Interview: John Levy (Part 5)


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Bassist John Levy spent the first half of his career as a jazz musician. Then, in 1951, he changed jobs and became a personal manager of jazz musicians. He had long yearned to be on the business side, and the surging popularity of the George Shearing Quintet gave him the opportunity. At first John represented only Shearing and the quintet. But by 1958, John had branched out and his client list included pianist Ahmad Jamal and singer Dakota Staton. [Photo of John Levy by Leroy Hamilton]

In the years that followed, John's reputation and judgment resonated with more jazz artists. Dozens of clients signed on, including Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Johnny Hartman, Shirley Horn, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Abbey Lincoln, Herbie Mann, Wes Montgomery, Billy Taylor, Stanley Turrentine, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson [pictured] and other jazz and pop stars.

In Part 5 of my interview series with John, the bassist and personal manager talks about starting his management agency, his afternoon playing with Duke Ellington, the singer with whom he had a falling out, and his personal secrets of longevity.

JazzWax: You started your own management company in 1951?
John Levy: Yes. I was playing bass with the George Shearing Quintet and acting as the group's road manager. But as the group got more and more popular, the gigs and management duties expanded. It all got to be too much.

JW: What did you tell George?
JL: I said, “I can't be playing and taking care of business and being on the road and on the phone to agents about future bookings and so on." There weren't any computers and cell phones back then [laughs]. You traveled a long way to a town and went right on the phone until the job.

JW: What did George say?
JL: Well, first we tried to find other people to do the managerial thing other than myself so I could continue playing. We tried George's wife, but she wasn't really capable as the quintet became more in demand. She realized that. I tried to teach her what to do, but she didn't have any idea what was going on. I told George that I had to get off the road and manage us full-time. [Pictured: John Levy and George Shearing in the early 1950s]

JW: Did he agree?
JL: In 1951, George finally said, “Why don't you just take it over." I said, “OK." That's when we started John Levy Enterprises.

Who took over on bass?
JL: Al McKibbon. My first choice was George Duvivier, but he was working with Lena Horne and didn't want to make the change. There were so many great bass players around then, and Al was great.

JW: After all these years, what's the most exciting thing you ever saw in jazz?
JL: [Pause] The first time I saw and heard Duke Ellington's orchestra live. It was in Chicago in the 1930s. I was blown away. I couldn't believe I had heard those harmonic things, the rhythms and the solos. But there was something else.

JW: What?
JL: Later, when I saw the Ellington band in the 1940s, I couldn't believe that everybody in that band would sit around talking to each other the whole time they weren't playing. It was the oddest thing.

JW: What do you mean?
JL: When Duke would go from one song to another, he'd vamp solo on the piano for a while to set it up. The band members would all be talking casually to each other. Then at some point, they'd automatically know precisely when to pick up their instruments and start playing. To this day that amazes me.

JW: Where was the signal to play?
JL: Duke opened up every song from the piano. He'd fiddle around and things. But somewhere hidden in all that fiddling was a cue for the band to start. There was some note or something that made them realize it was time. Even when I sat in with the band I never could catch what the cue was.

JW: When did you sit in with the band?
JL: In 1945, when I was in New York. During our time off with Stuff Smith, pianist Jimmy Jones and I used to go up to this radio show in the afternoons to watch Duke's band play on the radio. We'd just go in and sit in the audience. Back then, Duke had two bass players who'd play at the same time--Junior Raglin and Al Lucas.

JW: What happened?
JL: Duke vamped on the piano on a song but the two basses up on the stage remained on their sides. Al and Junior hadn't come back from their break. Duke looked at me while he was playing and mouthed words for me to pick up one of the basses. So I did. The music was on the stand and I started to play. But when I reached the end of the music on the sheet, I turned to Sonny Greer [pictured], the drummer, and whispered, “The music ran out, there's nothing left. What do we do?" Sonny said, “Just keep on playing."

Did the band come in?
JL: Just as Sonny said that, one by one the different sections of the band started to play. Then Junior came up on the stage and picked up the other bass. Then Al came for his bass that I was playing. I managed to play the intro and about a chorus of the song. That was an amazing experience.

Did Ellington know you?
JL: Oh, yes. I knew Duke on a personal level. He had come to my house in Chicago several times for dinner because the woman he eventually married was like my sister. I knew Duke on another level.

You had quite an ear to run a bass line with Ellington without music.
JL: It's funny, I used to sit next to Leonard Feather [pictured] at the Playboy Jazz Festival in California. He was there to write something about someone. While the person he was writing about was playing, Leonard leaned over to tell me what he thought. I had a different take and told him why. Then when his article came out, I would see some of my view in there [laughs]. Leonard was a great guy. I saw him often when he moved out to California.

JW: Feather picked a good seat didn't he?
JL: Oh yes [laughs]

JW: As a business owner, what's the secret of getting people to give you what you want?
JL: Know the person you're dealing with.

JW: What do you mean?
JL: You need to know the other person's aims first and not automatically start pushing for what you want. When you know what that other person wants, you can structure what you want around it. Then you'll usually wind up with a deal. As for managing talent, you need to know a musician's ambitions, where the musician can go and how far you can take them. These are things you have to think about first, before you make decisions, not later. [Pictured: John Levy and Shirley Horn, circa 1963]

JW: Once you know a musician's goals, what's next?
JL: Knowing how much you can do to help them reach their goals.

JW: So you don't set goals for them?
JL: I've never set goals for anyone I represented.

JW: Why not?
JL: My role was to do everything I could for them with my knowledge, my connections, my feeling about music and what I hear in my head. But all of this has to work with their own ambitions and abilities, not my view of them.

JW: But didn't you always want talent to go all the way?
JL: All the way is different for each individual. Most of a manager's time is spent putting people together who want the same things. Quincy Jones has an incredible ability to do this, even among people who don't like each other [laughs]. You have to get to know the person you're representing. Once you do, you build trust with the person. Trust comes when people realize you don't have any personal things going on, like looking out for yourself. You have to look out for them first, and then for you. But up to a point, of course. [Photo of John Levy with Quincy Jones in 2007 by Devra Hall Levy]

JW: How so?
JL: You always get to a point with the people you manage where they think they know it all. They second guess things because they're not objective. Then you and those people part ways. I was fortunate that when I parted with most people, I maintained good relationships. Except one. [Photo of John Levy with Sonny Rollins in 2008 by Devra Hall Levy]

JW: Who?
JL: Dakota Staton, but that was because of her husband, who insisted he knew best. He didn't, and his involvement messed up her career.

JW: You'll be 98 years old in April. What's the secret of a long life?
JL: Clean living, no hate, no animosity, no trying to keep up with the Joneses and plenty of laughter. I'm 5 foot 11 inches tall and have never been over 160 pounds in my life. I keep my weight down, and I don't indulge in anything to any great extent. And I have the greatest wife in the world. [Photo of John Levy by Leroy Hamilton]

JW: Never drank, even back in the 1940s?
JL: Years ago, during the 52d Street days with Stuff [Smith] and them, you almost had to drink [laughs]. But I never overdid it.

JazzWax pages: John's two memoirs written with his wife Devra Hall Levy--Men, Women and Girl Singers (2000) and Strollin' (2008), a collection of photographs by John taken over the years of jazz celebrities--can be purchased here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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