John was born in New Orleans in 1912 and moved when he was 5 years old to Chicago, where his father worked in the stockyards and his mother was a midwife. In Chicago in the 1930s, John began playing the bass in high school, taking lessons from schoolmate bassist Milt Hinton [pictured].
In Part 1 of my interview series with John, the bassist, manager and producer talks about his earliest New Orleans memories, hustling in Chicago during the Depression, learning to play the bass, and landing a job with violinist Stuff Smith and pianist Jimmy Jones:
Tomorrow, John talks about the origin of his signature white bass, manager Joe Glaser's role in the Stuff Smith Trio, traveling to New York's Onyx Club in 1944, not quite getting bebop at first, and the day Ben Webster convinced every club on 52nd St. to close.
JazzWax: Do you remember the sounds of New Orleans?JW: What do you remember most about the floats?
John Levy: I was 5 years old when my family left, but I remember the sounds of parades going to and from the cemeteries when someone passed away. I also remember the music that played to promote an event, like a fish fry. Any kind of social affair was advertised by a float carrying five musicians. [Pictured: The New Orleans house where John Levy was born; it survived Hurricane Katrina]
JL: They’d play through the neighborhood, stop and announce an event along with the place and time. Some floats used a billboard with a picture of the affair. But I recall the music more than anything else. [Pictured: John Levy's grammar school graduation picture in the 1920s]
JW: How did you become attracted to the bass?JW: What about the bass player?
JL: I just loved the sound. In those days in New Orleans, the trombone player and bass player were always standing at the rear of the float. That’s why they called the Dixieland style of trombone playing “tailgate trombone.” The trombonist needed the freedom to extend the slide all the way without hitting anyone.
JL: The bass player needed the same freedom to draw the bow back and forth unobstructed. Bass players back then used to hit the strings with the back of the bow, using it like a pick.
JW: So the saxophone didn’t grab you?
JL: There wasn’t much saxophone in those days on those floats. You had the clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums and bass. The bass player was most exciting to me, more than the trombone.
JL: I loved the pulse of its sound. Long after the float went by, you could still hear the sound of the bass resonating. And not just on floats. Back then, there would be neighborhood picnics out in the country and musicians would play. If you wandered away from the picnic area, you could hear the bass in the band from far away. One by one the higher-pitched instruments would fall with distance. But not the bass. Its sound carried. That stuck with me.
JW: What did your parents do for a living?
JL: My mother was a midwife and trained nurse. She was on the go all the time. In New Orleans, my father was a stoker at a roundhouse. He went to work at 5 am. A stoker was responsible for going to the roundhouse and building a fire in the train engines, to get them ready for the day. My father would go from one locomotive to another sparking a fire and stoking the engines. In Chicago, he worked in a hide cellar at the stockyards where they treated the skins of slaughtered animals. I only saw my father at dinner, and sometimes not even then. My mother might often be away tending to her business as well. [Pictured: John's mother, Laura Levy]
JW: Who raised you on a day-to-day basis?
JL: My grandmother.
JW: What did she teach you?
JL: Oh boy [laughs]. We’re going to have to do a whole other interview just to talk about that one [laughs].
JW: What were her big lessons?
JL: The big lessons were really just life: How to treat people, how to take care of yourself, how to cook, how to keep your house clean, how to keep your relationship with your family strong, and how everyone should treat each other. [Pictured: John's grandmother, Caroline, in 1926]
JW: After your family moved to Chicago, as a teen you promoted dances there. Where did you pick up that business sense?JW: What did you do after high school?
JL: I don't know. It just came out of left field. It had a lot to do with respect for other people and listening and learning. Most of my business learning came from the street, from asking questions, picking up on things and applying what I heard.
JL: Actually, I dropped out and went to work for the Post Office. When the Depression hit, the job ended so I ran numbers and started promoting dances. After Prohibition ended in 1933, the local clubs began to get busy again and I made some money helping to promote them and their acts.
JW: How did you learn to play the bass?JW: So Milt worked with you?
JL: I played a little in high school. But I really learned from Milt Hinton and Truck Parham [pictured] in the 1930s. Milt was four years ahead of me. I never had any formal lessons. Milt and Truck taught me mostly correct fingering and bowing technique. Milt and I both had gone to Wendell Phillips High School. I got close to Milt after high school, through the girl who would become my first wife. My girl and the girl Milt eventually married were close friends, and they had a social club together. That’s how I knew Milt socially.
JL: Yes, just before he went with Cab Calloway's band in the late 1930s. I went to Milt [pictured] and told him I wanted to learn to play the bass. He took a liking to me and agreed to teach me. I bought a standard practice book for string bass and studied. I also listened to a lot of people who played the bass professionally in Chicago and asked a lot of questions. [Photo of Milt Hinton in 1929, courtesy Hinton Family Collection]
JW: Were you a natural leader?
JL: [Laughs] I don't know about all that. I was probably just more organized than most musicians and had my priorities in order. I came to both of those things accidentally. When I was young, I had no idea how to be a personal manager or manage talent or anything like that. But as a bassist, I had to listen intently to the musicians I played with, which created a more heightened sense of intuition and sharper instincts. It’s funny, in every group I played in, I became the straw boss—the guy who stands in for the leader and gets the business done. I just learned as I went along. [Pictured: John Levy in Chicago in 1944]
JW: For example?
JL: When a band traveled on the road, the leader or an appointed member of the band had to report to the local union upon arrival where you'd be playing. Back in the 1940s, there were separate unions—a black one and a white one. When I played with groups with black leaders, you had to report to the black union. The union collected a fee. That was their hustle. You had to report in and pay. That job often fell to me to ensure it would get done.
JW: How would the union know you were coming to a particular town?
JL: Before you went out on the road, you sent the contracts ahead to the union offices. Then when you got there, you reported to the union, and the union collected its fee based on the club where you were playing.
JW: What was the turning point for you as a young musician?
JL: When I worked with pianist Jimmy Jones and violinist Stuff Smith in 1944. That was a very happy period of my life. I met Jimmy when I worked with Tony Frambo, a local bandleader in Chicago. When I played bass with the band, Tony had several different pianists who worked with us. One was Jimmy, and we got along fine right away and became close. He didn’t have any formal training and had learned all his stuff on the piano from the street.
JW: Jones had a beautiful sound, especially with chord voicings.
JL: Oh, yes. Jimmy [pictured] had picked up the four-string guitar on his own. That’s how he started out as a musician. That’s why his chord progressions sound that way. He voiced them based on his experience with the guitar. His harmonic sense was just great.
JazzWax pages: John wrote two memoirs with his wife Devra Hall Levy—Men, Women and Girl Singers (2000) and Strollin' (2008), a collection of photographs by John taken over the years. Both books can be purchased here. You can hear radio interviews and clips of John's playing with Erroll Garner, Stuff Smith and George Shearing here.