"The Fox talks: a Conversation with Lou Levy"
by PAUL KREIBICH
Note: At the time of this editing Lou Levy is recovering from successful surgery for a brain tumor and is starting to play again.
Pianist Lou Levy has had a career spanning some six decades and has worked with the best jazz musicians and vocalists in the business. Known to many of his colleagues as the "Silver Fox" he has been at the forefront of jazz and popular music-from Woody Herman's groundbreaking second herd to Stan Getz, Peggy Lee, Ella, and Sinatra -and has many colorful stories to tell. His playing has a smooth sophistication and subtle swing that is matched by few. A respected authority on the harmonies of standards and jazz tunes, he is approached by many musicians who want to know the "right changes". Lou is still quite active today, keeping a schedule of live performances and recordings and working often with his long time cohort, vocalist Pinky Winters. His dry humor and "tell it like it is" frankness make him an unforgettable personality as well.
Lou Levy was born March 5th, 1928 in Chicago. His father played piano by ear and, played mostly in the key of G flat (all the black keys). "I heard that this had a lot to do with player pianos," says Lou. " People would watch the keys go up and down and try to catch up with them and I guess the black keys were the easiest to spot. My sister was four years older than me and took lessons on our upright piano. Those were the days when doctors and teachers came to your house. Since the teacher was already there, for an extra three dollars I got a lesson, too. I wanted to play. It wasn't like I was forced into it. I liked music. I loved listening to orchestras and dance bands. I was always going around whistling and singing." Lou didn't really have a lot of formal classical training. He took the popular piano lessons of the day, learning one song at a time from the visiting lady instructor. He remembers learning "Star Dust", while his sister's big number was "Tea for Two. "
At a young and impressionable age Levy heard the Glenn Miller band in the College Inn of the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. He was knocked out. "For those who were not lucky enough to have heard that band in person, they put on a real show." Levy says. "It wasn't just music. The music was gorgeous, I've always been a fan, but there was great lighting, too. And the trombones would move their slides from side to side together. The brass had derby mutes with stars on them that sparkled in the lights. There was a lot to see, let alone listen to. I was in heaven. I thought, `This is it, this is my life."
During his high school years Lou went to see the stage shows at the big theatres such as the State Lake Theatre, the Oriental, and the Rialto. "I'd go to see Benny Goodman with Peggy Lee, both of whom I ended up working with. Everybody was listening to Benny's band. "Sing, Sing, Sing" and all those tunes were popular records. We knew all the musicians in the band because their names were on the records. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Ziggy Elman and the rest were famous. The vocalists became stars, too. I went to the Chicago Theatre once to see Tommy Dorsey's band. He only had Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich, Joe Bushkin on piano, the Pied Pipers with Jo Stafford as well as Ziggy Elman and Chuck Peterson on trumpets. What a powerhouse band! He always had great clarinet players too, like Heine Beau and Johnny Mince. They had great arrangements, They had Sinatra singing "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Oh, Look at Me Now".
There were hit records that are not well known now like Buddy Rich's feature "Quiet Please" and the high note trumpet battle "Well, Git It!" Plus there was a whole slew of wonderful Sy Oliver arrangements. Nelson Riddle told me later that Sy Oliver was his biggest influence."
Obviously the big bands had quite an effect on Lou. At that time the theatre programs consisted of a live stage show and a movie. Lou and his friends would sit through the movie three times so they could see four of the stage shows. The management wasn't too thrilled.
"The Rialto Theatre featured mostly black bands. I went to see Benny Carter's band there once. Max Roach was on drums and Savannah Churchill sang "Hurry, Hurry". It was the first time I heard descending minor seventh chords on a blues. It changed my life. I said `Wow, I've gotta try that!" Lou also heard Earl Hines band at the Regal Theatre with Sarah Vaughan singing and playing piano, Art Blakey on drums, and tenor battles between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. It was all great inspiration for an aspiring musician like Lou.
Levy's first professional work came out of playing with local rehearsal bands that did stock arrangements of the hit bands. Occasionally these bands got dance jobs working for the door in the parks and fieldhouses around Chicago. Lou remembers the guys making twenty-two cents each one night. "Streetcar fare was twenty-five cents each way so that didn't work out too well," he laughs. "There was a famous guy named Harold Fox who was a tailor to the name bands and he used to trade the bandleaders uniforms for arrangements. We had "Hamp's Boogie-Woogie" and Basie's "One-O'clock Jump" and some wild suits that he made for us! The leader was Jimmy Dale and the band was called "Jimmy Dale and the Band that Rocks". Now this is before rock. It swung hard!"
After graduating from high school in 1945 Lou attended Roosevelt School of Music for two years. He remembers a guy named Joe Segal who promoted concerts in the school and went on to become well- known as the proprietor of the venerable Jazz Showcase club in Chicago. Lou played at these concerts and around Chicago at the various clubs, some of which were a little bit on the seedy side. "Occasionally you'd hear a gunshot and the dance floor would clear very quickly. You'd wonder…where did everybody go?" He played with Gene Ammons during this time and quite a bit with Sonny Stitt and legendary Chicago drummer Ike Day.
During this time Lou got his first vocal accompaniment job playing for no less than Sarah Vaughan. "She came to town and needed a piano player, having just made the records of "Lover Man" and "Mean to Me" with Dizzy and Bird. She was sweet. I was still living with my folks and she'd pick me up and take me to the club Silhouette. We'd play our gig and then she'd drop me back home. It was just a couple of weeks, but I learned a lot from her. She showed me some stuff on piano; how to voice a chord here and there. She was a real good player. She knew what was happening."
"After that Georgie Auld's little band came to town and I met (drummer-arranger) Tiny Kahn. George Wallington got sick and they needed a piano player in a hurry. Tiny had heard me and he liked my playing. He was also a big musical influence on me. He wrote terrific arrangements and played great drums." Kahn then recommended Lou for a Scandinavian tour with Chubby Jackson's combo that featured Conte Candoli on trumpet, vibist Terry Gibbs, and Denzil Best on drums. It was the first bebop band that ever appeared in Sweden and Lou's first trip to Europe. The one-month tour was a big hit. After coming home, Chubby returned to his spot with the newly reformed Woody Herman band. Within two months Jackson got both Terry Gibbs and Lou on the Herman band. It was to be the gig that really put Lou on the map as a major presence on the jazz scene.
Joining the Herman band in '48, Lou became part of the historic Second Herd, also known as the "Four Brothers" band from Jimmy Guiffre's four- tenor sound. According to Lou, Woody hired most of the key personnel from a west-coast rehearsal band led by trombonist Gene Roland. Lou first hooked up with the band in Aberdeen, South Dakota when they were playing at a corn festival. "We used to play baseball in the daytime a lot. We had a lot of fun," he remembers. It was a powerful band that was one of the first to bring the new bebop sounds into the big band context. The many stars of the band like Shorty Rogers and the Candoli brothers soon became popular names and poll winners. Lou couldn't believe a Down Beat poll one year that put him second only to Erroll Garner with Art Tatum down in the twenty-first spot or so. "It was like me out-running Jesse Owens," chuckles Lou. With classic Ralph Burns arrangements like "Early Autumn" and flag wavers like "Lemon Drop' and "Apple Honey" the Second Herd was a national sensation.
"That's where I met Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Al Cohn will always be a highlight in my life, a highlight in anybody's life who knew him. Musically and as a person, with his sense of humor and all, he was a superb human being." Lou goes on to tell how Cohn, Billy Byers, Bob Brookmeyer, and many other arrangers learned their craft churning out Broadway orchestrations in the cubbyholes of a studio in the President Hotel in New York. It was like a factory. They had to write the music fast and were known to imbibe a little to lubricate the process.
This led to my next question for Lou which was how the music scene differed in his early career from that of today. Were the standards higher?
"The standards were higher, I believe, because there were more opportunities that involved good music and you could be educated on the job. There were just all these wonderful, creative guys around. I hate to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I just liked the melodic approach to things then. It was much more clearly defined to me. And it always swung! There were wonderful drummers going back to Shadow Wilson and Jo Jones. And then came Mel Lewis and people like that. A bit hokey as it was, I loved watching Gene Krupa. And Buddy Rich scared me to death. I worked with him a little bit and my God, what a drummer. He was like Art Tatum on the drums."
I asked Lou about any players that he was impressed with who weren't as well known. "One guy, believe it or not, who would actually floor you he played so beautifully…he doesn't play any more but he writes like a dream, is Johnny Mandel. He used to play the big bass trumpet. I first heard him at a jam session in Frank Socolow's basement in Brooklyn. He played the most gorgeous stuff you'd ever want to hear. It was just like his songs. It would make you want to cry. He played gorgeous on ballads and he swung gorgeously. Johnny is a born melodist playing or writing. It's too bad his playing wasn't recorded more."
In addition to his instrumental work, Lou Levy is also well-known for his vocal accompaniment. He gigged with June Christy and Anita O'Day in the Midwest in the forties and later recorded with both of them. Possibly his best known work with a name vocalist was his long association with Peggy Lee for whom he worked as both pianist and conductor off and on for 20 years starting in 1955
I asked Lou if he regarded Peggy Lee as a jazz singer or a pop singer. "Peggy Lee is magnificent. She's as good a singer as you can get in many, many ways. She has fantastic time, great pitch, great taste, and great instincts. She's a pleasure musically…absolutely exquisite."
Another one that I worked with, and people don't realize how good she is, is Lena Horne. I think she's a great singer. And I worked with Tony Bennett, too. That was fun…a lot of good music." "You've worked with everybody," I said. Lou paused and said humbly, "Yes, I guess I have."
Lou also spent about three years working with Ella Fitzgerald from '58 to '60. It started one night after a Peggy Lee show when Norman Granz came up to Lou and asked "How'd you like to work with a real singer?" Lou balked at first, but thought it over and decided to take the gig. "I liked working with Ella because we traveled with the Jazz at the Philharmonic and I got to play with all those great players. They had guys like Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Bill Harris. And they had the Oscar Peterson Trio opposite us. Musically, Ella was a knockout. Talk about time! She swung so hard that the other guys didn't want to play after she was done. One night Norman Granz asked Dizzy to go back out and play a tune after she sang. Diz said, "Not after Sis!" Wow, could she tear a joint apart! We made some good records together. All the wonderful songbooks that she did; the Gershwin songs and all. Nelson Riddle wrote about 50 arrangements in what seemed like two days. He'd come marching in with bags under his eyes and we'd start playing and this beautiful music would fill the Capitol studios. She'd just knock 'em off one after the other. She read music well."
After Lou's stint with Ella he joined Peggy Lee again. She had some big hits at the time such as "Fever" and "Is That All There Is?" Lou was impressed with her keen sense of presentation and choice of material. "When I joined her we met at her house and Nick Castle, one of the big names in the movies, was there to do the staging. Hugo Granada did the lighting. All these wonderful arrangers like Dave Grusin and Billy May would write for us and we had great players all the time. She had Larry Bunker or Mel Lewis on drums, Max Bennett or Buddy Clarke on bass, and sometimes Mundell Lowe on guitar. "If Peggy was making $25,000 a week she'd spend $35,000 on musicians, gowns, hairdressers and all. She spared no expense. We always stayed at the Waldorf in New York. All the musicians wanted to play with her."
One tour featured arrangements with three guitars. They traveled with one guitar player, Wayne Wright, who was left-handed. It was always difficult finding two additional guitar players in every town who could match up and play the parts. "We get to San Francisco and we're playing the Circle Theatre. At the rehearsal I looked down in the pit and I said `Peggy, look.' We had three left-handed guitar players! They found two guys that were left-handed! I couldn't believe it. I thought they were putting us on. It was perfect if they wanted to eat; they wouldn't bump into each other!"
Next we talked about Lou's tenure with the Sinatra. "The first time I worked with Sinatra was when Bill Miller (the regular pianist) was ill. They called me in to do a record date. It was a Don Costa date and happened to be the one where Frank recorded "My Way" (sighs). I'd been around him when I was with Ella and we were doing all the Kennedy fundraisers and eventually the inaugural party. He was a Democrat then. Frank started hiring me to play parties at his house. One night I was playing and he was just standing there in the crook of the piano with his drink.
I was wondering, 'Is he listening to me?' I didn't let it spook me but I thought, 'Why's he standing there? Did I put a drink on the piano or something?' So I took an intermission and Sinatra says to me, `How busy are you?' I said, `Well, busy as I want to be.' And I'll be damned if he didn't say `I'm going to have my office send you my itinerary,' which is sort of like an offer you can't refuse, I guess."
Lou didn't hear anything about it for several months and then one day he got a call asking for his social security number and address so the office could send him a plane ticket. Apparently he had been hired and was the last to know about it. He joined Sinatra full time in 1967 and it was first class all the way.
"I loved to watch Frank get ready to go on stage. He was so together. If he was nervous, you couldn't spot it. He just walked out on stage and the audience would roar. I mean it's Frank Sinatra! I remember this great Nelson Riddle arrangement of 'My Heart Stood Still", When he came out and sang "I took one look at you…" it sounded like the heavens opened up. It was a voice like you never heard when your so close to him. He didn't look that big but he had this huge sound. He let me know he liked my playing and I feel good about that. Once I was playing a party at Gregory Peck's house, who's a great guy. I was playing the piano and Sinatra came out from the other room where they're eating dinner and said, `Ah. I'd know that touch anywhere.' I thought 'Wow! He said that to me?' So I take that as a badge of honor."
There was one awkward moment that Levy remembers, however. They were in the studio recording a version of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" with a full orchestra. Lou was playing the verse by himself with Frank, the one that starts, My story is much too sad to be told…etc. Lou already knew it well and was playing quite confidently. When the final chord came before the orchestra was to enter, Lou's hand somehow slipped and mashed a bunch of dissonant notes. He immediately realized what he had done and instantly shifted his hand to the right chord. Sinatra looked over slyly and said, "That one."
Lou has done a lot of small group jazz recordings through the years. Recently released is a three CD set called West Coast Jazz with Stan Getz, Monty Budwig, Conte Candoli, Leroy Vinnegar, and Shelly Manne. Lou maintained a long and fruitful musical relationship with Getz and always speaks of his musicianship with glowing admiration. Of his more recent recordings, Levy mentioned one done in Paris with two basses: Pierre Michelot and the late Eric Von Essen. Lou played a lot with Eric and, along with many others, is saddened by his loss.
These days Lou is living in North Hollywood, California, working live, recording and traveling a little, if the situation is right. He can usually be heard playing with Supersax and the Med Flory big band. He has recorded a CD of Charlie Parker tunes with Lanny Morgan. Lou and his long time companion, vocalist Pinky Winters, work fairly often around L.A. and have a lot of great, unusual tunes and arrangements. He always arrives in style in his shiny, green 1965 Mustang, which he bought new. Lou is also a photographer and has had his photos used on albums and CD's. He recently participated in a symposium on Frank Sinatra at Hofstra University. Lou listens to a lot of classical music for melodic inspiration, citing Bartok, Prokofiev, and Alban Berg as some of his favorites.
When asked who he would suggest young pianists listen to Lou came up with (not surprisingly) Nat Cole, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. He also added Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Barron, and Roger Kellaway to his list of favorites. Lou feels Tom Ranier and Bill Charlap are also standouts. In the horn department he's impressed by Pete Christlieb on tenor and Ron Stout on trumpet.
In addition to his great playing, Lou is known for being quite frank with his comments if he feels a musician or situation isn't to his liking. In a somewhat curmudgeonly tone, he has said, "I'm a great insult artist." But this is balanced with glowing joy and praise when the music tickles his fancy.
With all his experience, Lou Levy is someone from whom most any musician, young or old, can learn something. This includes his endless bank of Yiddish sayings, which are always apropos to the situation
Let's wish Lou Levy a quick recovery, good health and longevity so he can keep insulting us for many years to come.