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Salute to an Upright Man

Jazz* Former bassist John Levy is honored for taking care of the bottom line for many of the top musicians of the last five decades.


John Levy, the 90-year-old former bass player with George Shearing who has been managing artists since 1951, was standing before a crowd, preparing to say something about his life's work.

He was in his musical prime during a revolution in jazz centered on New York's famed 52nd Street. Duke Ellington wanted him to join his orchestra, and Billie Holiday hired him for her comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in 1948.

Then he put away his upright, became an artist manager and, over the years, had a rich stable of clients: Dakota Staton, Betty Carter, Lou Donaldson, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Ernie Andrews, Randy Crawford, Brook Benton, Ahmad Jamal, Freddie Hubbard, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Joe Williams, Shirley Horn, Ramsey Lewis, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Eddie Harris, Johnny Hartman, Stanley Turrentine, Dianne Reeves, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and Maxine Weldon.

Levy was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997, and last week he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Los Angeles Jazz Society. Always the sideman, Levy kept his remarks brief.

"I'm happy to be here," he said, and then used the tried-and-true one-liner often heard from aging comedians: "Above all, I'm happy to be anywhere."

But Levy's demeanor belies his age. He is still usually found working at his desk in his Altadena home, where recently he was haggling with a festival promoter over the flight schedule of the best known of his half-dozen clients, song stylist Nancy Wilson.

The promoter wanted to squeeze Wilson into a festival date in Bermuda before another concert engagement in Kansas City. She could make it in time with two or three flight changes. Nancy will not be squeezed, Levy insisted. "She's earned that right." The promoter agreed to fly Wilson in a private jet.

Wilson has been represented by Levy since the early 1960s, an agreement that's not on paper but sealed by word of mouth and a handshake. She was a promising young singer from Ohio when she went to Levy with a recommendation from Adderley. He signed her and helped to get a deal with Capitol Records.

"He was the only manager I considered having, because he was concerned about musicians as people," she said.

"He was a great musician, and I wanted someone who would know me as a person. I wanted a life, and he was a manager who would allow me to have a life because he understood."

Bass players make good managers, she said.

"I need to hear the bottom, and the bass is my foundation," she said.

"He brings that to his work. Aside from music, it was about building a career that would last."

And Levy, who has handled some of the top female artists, said that women entertainers need special care. He makes note of it in his autobiography, "Men, Women and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Agent," written with Devra Hall, Levy's wife and the daughter of jazz guitarist Jim Hall.

"They are a particular breed," he said, echoing a theme in his book. "They require special treatment, you have to learn their temperament, personal relationships with their husbands and children. It's not the same with a man."

Levy didn't learn that from playing bass. He learned it much earlier--from his birth in New Orleans to his coming of age in Chicago--growing up in households of strong women.

"My father was home, but I was raised with all these strong women--my mother, aunt and grandmother--and they ran everything," he recalled. "That stayed with me all my life."

A high school dropout, Levy taught himself how to play piano and performed for guests in a neighborhood house of prostitution. He switched to bass when he discovered he could earn more money. In the clubs around Chicago, he gained a reputation as a solid bass player and eventually teamed up with a trio headed by Stuff Smith, a man who played violin as if he were blowing a horn.

In 1944, the trio landed on 52nd Street, the mecca of jazz, and Levy began working with other greats: Ben Webster, Erroll Garner and Milt Jackson.

"Going to 52nd Street was like going to heaven," Levy said.

But even though his career was on a roll, he didn't expect it would last.

"I was just an average player," he said.

British pianist Shearing didn't think so when he invited Levy to become an original member of his quintet. But while touring across the country, Levy soon began splitting his duties between playing bass and working as Shearing's road manager, a task made difficult by travel in the segregated South. In 1951, the savvy bass player established John Levy Enterprises Inc. and began representing jazz artists. Shearing was his first client.

"Shearing gave me an opportunity at a time when other doors were closed," Levy said.

Levy, then the first jazz manager of African American descent, began building a stable of artists, largely by word of mouth: Andrews, Staton, Jamal. Adderley was recommended by Miles Davis. Williams, a personal friend, called in desperation one day after leaving the Count Basie Band in the early '60s.

Levy represented Williams until his death in 1999 and never signed a contract.

"We shook hands and that was it until he died," Levy said. "I still like to do business that way."

Such history was present on Sept. 29 at the Biltmore Hotel, where the Los Angeles Jazz Society held its 20th annual jazz tribute, honoring Levy and five others, including headliner Herbie Hancock, another former Levy client, and Annie Ross, Roger Neumann, James Newton and Howard Rumsey. Levy joked about being the second oldest person in the room, behind 95-year-old Benny Carter. There was a brief memorial tribute to Ray Brown, Harold Land, Conte Candoli and John Collins.

Quincy Jones spoke of them all as being pivotal to jazz, which he said can't be played without an appreciation or basic knowledge of its roots. As for Levy, Jones simply stated: "He is history."

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