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Drummer Stan Levey Dies

Bebop drummer Stan Levey died at age 79 in Van Nuys, Calif. on April 19. He died two months after surgery for cancer of the jaw, according to his wife, Angela. Although Levey worked with many musicians, including Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin and Benny Goodman, he is best remembered for his work with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Levey was born in Philadelphia on April 5, 1926, the son of a car salesman and boxing promoter. He was a largely self-taught prodigy who played left-handed even though he was naturally right-handed. When he was 16, he went to a local club where Gillespie was playing and convinced the trumpeter to let him sit in on drums. Gillespie was so impressed he invited Levey to join his band on the spot. Levey accepted and dropped out of high school to begin his career as a drummer.

When Gillespie relocated to New York, Levey followed and was soon playing in a small band led by Coleman Hawkins featuring Thelonious Monk for a recording in support of Art Tatum. Levey also supported Ben Webster and sat in with Woody Herman’s First Herd. During that same period, from 1943 to 1949, Levey also boxed professionally at Madison Square Garden and even shared a bill with Joe Louis.

Eventually, music won over boxing in Levey’s life and he continued to attract an increasing following for his breakneck tempos and difficult accents. He also attracted attention for being one of two white musicians in an otherwise all-black group, the other being pianist Al Haig.

In 1945, Parker and Gillespie formed a group with Levey on drums, Haig on piano and Curly Russell on bass. The group had a long residency at Los Angeles club Billy Berg’s, during which time Gillespie wrote standards such as “A Night in Tunisia” and “Manteca,” before the group self-destructed.

Levey returned to Los Angeles in 1954, where he spent five years with the Lighthouse All-Stars and recorded with the era’s best musicians. He also drummed on the soundtracks of hundreds of movies and television shows, including five Disney documentaries.

Levey retired from music in 1973 and became a successful photographer; he never performed professionally again. According to a New York Times article, his wife said he rarely talked about his days as a musician and many of his friends did not know of his illustrious past.

A documentary on his career, Stan Levey: The Original Original was released earlier this year.

In addition to his wife, Levey is survived by three sons, Chris, of Easton, Md.; David, of San Antonio; and Robert, of Aspen, Colo.; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Originally Published