John Levy: Boss Bass

Nate Chinen on the bass legacy of this historic jazz businessman

John Levy, who died at his home in Altadena, Calif., on Jan. 20, will always be remembered as a trailblazing artist manager—one of the first successful African-Americans in that line of work, guiding the careers of many household names in jazz. He had also been a well-regarded bassist, though he closed shop as a sideman decades ago. His dual achievement, managerial and musical, was noted in all of the tributes published after his death. But as far as I know, none of them (including, for reasons of concision, the obituary I wrote for the New York Times) delved into the conceptual link between his experience as a bass player and his expertise as a manager. It was, I’d like to suggest, not an idle connection, but rather a key to understanding his legacy.

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Nate Chinen
By Noah Kalina
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John Levy

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Let’s start in the abstract, with an earnest question that will sound like the setup for a punch line. What do jazz bassists and talent managers have in common? They both work with the objective of maintaining forward progress and an even keel. Their realm of responsibility can seem quotidian, though it’s absolutely crucial. Typically they both have their hands in every measure of music we hear, without the incentive of a spotlight. Oh, and the good ones can barely keep up with all the work they get. (Ah, there it is.)

Levy was a few months shy of his centennial when he passed, and had spent much of the last decade or so engaged in self-reflection. With his wife and business partner Devra Hall Levy, daughter of the eminent jazz guitarist Jim Hall, he wrote an engaging memoir, Men, Women, and Girl Singers: My Life As a Musician Turned Talent Manager (Beckham), published in 2008. And in 2006 he took part in the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, in affiliation with the National Endowment for the Arts, which honored him that year with its A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy—the greatest honor of his career, he said at the time. (You can find the oral history transcript, which runs to an uncanny 99 pages, at smithsonianjazz.org.)

If you follow Levy’s story with the aim of teasing out connections, a few particulars stand out. He was born in New Orleans and later cited that city’s parade and funeral bands as formative, though he moved with his family to Chicago at age 5. He was an industrious kid, working odd jobs while dabbling in piano and violin. Picking up the bass in high school, he found his voice. “It is the basis. It is the foundation,” he later said of its role in the music. “As it turned out, my forte—or what I was best known for as a musician, as a bass player—was the accompanying part of it. I had the sense of rhythm and I had the sense of the bassline and what it meant to the soloist who was playing.”

By his own account, Levy always saw music making as one more job, a means of earning a living. He worked around Chicago, sometimes scaring up gigs for the bands he was with. Through a contact at the black musicians’ union he fell in with the violinist Stuff Smith, who was just then forming a trio. It was Smith who brought Levy to New York City, courtesy of a long-term booking at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. And because the Stuff Smith Trio recorded some sides, it’s possible to study Levy’s bass playing from this early stage, distinguished by his definitive downbeat and his husky, hollow tone. He does indeed lay a bedrock, though he’s not without his friskier side. One of the trio’s signature tracks, “Desert Sands,” begins with a slinky syncopation, played pizzicato by all three members; Levy keeps returning to this ostinato during Smith’s solo, between stretches of walking swing. The time seems to float when he does.

Levy appreciated the Onyx Club gig for its security—he liked to recall how he turned down an invitation to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra because the paycheck was better on 52nd Street—and for what it did to establish his name in New York. He recorded with tenor saxophonists Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, and backed Billie Holiday in her 1948 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. For a hot minute he was affiliated with the cultish pianist-composer-pedagogue Lennie Tristano. And he appears on one of the first recordings by pianist Erroll Garner, for Savoy; in an early sign of his negotiating skills, Levy demanded an extra $50 from Herman Lubinsky, the label’s founder-producer, after realizing he’d have to lug his bass up 30 flights of stairs. (This was Sept. 25, 1945, one day into a citywide elevator operators’ strike.)

More famously, Levy was a member of the George Shearing Quintet, a sleek but sprightly unit, at the moment that it scored a major hit with “September in the Rain.” Levy’s playing on that standard, and on brisker fare like “Conception” and “Move,” reconfirms his adeptness as an anchor. But the greater consequence of his tenure with Shearing was his transition to manager, which happened gradually and then decisively. Before long, Levy had set up a publishing company for Shearing, as he would for many others down the line. The artist roster for John Levy Enterprises eventually included Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Joe Williams and dozens of others, most notably Nancy Wilson, who spent nearly her entire professional career as a client.

Levy was a self-taught businessman, having never finished high school, and he cultivated an implicit air of trust with his clients, famously preferring a handshake to a formal contract. Which is a strange way to run a business—unless you’re a jazz musician, conditioned to regard a verbal agreement as a bond. And as a bassist, Levy understood the properties of cohesion, in personal as well as musical terms. He knew about keeping time, articulating boundaries, averting tensions. And he seemed to approach the careers of his artists in much the same way that he’d approached playing: starting out with an unshakable foundation. At one point in his memoir, he touches on the notion of helping his artists to fulfill their own potential. “My job was to build with what they gave me,” he writes. The metaphor is clear—and build he did.

Originally published in April 2012

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