Stan Levey: The Original Original
The Original Original
One of the real pleasures for me during the 32nd annual conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) last January in Long Beach, CA, was shaking hands with one of the great drummers of the bop era and beyond, Stan Levey, who was there to promote a new autobiographical DVD, Stan Levey: "The Original Original."? Stan hasn't played drums in a number of years, focusing instead on his "second career"? as a superb Jazz photographer, but at seventy-eight looks fit and ready to rumble should someone make him an offer he couldn't refuse.
Stan was kind enough to autograph a copy of the DVD for me, and I've just finished watching and listening to it for the first time (but not the last). If there's one word that might sum up the experience, that word is fascinating. Stan Levey has had quite a career and life, and lays much of it out in this nearly two-hour long reminiscence, starting with his childhood in Philadelphia and continuing on through his partnerships and friendships with such renowned musicians and innovators as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Stan Kenton, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and many others whom we'll get to in a moment.
There is music, but it is used mainly as a soundtrack for comments by Stan and a host of others who offer their thoughts on his important place in Jazz history, especially in the days when it was being transformed from traditional to modern, a metamorphosis spearheaded by Bird, Diz, Stan, Max and their forward-thinking colleagues, none of whom thought he was doing anything exceptional, simply playing the music that was closest to his heart and soul. Along the way, we hear from Dizzy, Miles Davis, Charlie Watts, Hank Jones, Terry Gibbs, Quincy Jones, Nino Tempo, Bill Holman, Lee Konitz, Jack Sheldon, Howard Rumsey, Charlie Shoemake, the late drummer John Guerin, composers Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller and Lalo Schifrin, drummers Jim Keltner and Joe Morello, singer Bill Henderson, broadcaster Chuck Niles, and journalists Tom Reed and Don Heckman. We are even treated to the voice of Charlie Parker in a taped interview from 1948.
But it is Stan himself who has the most entertaining stories to tell about landing his first professional gig, at age sixteen, with none other than Dizzy Gillespie; almost fleeing the studio at his first recording session in New York City when he saw that the pianist was the incomparable Art Tatum; walking down 52nd street in New York, hearing a pianist "who sounded like a whole orchestra"? as he passed a club, introducing himself to Erroll Garner, who'd just arrived from Pittsburgh, and being hired on the spot as Garner's drummer; playing with Bird for the first time at the Down Beat Club ("an out-of-body experience"?), becoming friends and rooming with him in Harlem ("like living in the eye of a hurricane"); reluctantly leaving Bird and Diz to take a more lucrative job with the Woody Herman band ("I couldn't read music, and I had no drums; I played Dave Tough's set"?); making his first trip to California with Diz and Bird in 1945 and meeting "the new kid on the block,"? bassist Curly Russell's replacement, a "cocky"? young man named Ray Brown; returning to New York in '48 after a tour with Boyd Raeburn's orchestra and encountering "a pretty young girl"? named Angela who has been at his side for more than fifty-three years ("I guess it worked out pretty well"?); traveling cross-country with Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic, earning $25 a night and loving every minute of it; forming his own quartet in Philly with tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, bassist Nelson Boyd and pianist Red Garland; kicking a drug habit and being recommended to Stan Kenton by friends including Conte Candoli and Buddy Childers ("Stan was a great guy. He knew about my problem. All he said to me was 'Are you okay?' I said, 'Yes, I'm okay.' And he said, 'You start in two weeks'."?)
After leaving Kenton's band in the mid-'50s, Levey spent five years as a member of Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars in Hermosa Beach, a steady year-round gig that led to studio work in Hollywood and occasional employment as a member of Skitch Henderson's pre-Carson Tonight Show band. While with the All-Stars he took part in a memorable "battle of the drummers"? at the Pasadena Civic Center with Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. "Compared to Buddy,"? he recalls, "we sounded like babies in diapers. . . .There was nothing we could do about it; we just had to accept it and applaud."? Stan also served as drummer for vocalists Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald while gravitating toward a new career in photography, and worked with Schifrin on such films as The Cincinnati Kid and Bullitt. "The last thing I did in music,"? he says, "was the film Rosemary's Baby."? Afterward, he simply set aside the drumsticks and "retired."? But Stan's career as a photographer flourished (unknown to the public, he had snapped the cover photos for many of the albums on which he appeared), and he began to design covers for other musicians, which he continues to do.
There is much more to hear on this captivating DVD, which runs for nearly two hours, and almost all of it is worthwhile. Levey is a marvelous story-teller, and his reminiscences form the disc's bedrock, in spite of interesting albeit largely generic observations by Hank and Quincy Jones, Holman, Gibbs, Rumsey, Schifrin, author Reed and L.A. Times critic Heckman, among others. Bird, who clearly was one of Stan's biggest fans, adds a note of authority to the analysis. Less persuasive are Diz (who is seen only once, completely off-topic), Miles (who must have been smoking something potent) and drummer Watts, late of the Rolling Stones. There are brief clips of the Kenton and Benny Goodman orchestras and various smaller groups, but these are mostly window-dressing. The disc ends with a nice up-tempo riff by Stan's quintet with Kamuca and Candoli, while the closing credits include the epigraph "In Memory of John Guerin and Chuck Niles."?
As remarkable as it may seem that Stan Levey was a self-taught drummer, even more remarkable are the circumstances and encounters that caused his name to be linked irrevocably to such legendary figures as Parker, Gillespie, Roach, Stan Getz and other bop-era pioneers. As he says early on in the narrative, "I'm a very lucky man."? Yes, he had luck; but he also had the talent to make the most of his opportunities, the shrewdness to adapt to any style, and the stamina to play all night when necessary. The disc, as noted earlier, offers a captivating inside look at the early days of the bop movement, in which Levey played an integral part, and of his later career with Kenton, the Lighthouse All-Stars, Stan Getz and as a part of the Hollywood studio scene, imparted clearly and candidly by Stan himself. The DVD also includes Levey's biography and discography. In all, quite a handsome package, one that should prove highly rewarding to Jazz fans of all ages, backgrounds and opinions.
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