John Levy, a jazz bassist and original member of the Stuff Smith Trio and George Shearing Quintet whose deal-making skills, insider's knowledge and warm personality enabled him to become one of jazz and pop's first successful black personal manager, died on January 20. He was 99.
Starting in the early 1950s, John managed George Shearing not just as an agent but a personal confidant. By later in the decade, John's client roster included Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Dakota Staton, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, Roberta Flack and Nancy Wilson [pictured]. John signed Wilson to Capitol in 1959, a recording relationship that would last 20 years, and he continued to represent Nancy with his wife Devra Hall Levy until Nancy's retirement last year.
John also represented Wes Montgomery and was instrumental in bringing the guitarist together with producer Creed Taylor when Riverside went under. Creed signed Montgomery to Verve in 1964 and then A&M in 1966, two labels where they made a series of important jazz-pop albums that changed the direction of jazz. [Photo by Chuck Stewart]
My conversations with John were always treats. Not only was John's memory impeccable, he was able to shed light on jazz events and personalities from a humanist standpoint. Here's a sample from my multipart interview with him in February 2010:
JazzWax: Do you remember your Candy session with tenor saxophonist Don Byas?
John Levy: 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 [Russell] 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.
Born in New Orleans, John was raised by his grandmother, who taught him "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," John told me. [Pictured: John Levy's graduation photo]
From his earliest days on the jazz scene in Chicago and then New York, John always had an innate feel for swinging improvisation and business:
"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."
John also understood the value of positive promotion—how to stand out without doing so at the expense of others. For example, John played a white bass. [Pictured, from left: Stuff Smith, Jimmy Jones and John Levy at New York's Onyx Club on 52nd St. in 1944]
"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]. 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." [Pictured, from left: John Levy, trumpeter John Letman, drummer Wallace Bishop and pianist Phil Moore in the Phil Moore Four in 1945]
John came to the attention of George Shearing in late 1948 after he was recommended by Jimmy Jones, with whom he had played in the Stuff Smith Trio and Don Byas Quintet. The first recording with the original quintet was made in January 1949. But by the spring of 1951, playing and managing the quintet's business in the days before cellphones and email became too much for John. He formed John Levy Enterprises, with Shearing as his first and only client. He was replaced in the group by Al McKibbon. [Pictured: The original George Shearing Quintet, from left, John Levy, George Shearing, Margie Hyams, Chuck Wayne and Denzil Best]
The move was both risky for Shearing and dangerous for John given Shearing's national fame and the fact that John was black and would have to negotiate with white-owned clubs and record labels. But John made the transition smoothly, relying on shrewd business strategies to avoid racial trouble. It helped at first that John had a Jewish-sounding last name and, since most of his long-distance conversations were done by phone, the only issues remaining were cutting deals that left both parties feeling satisfied. [Pictured: John Levy and George Shearing]
If there's one comment by John that rings in my head, it's this one after Shearing died in February 2011:
"Many people told George that he’d do better if all of his musicians were white. He didn’t know what they were talking about. He’d get pissed and say, 'I don’t know what color they are. All I know is that they play what I like to hear, and I love their intonation.'
"[In 1949 and 1950], we’d play some clubs where blacks couldn’t even get in. But the white audiences loved the music we played. Funny, I think the fact that he was blind made them blind, too. They unconsciously put themselves in his position—caring only about the music, not who was playing."
I'm going to miss John. He loved JazzWax's mission and always encouraged me to keep on going, no matter what. Thanks to John's wife Devra, who would always make John available to me whenever I needed insights into past jazz events and personalities. I'll miss John deeply. A big hug for Devra.
JazzWax tracks: John Levy can be heard with Stuff Smith on The Stuff Smith Trio: 1943 (Progressive) or Stuff Smith: 1939-1944 (Classics France). One of John's finest bass solos in this group is on Look at Me.
John Levy also was the bassist in the Erroll Garner Trio in 1945. The first four tracks of Erroll Garner: The Complete Savoy Master Takes (Savoy) feature John.
John Levy with the Don Byas Quintet on Candy can be found on Don Byas: The Best of Byas, 1938-49.
The best collection featuring John Levy with George Shearing is George Shearing: From Battersea to Broadway (Proper).
JazzWax note: All photos courtesy of Devra Hall Levy.
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.
JazzWax clips: Here's John Levy in the George Shearing Quintet in 1950 playing Conception. The band here is Joe Roland (vibes), Chuck Wayne (guitar), Denzil Best (drums) and John on bass. Focus on John and Best playing together. These two together could swing anything...
Here's John with the Stuff Smith Trio in September 1944 playing Skip It, with Smith on violin, Jimmy Jones on piano and John on bass. Dig John's meaty notes...
And here's John with Don Byas on one of the finest versions of Candy in November 1945, with Benny Harris (tp), Don Byas (ts), Jimmy Jones (p), John Levy (b) and Fred Radcliffe (d)...