Stan Levey was an innovator. At the very center of the jazz revolution that made the 1940s turbulent and so musically interesting, he took his cue from visionaries of the drums—Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Shadow Wilson—and from older creative figures—Jo Jones, Dave Tough, and Sid Catlett—as well. Levey and these inspirational drummers developed new ideas and techniques that modernized drumming and increased its musically.
In order for the drummer to directly relate to the matters at hand during the dazzling 1940s, to adequately deal with the changes generated by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—the primary designers of the music then known as bebop—a revised language for the drums had to be devised. Levey was closely associated with Gillespie and Parker and played with both of them, separately and together. It was clear to him that the old ways and means no longer were serviceable. By moving more and more deeply into the new music, and particularly by listening to Max Roach, he came to realize what had to be done.
Like most other young, searching musicians, Levey became a dedicated disciple of the ideas of Gillespie and Parker. It was his contention that the path to the future had been found. Many older drummers expressed in no uncertain terms their negative feelings about what the younger, more experimental drummers were doing. They felt their approach was wild and crazy. The entire musical establishment fought the new music, declaring it strange and unworthy of attention. “Not many dug what we were trying to do; most came by the Deuces, the Onyx, or the Spotlight [clubs on New York’s famed 52nd Street] because they had heard there was some really weird new music being played,” Levey told writer John Tynan, adding: “It was a freak show, I guess, and the musicians were the freaks.”
As time has proven, the music was the path to the future and valid indeed. Forty years later, we hear ideas stemming from bebop literally everywhere—in contemporary arrangements, commercials and jingles, and even in music played on easy-listening radio stations. The drum style that Levey had a part in introducing is now accepted fully; the techniques that stem from this manner of playing are used, almost without thinking, by young men and women of the drums. They’re a part of the literature.
In the mid-1940s, Levey had an almost immediate effect on contemporary drummers. He was one of the players favored by Gillespie and Parker. For this reason alone, young musicians inclined an attentive ear.
Phil Brown, a drummer who played with Parker later on, asserts, “Stan Levey was one of the originators—the first white drummer who could really play modern jazz. He had that fluid, relaxed, new kind of time. I loved his time, maybe even more than Max Roach’s. A pivotal figure, he just sat down and played, and made the musicians feel good. He didn’t overplay. He influenced drummers all over the country. I remember that, when I moved to the West Coast in 1948, the young drummers out there were talking about Max and Stan. They were the guys who played with and recorded with Diz and Bird. “
Irv Kluger—another drummer in the modern movement, with a view of the music from the inside—says, “Stan sounded sensational when I first heard him in the 1940s, because the rhythm players at that time didn’t know what to do with bebop. The music demanded technique and endurance. If you didn’t play correctly and had to fight your muscles, you couldn’t deal with the fast tempos that were so much apart of the music. You had to be able to go on for 25 to 30 minutes, playing at those lightning tempos. It wasn’t the only adjustment that had to be made to the new music, but it certainly was a major one.
“Stan had no difficulty. He had the ability to play strong but not loud, and not let up or give in. He was a sweet, forceful, energetic, excellent player.”
An important musician for over three decades, Levey remained active until 1973. A player of all the mallet instruments, a composer, and most of all, a great drummer who functioned with ease in a variety of musical circumstances, he brought a sense of dedication, love, and innate ability to his work. When he felt he had accomplished all that he had set out to do, he left music, on “the upbeat.”
“I felt it was time to move on,” Levey says. “I had played with all my heroes; not many people can say that. I had proven to myself that I could do whatever was necessary, no matter what the style of music or context.
“When I made the change, I moved into photography, a longtime interest of mine. I have a good business here in Sherman Oaks [California]. I’m happy; I feel good. But I wouldn’t trade my years in music for anything!”
SL: I started playing the instrument when I was about seven years old. I had a natural affinity for beating on things—for drumming. My parents got me a tiny drumset when I was nine or ten years old. The first thing I did was set my drums up by the speaker of the radio and play along.
Radio was so very important to me and to all kids who liked music. If it weren’t for radio, and the musical broadcasts through the day and into the late evening, I don’t think any of us ever would have learned anything. Who did I listen to and like? Ozzie Nelson & the Cliquot Club Eskimos. No kidding. Nelson’s wife, Harriet Milliard, sang with the band.
BK: The next step was into neighborhood bands in Philadelphia, your hometown, right?
SL: In North Philly, where we lived, the people interested in music gravitated toward one another. There were little bands in the neighborhood. I became part of one and played dances—school functions mostly. I remember that we played the Temple Youth Club things at Temple University, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening.
BK: We all have a first idol and influence. Mine was Gene Krupa. Who impressed you most when you were a kid?
SL: Chick Webb. He was startling—absolutely incredible. I saw him at the Earle Theater, where all the major bands appeared in Philly, with Ella [Fitzgerald]. That must have been in 1937. As you know, Chick was very, very small. All you could see over that 28″ or 30″ bass drum was his head and those flailing arms.
The guy was a complete departure from anything I had seen or heard. Most of the drummers were just timekeepers. Chick brought much more to the music. He was so inventive and always enhanced what the band played. Certainly you’ve heard his old Decca record” Harlem Congo. “It gives you an idea of how well he played. But really, you had to dig him in person. Because Chick had a very distinctive way of doing things, and because what he played made so much sense, he had a major effect on the way I thought about drumming.
BK: Tell me about how you learned to play the instrument.
SL: It was mostly by listening and watching others play. As I said, I went to the Earle Theater and to Atlantic City. I got an idea of what people like Krupa and Buddy Rich were doing.
I wish I’d had a teacher—a real good one. But there weren’t too many around in those days. If you had natural ability, you figured out what you saw and heard, and you ultimately used it in your own way. There was no information about how to hold sticks, or how to set up and put a drumkit together. Because of this, I started playing left-handed. I’m a right-handed person, but it was easier for me to work my hands from the left-handed positions. When I finally got to see a lot of drummers, I realized I had things ass backwards. But by this time, I was locked in. It felt good to play left-handed. So I figured, the hell with it.
BK: There were top teachers in New York, like Sanford Moeller, who taught Gene [Krupa], and Billy Gladstone, who worked with Shelly [Manne] and a few others. Do you mean to tell me there was absolutely no one to help you get on the right track?
SL: I did find one or two instructors who took me as far as their capabilities permitted. But there wasn’t anyone who really could get deeply into it. I had to rely on my own instinct and ability to pick up things.
I believe in studying. Later, when I became a mallet player and composer, I did a lot of studying. But as far as drumming goes, I feel you shouldn’t overemphasize the academic side of things. Learn to read properly. Learn to interpret what you see on the paper. Take those black dots—those notes—and make them into music. If you combine practice and study with on-the-job training, the results generally are quite good. You develop “chops” while getting close to music and understanding it. There’s no better way of moving to the center of the creative process than by involving yourself directly with the music in a band, and participating as it takes shape and comes to life.
BK: Irv Kluger remembers hearing you play piano in a jazz club in Philly called the Down Beat when you were very, very young. But the next time he saw you at the same place, in 1942, you were with Dizzy on drums. Diz was so central to your development. Let’s hear how the link was made and what happened thereafter.
SL: The Down Beat Club was near the Earle Theater—on the corner, upstairs. So naturally, I drifted up there. Each time I passed, I could hear the music; it just spilled out of the open windows.
Jerry Gilgore, the drummer in Dizzy’s group, was leaving to go on the road with the Jerry Wald band. Diz was looking for a drum mer. I just happened to be at the club. We started talking. He said, “Come on and play.” I did. He liked what he heard, and I got the job for $18 a week. We played six nights; the other guys in the group were Johnny Acea [piano] and Oscar Smith [bass].
Diz was a marvelous teacher and so encouraging. He freely gave of himself to young musicians. I remember that he used to take me aside—as you know, he’s a great drummer—and execute what he felt should accompany his music. He told me about Shadow Wilson and actually showed me what he did. Diz’s drum technique wasn’t great, but he got the sounds he wanted out of the instrument and illustrated exactly how to do things. I was only 16 and thrilled with our relationship.
His concept freed the drummer to become a real contributor to the band. Sure he wanted good, integrated time. Most of all, though, he wanted the drummer to make statements, to use his imagination, and play what he heard. He almost forced my talent out into the open.
Diz had so many terrific rhythmic ideas. “Salt Peanuts”—remember how that was put together? The tempo was almost impossible; Diz worked out the patterns and spoon-fed the whole thing to his drummers. After you had played it for a while, it didn’t seem difficult at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
BK: When did you catch up to Dizzy again?
SL: In 1944, in New York, after he formed that group with Oscar Pettiford [bass], Don Byas and later Budo Johnson [tenor sax], Max Roach, and George Wallington [piano] that worked the Onyx Club and made such an impression on everyone. I stayed on in Philly, following my association with Diz. I was young]
Carl Warwick, a fine trumpet player known far and wide as “Bama,” encouraged me to make the move. A sweetheart of a guy who went on to play with so many bands—he worked with Diz and Buddy Rich—Carl insisted I pack up and go to New York. “Everything will be alright,” he said. “I’ll help you.” I was a scared little kid and needed the encouragement. So in the summer of 1944, I came to the Apple with another drummer from Philadelphia by the name of Ellis Tollin. We roomed together.
My first work after I came here was with Oscar Pettiford. We went to the Tick Tock Club in Boston. It was a hell of a band, with Flip Tate on trumpet; the tenor man was Johnny Hosfield. It was about this time that Billy Eckstine made his debut with a wild, wonderful band including Bird and Diz, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons on tenors, and Art Blakey on drums. Art was beginning to get into a modern groove!
BK: Aside from Dizzy, who helped shape your style, and how did it happen?
SL: One night in 1944, I walked into the Onyx Club in New York, and listened to Max Roach. It was like lightning had struck me. I went crazy. Dizzy had told me what Shadow and Max were doing in New York. But I didn’t realize just how different and stunning their ideas were until I heard Max with the Gillespie group.
The ferocity of the playing was new to me. I never heard time split up like that. The approach to the drum was different from anything I had come across. Max used the drums and the cymbals in a new way; his playing had music within it. What can I say? Max changed the course of drumming. He showed what had to be done. It no longer was just a matter of keeping good time; a drummer had to color and give the music a more well-rounded feeling. He had to offer something extra—be a contributor.
Max was responsible for developing my concept of music. We became close friends. Whenever I could, I got up very close to him in a club and observed. Max was breaking things up between his hands and feet in a manner that, at first, was puzzling. Certainly those techniques had not been used in just that way before. And when you finally caught on to what he was doing, it was a real revelation!
I was incapable of playing the way he did. But he had an underlying intensity and spirit, particularly on the up-tempo things, that I endeavored to capture in my own work. I tried to incorporate certain elements of his style in my style—the looseness, the riffs, the fills, the musical sounds he created.
That period in the 1940s was one of the most memorable in my life. The years when bebop was surfacing have few parallels in jazz history, when it comes to creativity and the excitement that goes along with it. Max certainly was a key part of all that.
The music was the talk of the town. But we could barely support ourselves playing it. It didn’t matter then, but when you look back, there are a few funny stories.
Max and I shared one drumset when we worked at the same club. We put together a few drums and cymbals, and just played. That’s how you learn. Buddy can do that—sit down and play on anything.
Because of the shortage of money, one of us would put his drums and cymbals in the hockshop to pick up some money and enhance the cash flow. A few weeks later, out they would come, and the other guy would hock his set. It was a matter of eating, paying the rent, and having some walking-around money. Then I worked on 52nd Street with Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, and Allen Eager. I was George Shearing’s first drummer when he came from England. I had the privilege of being employed by the great Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard; his group, with Joe Thomas on tenor and Billy Taylor on bass, was a bit more traditional than the other bands with which I played. But the Street was a melting pot of jazz—all kinds of jazz.
The key guys, as far as I was concerned, were Dizzy and Bird. They were out of this world. Playing with them was the pinnacle. Everything after that was on the down side. I was their drummer at the Three Deuces on the Street in 1945, with Al Haig [piano] and Curly Russell [bass]. There might have been pressure because the musicians were so good and you had to produce. But the love of the music was so great that you didn’t feel the pressure. All I wanted to do was play—nothing else.
We went to California with that band at the end of the year for an engagement at Billy Berg’s in Hollywood. Ray Brown replaced Curly on bass; Milt Jackson was added on vibes. Bird made the trip but didn’t do too much playing during the engagement, because of personal problems, and Diz hired tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson.
It didn’t go awfully well for us. The music was fine, but the people couldn’t get with it. Some fans were hostile. We recorded in L.A. for Dial; it helped get our message out. I’m particularly partial to a thing we did called “Dynamo A and B,” which also is known as “Dizzy Atmosphere.” Bird didn’t make the record dates either. When we got back to New York, we again worked on the Street, with Leo Parker, on baritone sax, in place of Bird.
BK: Let’s hear about Bird, Stan.
SL: The man was a pied piper. He literally attracted musicians. When I first played with him I guess it was 1944 he had just come off the Billy Eckstine band. He looked like a used pork chop so bad it was ridiculous. You never saw anything like him. None of his clothes fit. His horn was all rubber bands and cellophane. But when he began playing, everyone who heard him responded! He was just terrific.
We met at the Down Beat Club when he was sitting in with the Coleman Hawkins group. One night, the drummer, Denzil Best, was late for the job. Because Parker and I had such an affinity for each other when we were introduced, he asked me to come up and play. During the first number, he just kept looking back. He gave me that grin. You’ve seen it. He liked what I was doing my time and the freedom of my approach.
We were like pancakes and syrup. I had no difficulty with Bird’s fast tempos. I could play that sort of time pretty easily. I don’t know why. I never practiced. I didn’t listen to music when I wasn’t working. I didn’t own a record player. I didn’t train. I guess the way I played had a lot to do with my attitude. I was determined, man determined to make a contribution and do my job well As time went on, Bird got some gigs on 52nd Street. We usually were hired for the off-nights, Mondays and Tuesdays: Bird and me, and either Joe Albany or Hank Jones on piano. I learned so much about phrasing from Bird. That may sound funny coming from a drummer. But the way he played alto saxophone indicated how I should shape time and structure my solos. Every time he played, he gave me a lesson.
BK: Wasn’t he responsible for your musical philosophy?
SL: Bird and Max were responsible for the way I thought about music. I came to realize that being “musical” on drums was the most important thing: honesty; no bullshit; no frills; get down to the basics of drumming; do what you’re supposed to do; no show biz; no theatrics; just sit down and do the job; play time and make other players feel good.
I turned away from certain kinds of drummers. The bangers: They were machinery hardware. I wasn’t interested in players whose pulse didn’t flow. There had to be a smooth sense of motion. I didn’t want to plod through four beats of each bar just to get to the end of the tune. I wanted everything to swing. When musicians looked back and smiled, I knew I was doing it. That was my style helping, contributing.
One thing, while I’m thinking about it, is that I’m a big one for simplicity. Unfortunately, a lot of drummers go into overkill when there’s a short solo to be played or a space to be filled in a chart. I believe in keeping things pretty straightforward. You tend to be more efficient that way. Mel Lewis is a good example. He plays uncomplicated things interesting sounds and rhythms. The music moves better if you do that. There’s no need to throw a whole career into a break. It’s really very distracting; it slows the momentum of the band and doesn’t enhance the swing in any way.
BK: Looking back to that crucial segment of your career, are there any other experiences that have remained with you?
SL: One thing I’ll never forget is my first record date in 1944. I was 18 years old. I had been around New York for only a short time when I got a call from Leonard Feather, the writer. He was putting together record dates for different companies at the time. He said to be at this studio on 57th Street; he gave me the time to be there and the studio number. I showed up a bit early to set. Before I go on, you must realize my age; at 18 you’re quite tender. I didn’t have that much playing experience. I’d worked with Dizzy in Philadelphia and had a few things around New York.
Anyway, the first thing I saw when I walked in was the king of kings Art Tatum! I literally froze in my tracks, because this was “the man” on piano. As it worked out, he was on the date with a number of other luminaries tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, both Joe Thomases the trumpeter and the tenor man and guitarist Chuck Wayne. It was an all-star date. How I got in there I don’t know. I was certainly delighted but, at the same time, very, very scared.
I was afraid to offend Art in any way, because I thought he was the greatest! So I just listened and used the brushes real easy. Afterwards and I’ll never forget this Art came over to me. He sensed it was my first time out, I’m sure. He put his arm around me and told me how much he had enjoyed working with me. “Keep up the good work. You’re going to be fine,” he said. It made me feel so good! That was one of the nicest things that ever happened to me. Art Tatum was a beautiful man as beautiful on the inside as his music was on the outside.
BK: I know your stint with Woody Herman’s First Herd in 1945 was another of those great times for you.
SL: One of my idols, Dave Tough, was in and out of that band. But he was around enough to make all the great records and to turn around an entire generation of drummers. Many nights when he didn’t show up at the Cafe Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania that’s on 34th Street in New York I’d go down and play. Sometimes it was as much as three times a week.
It was a wonderful band trombonist Bill Harris, trumpeters Sonny Berman and Pete Candoli, Flip Phillips on tenor sax, with Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti writing those great charts. I was around the band for a while, and spent three or four months with it on the road. That’s why I missed out on making those recordings with Diz and Bird. Sid Catlett was on the ground-breaking sessions in ’45 when they cut “Salt Peanuts,” “Shaw Nuff,” and “Hot House.”
I remember flying out to Indianapolis at one point when Dave had to make the complete break with Woody. There was a terrible hole when he left. But the band was a great learning experience for me. It really was the first big band that I had played with. I seemed to fall into it okay, and the guys gave every indication that they liked me. Woody was great. Having that experience made it possible for me to work in other big bands during the next few years. I spent short periods with Charlie Ventura, Freddie Slack, and one of those fine bands led by Georgie Auld.
BK: Before we go on to more of your story, perhaps you can answer some questions that have to do with your taste. Aside from Chick Webb, who are some of the other drummers who have been influential on you or others?
SL: Sid Catlett. He was a big baby doll about 6’3”, 250 or 260 pounds and just as sweet a man as you’d ever want to meet. He encouraged young people. You didn’t find too many people like that, back then. He’d show you anything you wanted to see, and he’d talk about things he couldn’t do.
Sid was a most mature musician a thinking and listening drummer. He was very open to what was going on in the front line and very sympathetic to all music. He was beautiful class Dave Tough very simpatico a listener, timekeeper, swinger. He could move a band and get it in gear. He had it all.
Buddy Rich: When I first saw him with Artie Shaw in 1939, I wasn’t impressed. As you know, he was good, even then. But later he changed. It seems like he became more conscious of his surroundings. He always had this fabulous technique. But then he matured musically. Today Buddy is incredible. He was a great influence on me. But I wasn’t aware of how good he was until later on when he really got it together.
Gene Krupa turned everything around visually. He also was an excellent player very advanced for his time. He brought the drums and drummers to the attention of the public. He was a great showman and an innovator when it came to the drumset itself.
Louie Bellson: Early in his career, I had the same feelings about Louie as I had about Buddy. He, too, matured later on. He was always a good musician but became more musical as he got older. Today he’s doing fabulous things as a writer and a bandleader and just growing all the time. Louie is a great influence on many, many drummers, and that’s as it should be. He’s a great talent.
Jo Jones was an original who changed the sound of the cymbals. He had a beautiful, floating hi-hat sound. The sound was perfect for the Basie band. I think it was a great gift to drummers. Jo changed the flow of the beat. He took the chopiness out of it and taught drummers how to really swing—a great, great innovator and a hell of a soloist.
Shelly Manne was another innovator. He had an original style, and made a whole bunch of interesting, provocative sounds that enhanced the musicality of any band, group, or singer with whom he played. Just before he passed, he was playing better than ever. Shelly was a fine drummer and a fine guy.
Mel Lewis is one of the really great big band players. He takes control—keeps a band in line. He lets the band sit right down on him. He has the talent to make it all work.
Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones have to be on my list. Another guy I really like is Jimmy Cobb, the drummer who was with Miles [Davis] for so long. Jimmy has everything I like in a drummer. He has good ears. He’s simpatico, swinging, never overplays, and adapts to his surroundings beautifully. Cobb takes care of business and does what a drummer is supposed to do.
BK: How about younger drummers?
SL: The young drummers are miraculous. Some of them have great reading ability and an unusual amount of technique. The reasons are not difficult to find. There’s more music available to them on records and tape. Most important, there are more instructional institutions and written material. In my day, we had to wait six months for a good drummer to come through with an interesting band.
The kids today are brighter and quicker; they’re better and definitely younger when they get into music. I like John Guerin, who by today’s standards is an old man. He must be 38 or 40. I knew him as a kid, and he had great ability to play jazz and cross over into pop and rock. He’s very good. Victor Feldman’s son, Trevor, plays very well, too.
BK: How about equipment? What was your setup like? Do you approve of what youngsters use today? Some of the kits are terribly ornate—so many drums and cymbals.
SL: I generally had a setup that included a 20″ ride cymbal, a 15″ cut cymbal, 13″ hi-hats, two tom-toms—one on the bass drum and another on the floor—bass drum, and snare. Yes, they’re using more drums and cymbals these days. But they’re using them. It’s not just a matter of cosmetics. The number of cymbals and drums that make up a set today is apropos of young players’ technique and ability.
Just a side comment: I have a son who plays drums. He’s studying to be a doctor. At the age of 15, without any instruction—a little bit from me—he was able to sit down and do things. Within six months, he could get around the drums faster than I could— play rock better than the old man. It’s just what’s happening out there. The young people have had so much more opportunity for growth.
BK: What are your feelings about small and large bands? Which do you prefer and why?
SL: I like small groups—you know, trios, quartets, quintets, whatever. They’re great fun. You can stretch out a bit and make statements. With a big band, you’re limited by the chart. You’ve got to play the arrangement, and there’s only so much you can do with that.
In a big band, your job is to tuck in the ends. I’m sure you’re wondering what I mean by that. Well, I always visualize the drummer sitting more or less in the center of a big band, and trying to control and unite this bunch of musicians. Some of the players are not easily guided and slip out of your grasp. These are the ones who give me this mental picture of tucking in the ends. You’re always trying to whip people into order. Here you are trying to establish a good feeling and move the band, and you have to be big daddy as well. It may sound strange, but that’s how I see it.
So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s small bands, hands down. You can do things—experiment. Of course, your sound has to be less wide-ranging—softer and more concise. But there are so many built-in advantages in small bands. They’re for flying. Big bands, by comparison, are for walking—and sometimes with difficulty.
BK: As it turned out, your next key job was with a big band: the Stan Kenton colossus. What was the year you joined that orchestra?
SL: That was 1952. I had my own band in Philly a quartet with Richie Kamuca on tenor, Nelson Boyd on bass, and Red Garland on piano. We worked the Rendezvous Club and several other places in town, alone and backing acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
Stan came into town and played a big club. Conti [Candoli] and all my friends were in the band. Stan wanted a stronger drummer to hold things together, and he hired me. That was a very loud orchestra very ponderous. I never came across anything quite like it. I almost had to start working out with weights to keep up with it. I wasn’t too thrilled with the rhythm section. I’m sure the guys were more than adequate, but the section never really jelled. Probably the band was too overpowering; you couldn’t move or maneuver the thing too easily.
Over and above that, Kenton was a very open guy; he’d experiment and allow each of his musicians to live up to his potential. In a way, it was an avant-garde band. That was good. And so were the people in the band. Bill Holman and Bill Russo did a lot of the writing. Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz were in the saxophone section. We had good players!
It was a tough, very demanding physically demanding job for a drummer. But I did get some very good reading experience. The arrangers wrote in different time signature 7/4, 5/4 things like that. It was a step up in learning, and that part of it I enjoyed.
Just a little sidebar on the Kenton thing: I used to break very large Zildjian cymbals regularly. They were anywhere from 22″ to 24″ cymbals. That’s how loud I was playing at the time. The Zildjian people told me they were very happy when I left the band and retired to quieter work. Yes, I used to crack them pretty good. And it got expensive, I’ll tell you that!
All in all, it was a very interesting experience. I was sad when Stan passed; I miss him. He was a good man.
BK: Let’s talk about what happened after the two years with Kenton.
SL: I went with the Lighthouse All-Stars. It was Howard Rumsey’s jazz group at the Lighthouse, a club in Hermosa Beach, CA. I stayed six years and played with so many great players on that bandstand: Victor Feldman, Conti Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Bud Shank, Sonny Clark, Marty Paich . . . That was a lot of fun. And the gig allowed us to stay in town L.A.. that is and do a lot of studio work. Six years is a pretty long time on one job, but that’s the way it worked out. Howard Rumsey was very innovative as far as looking for new people and sounds went.
After leaving the Lighthouse, I went on the road with singers for a while Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Pat Boone. This was more or less a means to an end. It was show business, and the money was good. One show didn’t seem too different from another; redundancy was built into this kind of work. There wasn’t much growth musically, as far as I was concerned. It was a matter of just doing the show and getting the money.
BK: The studio work entailed a lot of preparation and study, right?
SL: You have to play all the percussion instruments in order to work in TV, motion pictures, and on certain kinds of recordings. I had to become a mallet player. I dug in and studied marimba and timpani, among other things, and developed my reading ability. I was in my garage woodshedding much of the time. My teachers on the instruments included Emil Richards and Earl Hatch.
A lot of the time, I worked things out on my own. Reading all kinds of music duets, trios, Mozart violin concerti on my instruments was a primary activity reading, reading, reading! I even studied composing and orchestration with Albert Harris. I wanted to be a complete musician.
I moved pretty deeply into the studio scene. That’s called “making a living.” I did more than okay financially at the Lighthouse and in the studios. I made eight LPs as a leader one with Dexter Gordon, another with Max Roach. On some of the club jobs and records, I retained the feeling that first drew me to music that excitement.
BK: When did you think about getting out of music and making a new life?
SL: The work I was doing in the studios was difficult. After about eight years, it was just uninteresting. It was not musical not at all what I had started out to do. It seemed to get older and older, and weirder and weirder. It soon merely was a way of making money.
Don’t misunderstand: There were rewards.. I worked with Sinatra at ABC on a weekly show. I recorded with just about everybody: Mancini, Nelson Riddle. He was a taskmaster, but I knew better ways to make money.
I began a business in 1973 that incorporated my great interest in photography. I have five people working with me. We do videos and lots of still work. We have our own color lab and do our own color printing.
BK: Are you happy?
SL: Yeah. I did what I wanted to do and put it behind me in a peaceful way. What is more important is the fact that I packed it in on the upbeat. Things were still going well; I was getting an awful lot of work when I got out.
I didn’t want to start sliding. There are too many people I know who are really fine musicians and great players, but wind up not doing as well as they should. I didn’t want to end up wearing an old shiny blue suit and doing club-date work that I really hated. I saw that happening 10 or 15 years ago to guys a little older than me who were great musicians. It was appalling. The music business, like some other businesses, throws you out as soon as you get older and better, instead of giving you respect and a good job. It’s a discard business.
BK: What was some of the last work you did in music?
SL: I did the Mannix series at Paramount. My very last job was composing the music for five short movies for Walt Disney. I went out on a nice note, doing those films for director/producer Phil Abbott. I felt very good about the work. And when you think about it, that’s about everything for a musician the sense of excitement, the satisfaction.
Stan Levey has left behind on record a number of revealing examples of his work. Dizzy Gillespie: The Development Of An Artist, 1940-1946 (The Smithsonian Collection) contains tracks Levey made with his mentor in California in February 1946 that illustrate his taste, the flow, and the modern aspect of his playing in the midst of the bop period. Excellent recordings from this period and these include both Parker and Gillespie, with Levey on drums, Ray Brown on bass, and Al Haig on piano were made for V-Discs. If you can find any of these anywhere, grab them!
The 1949 Prestige quartet sessions with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, including “Prezervation,” “Crazy Chords,” “Indian Summer,” and “Long Island Sound” (Stan Getz DR 24019), further establish the feeling and creativity of Levey’s time behind other players. He was not a drummer much involved with technique, like some others; if he used his technique, it generally was in a highly functional manner.
His work with Stan Kenton can be found on the now out-of-print The Kenton Era, a four-LP set. His playing on a live performance of Bill Holman’s “Zoot,” showcasing the late Zoot Sims, is exemplary a little loud but quite moving. Other Kenton albums you might investigate include Kenton Showcase The Music Of Bill Holman And Bill Russo (Creative World),” The Creative World Of Stan Kenton: The Fabulous Alumni Of Stan Kenton (Creative World), and Stan Kenton: Artistry In Jazz (Capitol Jazz Classics, Volume II).
The final period of Levey’s career is well-documented on Stanley The Steamer Featuring Dexter Gordon (Bethlehem) and Drumming The Blues (Liberty). On the latter, Levey is co-leader with Max Roach. These recordings, indeed all the records featuring Levey at the drums, emphasize his straightforward, rhythmically communicative approach. He plays wonderful time and develops breaks and solos that simultaneously are simple, well put-together, colorful, and meaningful.
He was a drummer who listened to and supported his colleagues. What he played was helpful and relevant.