Interview by Molly Murphy
January 11, 2007
Edited by Don Ball, NEA
STARTING ON BASS
Q: Even though you're obviously best known as one of the best managers in the business, let's talk a little bit about just how your general interest in music came about and how you began playing bass. Was there any one or two pivotal experiences when you were young that really made an impression upon you?
John Levy: Well in the first place I was born in New Orleans, and in New Orleans they had funeral parades, and advertising for any kind of event was done by music. So as a child I used to follow these things. Any type of parade that came long, going to a funeral or coming back from a funeral or for advertising -- whatever was going on in the area at the time -- I would go hear this music. So that was my first experience with jazz music, which was Dixieland-type music. And for some reason the bass fascinated me, I just liked the fact that this guy was sitting out there on the end using his bow and hitting the strings, and that sound appealed to me.
Plus at home my family listened to a gramophone, as they called it; you know, it was the thing with the horn and all that. And we listened to all types of music and I remember Caruso, the opera singer. I remember him so well as a child; that was my first introduction to opera, to classical voice singing, which still exists with me today.
Q: So how old were you when you started playing bass?
John Levy: I was pretty well up into high school or that before I got around to playing bass and I just picked it up.
Q: So if you didn't pick it up until you were that age, how did you get into the meat of the instrument? Was it formal study or were you just playing with other people?
John Levy: The only formal study I had on string bass was from musicians in high school, and that was Milt Hinton and Truck Parham, and a couple of other people that helped me at that time. I just picked it up and started to play it, but I learned the technique of it from these people. In the days that I came along, musicians were very helpful to each other; they'd say you're fingering that wrong or using the bow wrong, and that's how I learned.
Q: Do you think people still are like that?
John Levy: No that's gone. They don't have that camaraderie and community feeling with each other. There's a couple of people like John Clayton and maybe one or two others that sort of try to help young players and try to teach them. John is very open to help the young, but that's not the standard practice.
MEETING GEORGE SHEARING
Q: So you went to New York in 1944?
John Levy: In the 40s yeah, that's about right.
Q: So I want to ask you about playing with George Shearing -- how did you hook up with him?
John Levy: Oh that came out much later. I was in New York for a while before I met George Shearing.
Q: Wasn't that about a year after you got to New York?
John Levy: Oh it was longer than that, yeah, yeah, it was longer than that. I first met George when Leonard Feather was introducing him, taking him around on 52nd Street and around New York introducing him to people. Then I think George went back to England, and when he came back again I met him and I got to know him better when he was working at Birdland (but it was Eclipse before Birdland). He was working there with Buddy DeFranco and Denzel Best and they had a group together playing. In those days, three or four different groups worked in these clubs, and in the club at that time there was Sarah Vaughan, George Shearing's group, and the big band of Buddy Rich. Jimmy Jones was playing for Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy and I came to New York together from Chicago with the Stuff Smith Trio.
So there was a need for a bass player with Buddy Rich's band -- his bass player had to leave and it was the last week of their engagement. Jimmy Jones called me and said, "Buddy Rich is looking for a bass player and I recommended you, so can you come down and play?" I lived in Brooklyn and came on into New York and started working with Buddy Rich. George Shearing would sit by the bandstand every night, and after two or three nights he asked me would I be interested in staying over and doing a week or two with him -- I think he had two more weeks left in his contract. His bass player was leaving to go do something else with his parents or something. I said, "Fine," and that's how I hooked up with George after my week ended with Buddy Rich.
I started with George and Buddy DeFranco and Denzil Best, but that's not the original George Shearing Quintet. So when we finished that thing, Chuck Wayne and Margie Hyams became a part of his idea for a group and we started rehearsing and started recording. The group ended when Buddy got a good deal with, I think it was with Capitol, and we had a deal coming up with MGM, so they couldn't work together or record together. So George set up the quintet with Marjorie Hyams, Chuck Wayne, Denzil Best, and myself.
TRANSITION TO MANAGER
Q: So why did you make the transition then from playing to managing?
John Levy: Well that came through my experiences on the road with different groups before I got into that. What I found was that in each group that I worked with, I would always end up being, like I called it, a straw boss; in other words you take care of this or you take care of that and I always ended up taking care of the business end of things for them.
After being in charge a while, George all of a sudden got very famous after "September in the Rain" and that whole group of songs. He didn't have any manager; his wife Trixie Shearing was like the manager and I was advising her, telling her how it worked in this country and how, each city we went into, we had to report to the union. I used to take care of all of that for them. Finally I said, "You know, I can't do this and play bass because I'm up all day doing all this other stuff and arranging stuff." We worked on certain dates with percentages, and I ended up having to go out with [Trixie] to the box office and work out the percentages and collect the extra money on each thing. I said, "You guys need somebody to do this." So they looked around for somebody to do that kind of work and finally, the final decision was "Well, you're doing it, why don't you take over as road manager?" So that's how it started.
Q: And how did you feel about it, did you miss playing?
John Levy: I did a little bit at the beginning, but not that much. I wasn't a soloist, I would get in there and work and try to improve on what the soloists were doing. The instrument was meant as an accompanying instrument; it's the basic foundation of any group and that's what I thought about myself, as being a good journeyman, a first-class accompanying bass player. I didn't miss that too much, and I was with a group and it was a good combination and George gave me full control and I was respected in the business for doing it.
Q: How were you perceived as a black manager?
John Levy: Well because I had the full support of George Shearing and we were the number one group in the country, I had the clout.
George and I started up a business together and I was in the management end and would take on other clients. We worked that deal out how we would have the business and that was my beginning as an artist manager. That was unknown for jazz musicians at that time. I mean, you had like Jackie Gleason and all those people on radio and everything and they had managers but your average musicians didn't have any managerial help. I had the experience of working with people like Phil Moore who had done movie scores and everything -- not under his own name because he couldn't be recognized being black -- and then later on Benny Carter and people like that I got to know, so I knew how it worked and I advised anybody on the way to set up their business end of it. I set up business entities with all these people with their publishing firms and oversaw the management of their publishing. I didn't take over their publishing, and that was unusual at that time.
ON THE ROAD
Q: Do you have any road stories that stand out, like either where something was just disastrous that you were trying to organize or something that just went off without a hitch?
John Levy: You know, believe it or not, most things went off without a hitch. I ran into some opposition at times -- we ran into prejudice. We walked into a hotel in Salt Lake City and we had reservations and everything and Chuck Wayne's wife carried a little dog with her, she had a little pet, and [the hotel] had a long lobby, you know, to the desk, and the clerk at the desk said loud and clear "No dogs or niggers in this hotel." So we walked up to him and George said, "Well if they can't stay here, then nobody's going to stay here," and we walked out and called the promoter. The promoter came down and then arranged for another hotel where they could stay, but we still were never able to, at that time, live in a hotel with them. Al McKibbon, Denzil Best, and myself had to live in separate quarters.
This was our first tour across country with the George Shearing Quintet in those days, and we ran into little piddly problems of where to eat and all that so we finally decided partway through this tour -- I think we started that around Kansas City or St. Louis, long before we got all the way to the West Coast -- to just stop and pick up food and sandwiches and stuff like that and just eat on the road. We didn't eat in restaurants or any place like that to keep from having any embarrassment or trouble, because George refused to eat anywhere that his whole group wasn't allowed to.
Q: I hear so many stories like that from musicians; it's just so hard.
John Levy: It was pretty rough out there but then again, you know, I developed a mental attitude that I had to prove each time I went some place that you got to respect me and I'm going to respect you. The way I approached it, in other words, it wasn't antagonistic or anything, it was just like sitting down explaining, "This is the thing, we're doing this and if you want us, this is what our rules are, this is what you're going to have to do."
BUILDING UP THE BUSINESS
Q: So you obviously built your career and built all of your enterprises up to, in the 60s, being one of the biggest managers in the entire business.
John Levy: That's right. It was just fortunate that I happened to manage the top people at that time that came along. I didn't go out after anybody except one person; Shirley Horn was the only person. I heard her on the radio and I said "Who is that?" And this was well into my career, and I didn't take on any singers for quite a while. My first people were instrumentalists because that was what I knew, I knew musicians. But as far as singers were concerned, I didn't know that much about them and wasn't interested in managing them. Teddi King was the first female that I managed and that was because George had heard her and he wanted us to take her on, and she worked with us on a couple of gigs and stuff but it never really took off with her.
Nancy Wilson, of course, was through Cannonball. Unfortunately for Nancy, she came up at a time when it was after Sarah and Ella and Billie Holiday, and then here she was the youngest of all of these different ones and the things were changing. In come the Beatles and in comes this whole different thing happening in the business. When I entered [a contract] with Dave Cavenaugh, it wasn't to bring her in as a jazz artist, it was to bring her in as a pop artist, and we had the same promotional people, record promoters and everything out of Capitol as anybody else had, as Frank Sinatra had, as the Beatles had, as anybody had.
Q: So for you was that a shift, were you having to forge new relationships with new people in different venues, different record company situations than you had been?
John Levy: I didn't have any problem with that because business is business, and if you handle it the right way and you know what the market place is and everything, you have no problems. For example, we went to Las Vegas along with Sammy Davis Jr. and people in the pop field like that, and we did shows at the Coconut Grove -- it wasn't a jazz venue at all. It was at the top venue in California, and that was our first show, and I brought in people like Luther Henderson to put together a package. I was looking at what Lena Horne and people like that had done and that was where I was trying to take Nancy Wilson.
Q: How do you hope to be perceived by your peers, by the musicians in the business and people in the business? Do you ever think about that?
John Levy: I hope that people will remember me, you know, as a person of integrity and honesty and with beliefs that I was put on earth here for something other than making money. I'm not that religious but I do feel that I was put on earth to try to help people reach their full potential. Each person that I've managed, I've looked at their career in a different way and then tried to find out what their aims were and where they were trying to go and did my very best to put people around them and to work with people to help them reach their potential. I have no aims in any of it for me personally.
Q: Is there anything that sets jazz apart from other kinds of music that you hear today, whether it's pop music or blues or classical music, and how would you sort of describe the music or what the integrity of the music might be?
John Levy: As Ben Webster once said to me, "I can't understand how any horn player or any soloist trumpet player or musician in jazz can possibly improvise on a melody if they don't know the melody and the lyrics of the song that they are playing." In other words, if they don't know the melody of the song, and they don't know the lyrics or what the story is about of the song, then they can't improvise on it. [Webster] didn't use chord progressions like, you know, thinking in terms of this chord and I'll play this change on this chord and that chord. His thing was a whole melody -- a whole theme -- that he developed. To me, that is improvisation at its height, at the best, and that's the difference in my mind of the jazz music compared to any other kind of music.
Q: So with jazz it's not only just the feeling but also the knowledge to understand where that music is?
John Levy: Exactly. Exactly yes.