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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Recently in New York, the National Endowment for the Arts gave out its jazz masters awards. One of the recipients was a man in his 90's, and his contribution to the field has been vast.

Producer Sara Fishko of member station WNYC has this appreciation of musician-turned-manager John Levy.

SARA FISHKO (Producer, WNYC): John Levy has brought such distinction to the job of jazz/artist/manager that he's just been recognized as a jazz master.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

FISHKO: Part of the reason for that is that he's extremely sensitive to musicians, which might be because many years ago he was a bass player himself.

FISHKO: Even then, it was his feelings about music and musicians that carried him along.

Mr. JOHN LEVY (Jazz Artist Manager): When we worked with the trio on the first club I worked on I worked on, we had guests come in to play with the trio and that's how I got to play with Ben Webster.

FISHKO: Levy idolized musicians like Webster and still does.

Mr. LEVY: Ben Webster got to me more than anybody else. He would play Danny Boy and emotionally I would stand up and actually cry almost every night.

(Soundbite of song 'Danny Boy')

Mr. LEVY: I can hear it now. And I get the feeling now. It's wonderful.

FISHKO: If you can imagine a guy in the 1940s weeping every night in a jazz club, you've got an idea of how John Levy followed his feelings through a remarkable life in music. At 93, its still music, it was always music.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

FISHKO: Born, New Orleans, 1912. You can remember hearing every kind of music there was in those days, including old opera records favored by his mother and her sisters.

Mr. LEVY: I remember Caruso, especially, because we had the old Victrola, you wound it up and you put the disk on and sound came out.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

FISHKO: He heard church music and New Orleans funeral parades, of course, and later, when they moved to Chicago, he heard something else again.

(Soundbite of Dixieland jazz)

Mr. LEVY: In 1918, 1919, 1920s, oh wow, that was Dixieland jazz and Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and people like that. Oh, it was incredible. Incredible.

FISHKO: He heard musicians playing in silent movie houses. He saw musicians playing in minstrel shows. It was only a matter of time before he became a musician himself. And once he became a bass player, one thing just led to another.

(Soundbite of song 'Minuet in Swing')

FISHKO: He played bass with Stuff Smith, jazz violinist. That's Levy behind Smith and Jimmy Jones playing Minuet in Swing in 1943. Down the street there in Chicago, Art Tatum was playing at another club.

Mr. LEVY: So every night, when Tatum finished, he would come to our club and then we'd all get in a cab, and we usually ended up at this after hour place and we'd go in there and jam until five or six o'clock in the morning.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. LEVY: Oh, that's when you really heard him play. Play solo, because nobody could keep up with him.

FISHKO: And talk about emotional, later in New York, John Levy played with Billie Holiday in Carnegie Hall and then they went on tour.

(Soundbite of Billie Holiday singing)

Mr. LEVY: Just her sound and her feeling and her interpretation of a lyric, that laid back thing she had, and every night she would be closest to me than anybody else because I was sort of like our front with the bass and she would stand back almost right in front of me and at times almost like lay back on the instrument while I played.

(Soundbite of Billie Holiday singing)

Mr. LEVY: Very close with her.

FISHKO: A year later, Levy worked with George Shearing, a new sound that really caught one.

Mr. LEVY: IT happened so fast, the success of The George Shearing Quintet, with that particular sound.

FISHKO: And suddenly there was a lot of organizing to be done to keep up with the demand. It seemed like the right moment for John Levy to make his move. He'd always been interested in the business of jazz.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. LEVY: I made suggestions to them, what to do and how to go about traveling and made all the different arrangements for everything.

FISHKO: Shearing asked him to take over the whole operation.

Mr. LEVY: So I became the road manager, and then from that, you had to have someone to actually make the deals. It became a part where any time a deal went down, well you go and talk to the agents about it. I just ended up being the manager.

FISHKO: And so began the next phase, which meant giving up the bass. Levy, without even quite realizing it, became the first African-American jazz artist manager. Packaging and promoting tours, representing great players and using his feeling and love of music to get jazz heard.

Mr. LEVY: Because it wasn't being done with our type of music, with jazz, it wasn't being done that right. And I felt that here was a means to really getting this kind of a thing out.

FISHKO: By this time, it was the fifties. There was still the double standard. One contract for whites and one for blacks. That went on for decades.

Mr. LEVY: Fought all of that, yeah, yeah, yeah, went through all of that. Each time you negotiated a deal for them with a record company or if you negotiated to do a series of things, the only people who were fair and on the same level with everybody were the George Weins or the festival production things, the European people, the Japanese people. Those promoters, those people I had no problem with. America, yes. Club owners, record companies, everything. Had to fight for each situation for the betterment of these people at the time.

FISHKO: It's just a slight shift in position, that's all, from the low register of the bass to the slightly higher one of the biz, but it's still the music.

Mr. LEVY: Nothing's changed. Certain sounds or, I guess they're in a certain range that I get an emotional feeling about it and I guess I'm a kind of a softie, an emotional kind of human being because as a man I cry very easily when things really reach me.

FISHKO: Ten days ago, at the International Jazz Education Conference in New York, Levy got his NEA award, right up there with Tony Bennett and Chick Corea, which is as good an excuse as any to tear up.

Mr. LEVY: The man ain't supposed to cry, but he is if he has the emotions and the feelings to do so, he should cry.

FISHKO: Why not?

For NPR News, I'm Sara Fishko in New York.

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