter in Philadelphia and I fought there semi-professional before I went to New York. I took a couple of years off from jazz and fought professionally, full time, some years ago. I like to keep fairly fit and make a point of spending some time Umbering up wherever I can".

I said I hoped that his careers as a boxer and photographer would not mean that jazz would soon be the poorer by one of its best-known drummers. "No" he replied. "I don't want to leave music because I still enjoy playing. I'm going to carry on hitting those drums until the drums start hitting back at me."

[During a telephone interview I had with Stan while I was living in San Francisco in the 1990s and researching what was to eventually become a blog feature on Victor Feldman, Stan told me that he phased out his playing career in the early 1970s.]


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