A Personal Manager Beyond Category

In a 1961 piece, the British jazz critic and historian Albert McCarthy quoted from a letter sent him by a jazz musician: “Jazz is not just an art remote from life. It’s a matter of going out in the street and making a living…and the street is often a dirty place.”

That same year, in the July issue of Metronome, I used that quote in a column about how hard it was for jazz musicians to find someone who knew the business to guide them through the minefields on the street.

“Honest personal managers with stamina, confidence and knowledge,” I noted, “are exceedingly hard to find. John Levy, one of the very best, has almost more clients than he can handle.”

I first knew John as a bass player with, among many others, Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday and George Shearing. He thought of himself “as a good journeyman bassist,” but not a soloist. Yet Duke Ellington asked him to join the orchestra, but John turned him down because the money wasn’t that good and 52nd Street, where he was working, was much too exciting to leave.

When John became George Shearing’s full-scale personal manager-not just an agent-he was one of the first personal jazz managers in the business. And he was the first major league black personal manager. Through the years, his clients-many of whom became close friends-included Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson and Wes Montgomery.

At 89, still spruce and active, John has written the most revealing inside book so far on what is often “the dirty place” that is the business of jazz. Some of the lists of clubs, dates and trips could have been shortened, but with his chronic honesty, John has added significantly to the largely neglected history of what it takes to make a living in jazz.

Men, Women and Girl Singers: My Life As a Musician Turned Talent Manager is published by the Beckham Publication Group (phone 301-384-7995 or www.beckhamhouse.com). It was written with Devra Hall, a longtime business associate of John’s and now his companion. She is the daughter of guitarist Jim Hall.

I don’t have the space to go into the stories about the off-stand lives, reverses and resilience of the many musicians John chronicles. But to give a sense of his unsparing look at the predators on the business end, he writes of Birdland in its glory days: “It was really gangster dominated. You could always see these thugs sitting around in there, so you knew.”

I was a regular at Birdland, and one night, I saw a familiar big-time living mug shot. A waiter identified him as a prominent member of what millions now see in The Sopranos. He was not at Birdland to dig Count Basie.

Of particular value in the book, however, is what it tells of how pervasive Jim Crow was in the music business. Not only on the road for black players, and managers, but in the record companies.

During the 1950s, when John signed George Shearing to Capitol Records, John said to Nat Cole, who was doing a session with George Shearing: “The only black person in this entire company is the janitor.” By the early 1970s, John writes, “Arnold Larkin was the first black man to be on the legal staff at Capitol, and he knew where the bodies were buried and how much the different artists were making. This time around we doubled the amount of Nancy Wilson’s advance.”

In 1976, negotiating a deal for another artist with Warner Brothers Records, a lawyer John consulted about the contract told him: “This is the black deal.” As John explains: “The recording industry used two separate types of contracts: one that they offered to white artists and another that was used for black artists. The royalty rates were usually lower, the advance was always lower and the amount of money they put into promotion was always lower in the black contracts. Except for the black superstars-they get a very good budget…And sadly, I don’t believe that separate black arrangements have really changed that much.”

The book also points out that the first black executive at a record company was Quincy Jones-as late as 1961.

Quincy wrote the introduction to Men, Women and Girl Singers. He says the book “is especially important for aspiring young blacks, who in a lot of cases have had no exposure to the history of the people or personalities that have made it possible for them to be able to perform or to follow their craft.”

With so many colleges now offering courses in the history of jazz, surely some scholar with an MBA degree may finally do a comprehensive history of the jazz industry. I once heard a booking agent on the phone selling Lester Young as if he were a piece of meat. He knew nothing about Pres’ stature-just about his own commission.