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John Levy

John Levy will be awarded the A. B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy for a career of Management at the IAJE Convention at the New York Hilton on January 14, 2006.

Natalie Bernard has been referring jazz performers to me for potential interviews, internet exposure and the potential for some additional gigs from her roster of talent for some time now. There are people she represents such as Jane Getz, and Harold Land Jr. who are truly remarkable musicians. I will if I can always try to get a jazz artist a gig because live jazz wins converts. However, it has always amazed me how musicians, with years of experience playing, many with university degrees in performance will work for so little. A lot of times I hear, "Hey, I just want to play." It seemed to me that there should be some one or some way for jazz artists to get the exposure and pay they deserve.

One day while Natalie and I were talking about this situation she told me that she used to be assistant to jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson and that Nancy’s manager John Levy was about to be awarded a NEA Jazz Master Fellowship, the A.B. Spellman Jazz Advocate Award. John Levy is the third NEA Jazz Honoree who is being recognized not for his work as a musician but for his work as a jazz advocate, which for John is his career as the personal manger to many of jazz’s brightest stars. Mr. Levy appeared to me to be a person of the type that Natalie and I had been discussing and I asked her if she could arrange for me to speak with Mr. Levy. She put me in touch with Regina Davis owner of Davis & Associates Public Relations who represents Mr. Levy and Regina arranged for me to speak to John Levy.

On Saturday November 26, 2005 I spoke with John Levy by phone at his home in Altadena, California. For a man who has been in the business of managing successful musician’s careers and making deals that effect not only his business but their lives John has none of the tough-guy, steam-roller personality you might expect. Instead, he has a very pleasant demeanor, genuine charm and a warmth that comes through immediately.

Perhaps because he was born in New Orleans, grew up in Chicago, lived and worked in New York and Los Angeles, John doesn’t have a regional accent. Or it may just be that being around and working with musicians such as George Shearing, Shirley Horn, Joe Williams, Dakota Stanton, Julian Adderley and Nancy Wilson, just adds a certain mellow and very pleasing tone. But John has a strong smooth voice that must be comforting to the artist and persuasive to club owner or record company executive.

In addition to being an excellent communicator Mr. Levy has a highly developed sense of what a musician can achieve with the assets that he or she possesses. This is more than just spotting patent talent, it is an almost metaphysical evaluation of the personal traits and possible career trajectories, which enables John to gage what the limits of an artist’s gifts may be. This has led John to select for representation only musicians who he believes he can help to reach their highest potential. That selection process is also an ethical statement that John lives by; If he can’t help an artist reach his or her full potential, he won’t take that artist on as a client. Unfortunately, John Levy can’t do it alone, it also takes an artist who is willing work with the manager and do the hard work it takes to succeed. While not every artist John has worked with has reached their promised fullness a high percentage of them have. John has managed almost fifteen percent of the artists who have won the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

John was born in 1912 and you can do the birthday math, but talking to John Levy you know immediately that you are talking to a professional who is very much involved in today’s music business. John talks about projects he has going for his clients today and future projects he plans to get going. At the end of our talk he complimented me by saying that I hadn’t asked him foolish questions about things that happened sixty years ago, and which he has answered articulately in his autobiography. I was happy he felt that way because Mr. Levy is a busy man.

John Levy and George Shearing have played important roles in each others lives, and their friendship continues to this day. So it is fun to look at their biographies in tandem. John’s life story, "Men Women and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Manager" was written by John’s wife, Devra Hall. George Shearing’s story, "Lullaby of Birdland: The Autobiography of George Shearing" was written with an assist from Alyn Shipton. Both of these books are excellent jazz histories that chronicle the memories and records of two of the elder statesmen of jazz. Each book contains conversational and close -up descriptions of what it was like to play on "the Street," 52nd Street, during its golden age.

The histories are also interesting because they are personal histories of life in America from two people who were certainly not a part of the common crowd. Although both men were widely respected and loved by fans and colleagues they were both outside the mainstream, but managed to deal very effectively with it. The books are at least in part the history of a friendship that has now lasted 57 years.

However for those of you who have not yet read the book, John Levy started his professional career in jazz music playing the piano before becoming an upright bass player for the well known jazz violinist Stuff Smith in his small band. John had been possessed of a strange dream to work from behind a large wooden desk since he was a child. The dream seems strange looking back at it, because here was a bassist who played with people like Lady Day [Billie Holliday wrote of John "My bass man. The best of the best."] In 1949 John became the bassist for George Shearing in his famous quintet. It was with George Shearing that John Levy left his career as a very good, but in his own words, "Not the best bass player" and became George Shearing’s road manager. The chance that George Shearing gave John Levy to manage his career on the road and eventually his career in totality led to John Levy becoming the first black man to be a full time talent manager for a white artist. It was in this career that John achieved two things, he got his big wooden desk to work behind and he also got to be the very best in his chosen field.

I can say that John is and has been at the very top because of the following statement made by Cannonball Adderley when he called John Levy looking for a manager. Cannonball said "Miles [Davis] told me ‘there’s only one person who should manage you and that’s John Levy.’"

What follows are excerpts of my conversation with a John Levy, followed by some observations on what’s happening to jazz.

JAZZREVIEW: Hello John. I’ve been reading your life story and it’s really cool, it’s like sitting down with you and having a conversation. I’m really enjoying it.

JOHN LEVY: Well thank you. I’m glad you are enjoying it. I’m not that good with words. My wife, Devra, did the actual writing.

JAZZREVIEW: Well it’s great. Now is it okay if I start with the questions that I sent you?

JOHN LEVY: Sure lets do that.

JAZZREVIEW: What do you wish to be known as your most important contribution to American and World culture? Does this differ from what you believe you are known for now?

JOHN LEVY: I would like to be remembered as a man who used his knowledge, and the experiences that I gained from being a performing musician in the jazz field to help talented instrumentalists and singers reach their full potential as performing artists. Also as a person who helped to enrich the lives of the many people for whom my clients performed all over the world and who to this day can still hear much of that music on recordings that I helped to make.

JAZZREVIEW: What are the attributes that a musician or singer must possess to be successful and make a mark in the world of music and particularly jazz?

JOHN LEVY: The most important attributes that a jazz singer and or a jazz musician must possess is to know the melody and the lyrics or words to a song. In knowing these two elements you know what the song is all about and this enables you to improvise, which is the most important ability of any true jazz musician or singer. Also important is the need to develop a style of playing or singing that identifies you.

In today’s music most players and singers sound alike. This problem is not only pertinent to music. In all genres our culture copies whatever is successful. Just as in television where one successful show spawns many copies, the sounds of successful musicians are copied as well. Several other elements are more important, and are now required. You must be female and white, under twenty years of age, sexy looking, and can sing in tune: you are then a perfect candidate to be considered a jazz singer, and can get the financial support that is also an essential part of the equation for success, and of course, a record deal.

JAZZREVIEW: Well last night I saw Plas Johnson and friends with Spanky Wilson and they blew the doors off the place, but Plas is way over twenty and I believe Spanky is also.

JOHN LEVY: You mentioned two wonderful performers, immensely talented but not the kind of people that are considered successful in jazz today. They are not selling a million copies of their record. Where did you see them, in a little club?

JAZZREVIEW: I saw them at Founder’s Hall in Costa Mesa. It seats 250 and they do four shows over two nights.

JOHN LEVY: You see that is not success with a capital S; they won’t fill the Hollywood Bowl, that won’t get the support of a record company.

JAZZREVIEW: But they’re really good. I bought one of their albums, "Hot, Blue and Saxy."

JOHN LEVY: What label?

JAZZREVIEW: It’s self produced.

JOHN LEVY: They had no other choice. That’s not success. That doesn’t matter. Jazz is not under attack, it is being redefined by both the record companies and the media. Jazz is now where you put young white female pop singers who can not make it yet in pop. You put them in jazz which gives them legitimacy, you put a lot of money into promoting them, something that the companies never did before, which gets the name recognition, and then when they can survive you put them into pop. That is what was done with Norah Jones, she sold a lot of albums and now she’s back in pop.

This is not a black and white thing, Jazz is not black and pop is not white. However, when you put white pop singers into jazz, put the whole promotion budget behind them, it does exclude talented black singers and musicians.

JAZZREVIEW: In a way it is sort of Prior Restraint, preventing the public from ever hearing black jazz singers by preventing them from ever entering the forum.

JOHN LEVY: Precisely. Everything in the music industry now is measured by money, who’s making it, how much and how fast. It’s all that is important, it’s all that counts, the music doesn’t count, the artist doesn’t count, only sales, so if you stop selling records, or shows, they just move on to the next artist.

JAZZREVIEW: This isn’t the first time that I have heard this argument. I’ve also heard it from George Russell and I’ve heard it from Dee Dee Bridgewater. Dee Dee Bridgewater who has had a long and very successful career said that she is seeing and hearing much less of Cassandra Wilson, Nnenna Freelon, Vanessa Rubin and Diane Reeves, arguably all of whom fit into the top ten currently performing female jazz vocalists. Dee Dee said she bases her opinion on the facts these singers are not now getting gigs in the US, getting record deals in the US or getting airplay in the US. Despite long and very well established careers, there just isn’t the opportunity to be heard.

So the record companies are using jazz as a nursery for developing pop talent.

JOHN LEVY: Yes, you could say that.

JAZZREVIEW: What do you believe musicians at the grass roots level must do to preserve the traditions of this music?

JOHN LEVY: There needs to be integrity, if you are a jazz musician you must play real jazz music. In the traditional jazz of the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, musicians had distinctive sounds, creative styles. The music which is being called jazz today, particularly smooth jazz, is being made by players who are very proficient and well schooled very technical musicians. But in the smooth jazz of today it is not necessary to develop a style of play that is your own or very creative. Just play like David Sanborn, or Kenny G, and be able to improvise on a theme that has no more than three or four chord changes. This is why the music and the players all sound alike. It is meant to be simple to appeal to the listeners of Clear Channel Radio Stations who control the music heard on the radio today. This music does not require the concentration that a traditional jazz performance requires of the listener.

The young white and black audiences that have the money to buy records and attend concerts lack any kind of serious music education. Music education was once taught in the public schools of this country. The type of music that is being presented by black hip hop performers and smooth jazz fits their lack of music appreciation. Serious music education today can only be found at the college level.

It was the young black and white audiences that consumed the jazz of the thirties, forties and fifties. And that music was performed by both black and white musicians and singers. The music was important, the artists were important. Today, like everything else it is all about money, and how fast it can be made. The individual artist is not important, the music is not important, or they are important only to the extent of how much money can be made by the exploitation of both, and how fast.

JAZZREVIEW: What are you doing to fix these problems?

JOHN LEVY: I’m working on a program called "Vocal Legacy" which pairs extremely talented young black jazz singers Clairdee and Henry Johnson, who also plays guitar. If they had they come along forty years ago they would have had the recognition and success of a Nancy Wilson and a Joe Williams. These are singers who know the traditions, have the star quality and are affordable. Most of all, as they grow into mature acts with the proper recognition they are going to stay in Jazz.

JAZZREVIEW: You are a very positive person and a person of action. Of all the things that you have done in to this point in life, what was the most fun and gave you the most lasting enjoyment?

JOHN LEVY: The most fun and lasting enjoyment of my career, was and still is, to be able to enjoy the success of Nancy Wilson- Joe Williams- George Shearing Shirley Horn Julian "Cannonball" Adderley Wes Montgomery and many more artists, some of whom never reached the heights I perceived for them but to realize I had a part in helping them bring great music to their audiences all over the world, and some of it has been recorded for posterity.

Last but not least, I am going to forever remember and enjoy my receiving the A. B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy for a career of Management at the IAJE Convention at the New York Hilton on January 14, 2006.

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I would tend to agree with what John says the recording industry is doing to jazz. I additionally believe that this is an attack on jazz as a popularly recognized musical genre. This is first time in its history that jazz as the form is popularly understood is being changed not by the artists making the music but by the corporations financing the music’s recording and commercial dissemination. Jazz has always been dynamic and the older musicians have often said, there goes the neighborhood, when innovations came along, however, the changes from Dixieland, to Swing, to Bop, to Post Bop, and to Free Jazz were the brain children of musicians and composers who were making loving changes to the art that was their life. These changes were always made with some acknowledgement of the past and the past’s influence never disappeared despite some radical changes in the sound.

Whether the singers who are now being called jazz singers by their corporate sponsors think they are jazz singers, or that they bridge a gap between jazz and pop, or know they are pop doesn’t matter to jazz as an art form. The music that they sing and play does matter to jazz as the genre is understood. If the musical traditions that have made jazz are dislodged from the popular conception of what jazz is, jazz will have artificially become a different musical genre bearing no relation to the jazz music which was played on the radio, television programs and dance halls into the 1970’s and which is still played in clubs and on listener supported radio stations like KKJZ 88.1 FM and WBGO 88.3 FM.

Jazz’s roots are in Africa, it was born in the American South the music of African slaves, it was the first genre with mixed race bands. The jazz of today has incorporated all of the sounds of the Black Diaspora. The elimination of these sounds and their replacement with the simplified improvisation of smooth "jazz" created the first "non-jazz" jazz music and the elimination of the black vocalists from jazz created the second non-jazz jazz music. A genre which excludes the African from the sound and living and currently practicing black singers and musicians, can’t legitimately be called jazz.

Jazz has also always been a meritocracy, you rose to the top by being the best, and the best were most often anointed by their peers. Music that does not share this root stock isn’t jazz, it’s something else. Music in which prominence is decided by who gets the marketing dollars, is not jazz.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John Levy
  • Subtitle: NEA Recognizes Bassist Turned Talent Manager
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