(7/1/1934 - 10/21/2008)
I’ve been leading the Big Phat Band since 1999, and as any big-band leader will tell you, keeping things afloat requires a good amount of resolve. You must keep going in the face of an onslaught of “No thank yous” that come your way, and sometimes it feels like you have the whole culture lined up against you. Then, one night after a concert at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, Calif., I met Peter Levinson, who would go on to show me what the word “perseverance” really means.
I didn’t know Peter prior to that night (although I had the book he had written about Nelson Riddle) but as our relationship evolved, I realized that I had stumbled onto someone who believed in what we were trying to do, perhaps more than anybody else. He was unrelenting in his promotion of the Big Phat Band and would simply not take “no” for an answer. He secured features and articles on the band in all the major jazz publications (including JazzTimes) but also in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. When was the last time you saw a feature on big-band jazz in Time magazine? That was a huge accomplishment by any measure. Peter was the only guy who would call me to push me about things he thought I should be doing to promote the BPB. And even if I hung up the phone with more items on my “Stuff Peter Wants Me to Do List,” I would often catch myself thinking, Man, this guy really digs our band!
Peter’s commitment to his clients was borne out in a variety of ways. He wasn’t an agent, but he got us gigs all the time. He wasn’t a manager, but he would help hook us up with other artists to collaborate with. He would work on the project even during the times he was “off salary” at the label, which told me how important the advancement and preservation of this music was to him. Even though the success of his clients was very important to him, whenever something did not pan out, or whenever I passed on one of his suggestions, he never took it personally. He would move on to the next topic. A real pro.
I would sometimes feel the weight of all the jazz history that Peter helped build when he would say things to me like, “You sounded like Woody Herman when you said that,” or, “You reminded me of Stan Kenton at the gig last night.” Look at some of the names on his résumé: Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, Jack Lemmon, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé. In all candor, it’s a little surreal to see my name near the end of that list. But in the end, it is a source of great pride for me that the Big Phat Band was one of Peter’s last projects, and one that brought him joy.
On Dec. 2, we held a memorial celebration of Peter’s life at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had the honor of hosting the evening. There were many people who came up to give their remembrances of Peter and they were both touching and funny. Peter had a rough year as he battled various physical symptoms from the ALS diagnosis he had been given. He was a man of energy and passion, and it was hard to picture him slowing down in any way. So when the call came to tell me Peter had passed away from injuries sustained in a fall, I found myself feeling conflicted. Although I was not prepared by any means to lose him, in the back of my mind I had been dreading watching my friend go through the kind of tragic slow decline that victims of this disease must endure. In the end, I had lost a friend and supporter unlike any I had ever experienced. And so has big-band jazz as a whole. Peter would want us to keep going, and we will. But I will never forget that night at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City when Peter Levinson came up to me and changed my life.