John Levy came late to the bass after high school in the mid-1930s. A teenage Milt Hinton agreed to teach him the basics, and John worked hard over the years that followed, practicing and playing locally in Chicago. Back in the days before bebop, the bass was the backbone of small swing groups, serving as time-keeper and audible pulse. In trios and quartets, the bass had to stand out, which required the bass player to produce a strong, thumping sound. By the early 1940s, John had developed that ability.
John also was entrepreneurial. Growing up in Depression-era Chicago had taught John how to turn $1 into $2 and why keeping one's word was so important and valuable. Increasingly, bandleaders turned to him to collect money from club owners and make good on payments to musicians, union officials and managers. The more John came through in the 1940s, the more he was trusted, first by local union bosses and then by top managers like Joe Glaser. [Pictured: John leading a group in Chicago in 1944]
In Part 2 of my interview with John, the business-minded bassist tells why he chose to play a white bass, how he came to play with violinist Stuff Smith and pianist Jimmy Jones, the role Joe Glaser played in booking the trio, and the day tenor saxophonist Ben Webster shut down 52nd Street:
JazzWax: How did you wind up playing a white bass?
John Levy: The first bass I bought was at the Wurlitzer music store in Chicago in the early 1940s. I went there by myself. There were basses all lined up. I went down the line and played each one. When I came to this white one, I didn’t care much that it was white. It was made of plywood and I liked the sound and depth [pause]. And it was affordable [laughs].
JW: What did friends think about the instrument's unusual color?
JL: People commented on it but the results were fine with everyone. It didn’t have a great sound with a bow, but I didn’t do much bowing except when I practiced. Not many bassists bowed then, except Slam Stewart [pictured] and later Jimmy Blanton. Other than those guys, it was mostly old timers who bowed.
JW: You had this big white bass and no one had anything to say about it?
JL: People made comments in the beginning. But then it just got to be, “John Levy plays a white bass.” Wurlitzer sold a lot of them after that [laughs]. I had that bass through my whole career practically.
JW: So the bass we see in photos and in video clips is the one you bought originally at Wurlitzer?
JL: That's right.
JW: You never felt you should trade up?
JL: Trade up? [laughs]. No [laughs]. You know, people can’t understand a lot of things in that sense. Music for me was a means to an end. It came naturally to me. My whole thing was family, to take care of them and make enough money so I could become an entrepreneur. Everything was about how to earn money. All kinds of things. Only thing I wasn’t was a pimp, but I came close to that, too [laughs]. So white bass, brown bass, black bass—the price was right when I bought it and the sound was strong. That's all I needed.
JW: But you also must have loved that it helped you stand out.
JL: Oh sure. I definitely understood the value of standing out. People would comment about the bass, but I also got some bum raps. Critic and editor Leonard Feather [pictured] at one point early on wrote in Metronome magazine that my bass sounded like a "thud." He reviewed a transcription record that he produced with the Stuff Smith Trio.
JW: Feather reviewed a record he produced?
JL: I know, I know. It sounds like a conflict. But that’s how it was done back then [laughs].
JW: What did he say in the review?
JL: He talked about how the bass sounded. Not the playing, the instrument's sound. But in those days, engineers on record dates didn’t know how to mike or record the instrument. Even on Duke Ellington's early sessions, engineers had trouble recording the bass.
JW: What was the problem?
JL: It’s the instrument's low register sound. Engineers didn’t quite know how to capture it accurately. They had the same trouble even in the late 1950s with Paul Chambers’ bass on Kind of Blue. Engineers even had trouble with drummer Denzil Best’s brushes, which came off sounding like static. They didn’t know how to pick up the bass or drum brushes so they sounded natural.
JW: Were you a good bass player?
JL: At the time I didn’t realize how good a player I was. Fortunately, everyone else who mattered did [laughs].
JW: How did you wind up a member of the Stuff Smith Trio?
JL: I was working with a group in Chicago. It was my gig. I had hustled to get gigs and then brought musicians in. Eventually I became friendly with Harry Gray. Harry was head of the black union in Chicago, Local 208, and a very powerful guy. I would go to the union hall every day to keep in touch with what was going on. So I saw Harry often, and he took a liking to me. One day he called me to say there was a guy coming to town named Stuff Smith [pictured], a jazz violinist. Harry said he was looking for two other musicians to play behind Stuff to create a trio. Stuff was going into a Chicago club for an extended gig.
JW: How did Stuff Smith manage to get Harry Gray to work that out?
JL: Stuff's manager was Joe Glaser [pictured], who also represented Louis Armstrong and other top jazz musicians. At the time, Joe was banned from doing business in Chicago. They said he was tied up with gangsters or something. So Harry Gray acted as Joe’s arm in town. Harry took care of Glaser’s bookings in Chicago.
JW: So Harry wanted you to be the bassist on Stuff’s job?
JL: Yes. Harry called me to see if I would like to be in a group with violin, piano and bass. Harry trusted me and knew I would take care of business. I said, “Fine.” Harry picked the piano player, a guy named Raymond Walters. Raymond was an amazing player but not too reliable. He also was a heavy drinker and all that stuff.
JW: What kind of business did Gray need you to handle?
JL: Harry needed me to collect the money after the gigs, pay everyone off and wire the rest to Joe Glaser’s office in New York.
JW: When was Raymond replaced?
JL: Soon after we started. Raymond got a better gig with a guitar player who was popular at the time. So I called Jimmy Jones, who I had known since we played with Tony Frambo. That’s how the trio started with me, Stuff and Jimmy. Then this big gig came up to go into the Onyx Club in New York for 10 weeks. [Pictured, from left: Stuff Smith, Jimmy Jones and John Levy at the Onyx Club in 1944]
JW: How did that come about?
JL: Joe Glaser called and told us we were going in there. He was the booking agent for the Onyx at the time. Joe was one of the most powerful booking agents back then, especially for black players. At the time, Joe Glaser had Louis, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and others. Joe Glaser was the man. I remember walking down Broadway one day and realizing that he had booked the acts for virtually every major theater I passed.
JW: When did you go into the Onyx?
JL: August 10 1944. It was during the war, and it was my first time in New York. The city was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it. Every day and every night was like, “Wow, what’s going on here?” It was a whole other world. On 52d Street alone, every night was an experience.
JL: In between sets, we went from one club to another to hear each other play. You'd walk in, and the talent and music in each place would be more amazing than the last. Eventually, the black musicians would wind up at the White Rose, a bar on Sixth Ave. and 52nd St. Most of the white musicians after gigs went to Charlie's Tavern further west.
JW: Who was the biggest force on 52nd Street at the time?
JL: Coleman Hawkins was a strong figure. But so was Ben Webster. The day President Roosevelt died, on April 12, 1945, Ben closed 52nd Street by telling everyone not to play. No one ever argued with Ben. So the clubs were dark that night, and we all ended up at the White Rose.
Tomorrow, John's introduction to bebop, witnessing Charlie Parker's famed Ko-Ko recording session in 1945, recording with Don Byas, swinging with Lennie Tristano and Billy Bauer, and playing behind Billie Holiday during her comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in March 1948.
JazzWax tracks: John's recordings with Stuff Smith and Jimmy Jones can be found on two different compilations: Stuff Smith: 1944-1946 (22 tracks) is available here on the French Classics label. Or Stuff Smith: Studio, Concert and Apartment Performances (38 tracks) is available at iTunes.
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 John Levy with Stuff Smith and Jimmy Jones on Skip It, from September 1944. Listen to John's big thumping bass keeping time. See if you can keep your foot still...