When John Levy arrived in New York in 1944, the bassist couldn't believe his good fortune. As a member of the Stuff Smith Trio, John and his white bass stood out and there was plenty of work. The union-enforced recording ban had just ended, and many small labels were surfacing to capture small-group jazz. While playing the Onyx Club for 10 weeks, John quickly fit in with the many different musicians performing in clubs along 52nd Street. During this transition period from swing to bebop, the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues featured acts from both jazz camps, and sidemen often had to adapt to a range of experimental musicians and styles. [Pictured from left: Denzil Best, Al Casey and John Levy at the Pied Piper Club in 1947]
Over the next three years, John recorded with a wide range of player-leaders, including violinist Smith, Charlie Ventura, Erroll Garner, Phil Moore, Don Byas, Trummy Young, Billy Taylor, Rex Stewart and Lennie Tristano.
In Part 3 of my five-part series with John, the bassist talks about Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Don Byas, Erroll Garner and Lennie Tristano:
JazzWax: Who introduced you to bebop?
John Levy: I heard a little of it in Chicago. I had seen Charlie Parker [pictured] there in 1941 when he came through with Jay McShann's band. But in New York, the style didn’t appeal to me right away. I didn’t really get involved in it until later. Most of the people I was with in the mid-1940s were still mainstream swing players. As far as the bass was concerned, bebop was more of a harmonic thing for soloists rather than a rhythmic thing.
JW: How so?
JL: No matter what anyone played, the bass still had to keep time and run the bottom line. Everything on up comes from that bottom line. I wasn’t getting thrown by bebop, since you still had the basic chord structure to work from.
JW: What was it about bebop that didn’t appeal to you?
JL: Harmonically, I just didn’t get a lot of it, especially in terms of ballads and how musicians twisted up the things I really liked. Now, I wasn’t one of those who put bebop down. If that’s what you had to play to make a living, it was fine with me. Bebop just wasn't my thing then. But I knew all of those bebop musicians and was friendly with them. Miles Davis and I were very close. I also liked Thelonious Monk [pictured], but I never got personally friendly with him. [Photo of Thelonious Monk by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
JW: Why not?
JL: I never understood what he was talking about. He wasn’t a relater. Meaning he didn't relate to people on a friendly basis. In my mind, Monk was in a completely different world. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated and understood what he did and what he was doing. I dug him, and played his material. I just didn’t get where he was coming from in his way.
JW: You recorded with Erroll Garner on some of the pianist's earliest sides as a leader.
JL: Yes. In September 1945. I had a falling out with [Savoy Records owner] Herman Lubinsky over that date [laughs].
JW: What happened?
JL: Herman [pictured] called a session at Savoy while the elevator men in the city were on strike. I didn’t know this until I got to the office building. When I got to the address, I called Herman from the pay phone in the street. Herman agreed to pay me an extra $50 to get the instrument upstairs and back down, which was a union rule.
JW: What did you do?
JL: I hauled my bass up 30 flights of stairs. When I got there, we recorded four sides with drummer George DeHart. We did Somebody Loves Me, Laura, Indiana and Star Dust. Then Herman tried to stiff me on the $50. Eventually he paid me, but we had a falling out over it. Later, Erroll [pictured] told me that just before I had called, Erroll had tried to get Herman to put off the date because of the strike. Herman had said no and asked Erroll if he could record without the bass. Erroll told him no.
JW: What was it like recording with Erroll compared with playing with Erroll on a gig?
JL: On a gig, Erroll would start vamping on an intro, giving the bassist a chance to figure out the key and sometimes even the song [laughs]. In the studio, we talked through the intros, interludes and endings he was going to play. There was a little more planning, but not too much [laughs].
JW: Did you know Dizzy Gillespie?
JL: Yes, sure. I was very friendly with Dizzy. He liked to be in charge—in a good way. He was a teacher and an organizer. He took time to explain and show other musicians what he was doing with his music. He was a great help to a lot of the younger musicians coming up at that time, especially Miles.
JW: Do you remember the Candy session with tenor saxophonist Don Byas?
JL: Oh sure. It was November 1945, for Savoy. Don was a beautiful guy. He was great to work with and play with. Don was the youngest of that group of tenor players—Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson and Don. They all played with that really big beautiful sound. Don left for Europe on tour with Don Redman in 1946 and decided to stay there.
JL: Don had marital problems. His wife was suing him and it was the only way he could escape her. Don [pictured] also was starting to have a hard time on 52nd Street. There were only so many slots for gigs, and a number of the spots on the Street were closing up or changing the kinds of acts they featured.
JW: That Candy session for Savoy was held the same day as Charlie Parker’s famed Ko-Ko record date.
JL: That’s right. We recorded in the afternoon, right after Bird, Diz, Max, Miles, Sadik [Hakim] and Curly were done. Usually sessions took place during the day not at night, when you played your gigs. It was Parker’s first record date as a leader. I got to Savoy’s studio early and saw some of that session. Miles was scuffling with Ko-Ko, which was based on Cherokee’s chord changes, so it was real fast.
JW: What happened?
JL: Miles couldn’t cut it. As I recall, he was having lip problems. His range and what they were trying to do at that time was just too much. Sadik had trouble, too, on the piano. So Dizzy had to play the piano intro and then switch to the trumpet. Originally, Savoy issued Ko-Ko on the flip side of my recording with Don Byas of How High the Moon.
JW: In October 1947, you recorded four tracks with pianist Lennie Tristano and guitarist Billy Bauer. Tough stuff?
JL: I fit in with Lennie [pictured] just fine. He was considered so far out at the time that everyone asked me, “How did you play with that guy?” Well, it was easy. I knew what the chord changes were. What happens on top is irrelevant to a bassist. My job is to keep time and own the bottom. The series of notes I’d play to accompany whatever was happening on top would be my own melody. While I was creating these lines, I was always listening to what was happening on top, no matter how far out. As a bass player, you need to be two different people at once, a listener and a thinker.
JW: So playing the bass requires two identities operating simultaneously?
JL: Absolutely. You’re playing what you have to play but you’re also listening intently to what the soloists are doing on top, to play off what they're doing. That’s what I got the most compliments on over the years. For listening and interpreting what I was hearing.
Tomorrow, John talks about Billie Holiday's 1948 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall, how he became an original member of the George Shearing Quintet in 1949, starting John Levy Enterprises in 1951, and who took over for him when he left the group.
JazzWax tracks: John Levy and Erroll Garner are together on the first four tracks of Erroll Garner: The Complete Savoy Master Takes at iTunes or here. John's tracks with Don Byas can be found on Don Byas: Savoy Jam Party at iTunes or on CD here. John's four tracks with the Lennie Tristano Trio are Supersonic, On a Planet, Celestia and Air Pocket. They can be found as a download on the French Classics' release Lennie Tristano: 1946-47 here.
JazzWax pages: John's two memoirs written 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 of jazz celebrities—can be purchased here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Erroll Garner, John Levy and George DeHart playing Somebody Loves Me, from September 1945...