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10/11/09

Devra Hall Levy
Strollin’: A Jazz Life Through John Levy’s Personal Lens

Self-publishing has its merits. It can be a remarkable font of first-person or primary source material and it can allow worthy subjects heretofore ignored by large publishing houses to have their day in the sun. The downside is that certain professional standards may not be met. Both sides of the coin are evident here.

This large soft-cover book is basically a photo scrapbook devoted to the life of John Levy, jazz musician-turned-manager, who turned 97 in April last year. Yes, 97. Looking through this book is very much like looking through Levy’s personal scrapbook of photos and memories. Although the book suffers from highly uneven quality of images and reproduction, there are many images that leave an indelible impression. For example, the chapter chronicling a trip by American jazz and soul musicians to Ghana in 1971 is filled with vivid images not just of performers like Roberta Flack, Wilson Pickett and Eddie Harris, but also of artists such as Les McCann and Ike & Tina Turner mingling with local villagers. There are lots of concert photos, as well as candid in-the-studio shots, and plenty of downright snapshots. Photos come from Levy himself, a notorious shutterbug, as well as from the author and Leroy Hamilton.

As a bassist, Levy played with artists such as Ben Webster, Errol Garner, Milt Jackson and Billie Holiday. But it was his working relationship with George Shearing that turned Levy into a music manager in 1951, when he essentially retired as a working musician. Levy went on to manage Shirley Horn, Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson and other notable jazz artists. The photos and accompanying text well illustrate Levy’s unique position as one of the earliest and most successful African-American managers of jazz artists. In the mix of photos and commentary by the subject, the book also conveys a palpable joy of life and music over nearly a century.

The project is clearly a labor of love by its author who is the wife of the subject and a professional writer. So it’s not surprising that Levy the author occasionally lapses into sentimental testimony to her husband’s talents and attributes. I can only hope my spouse would speak so highly of me when, make that if, I turn 97.

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