The Extraordinary Career Of A Man Who Managed Jazz Musicians : A Blog Supreme The late John Levy was many things — African American, a bass player, nearly 100 years old when he died last weekend. But it was his work behind the scenes, as a businessman, which defined his pioneering legacy in music.
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The Extraordinary Career Of A Man Who Managed Jazz Musicians

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The Extraordinary Career Of A Man Who Managed Jazz Musicians

The Extraordinary Career Of A Man Who Managed Jazz Musicians

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John Levy anchored the George Shearing Quintet in the 1950's from behind his double bass.


SIMON: But John Levy's best remembered for his business acumen as a manager of many of the 20th century's most famous jazz musicians. John Levy died last week, January 20th, just months before his 100th birthday. We want to take some time to remember the man who was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2006 - not for his playing - but his work behind the scenes.

NPR's Sami Yenigun has this remembrance.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: John Levy got into the business side of jazz while he was on the road with Shearing's Quintet. And as the group's profile rose, so did its need for a manager, says Levy's widow Devra Hall Levy.

DEVRA HALL LEVY: And George, to his credit, trusted John. So here you have an English, white, blind man trusting an African-American young man with his very life and career. And that was the key transition.

YENIGUN: At the time, it was unusual to have an African-American involved in the business side of the music industry at that level. Shearing was a jazz star. And Devra Hall Levy says that on more than one occasion, her late husband's skin tone posed a problem.

LEVY: There are always the funny stories about getting to the gig and John saying, well, the piano's going to have to be turned such and such a way. And the guy looks at John and says, well, I don't know who you are, but we'll wait for Mr. Levy. John says, I am Mr. Levy. They were waiting for a nice little white Jewish guy.

YENIGUN: But John Levy's levelheaded approach won him a roster of jazz musicians.

LEVY: For instance, he worked for the Stuff Smith Trio.


LEVY: Well, Stuff drank like a fish and the other musicians drank a lot and John was sober and able to take care of business.

YENIGUN: He took care of business for Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and Roberta Flack, to name just a few.

JOHN LEVY: You know, I had more than I could handle. So many people it would take 10 minutes to name all the different people during that era that I was handling.

YENIGUN: That's John Levy speaking to NPR in 1999, when he described his duties as manager for another artist, Wes Montgomery.


LEVY: I just took care of arranging his bookings and arranging his travel and just before he died, set up his business arrangement for him, set up his music publishing, which has made more money for him since he's dead than it did while he was living.


LEVY: That publishing thing has paid off for him. A lot of different people have recorded his material that he wrote during that era. And I did the same thing with Cannonball and Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal, all of them. I set up that. That was one of the best things I did for them as a manager, for all of them.

YENIGUN: For Levy, the relationship with an artist was personal first, then business. So he made sure their personal business was taken care of. In the case of Wes Montgomery, he saw that the guitarist had homeowners insurance. Something that turned out to be important when Montgomery died just a decade after Levy took him on.

And the way Levy did business was personal. There were contracts, but Levy preferred handshakes. And his widow Devra Hall Levy says his artists trusted him to do everything.

LEVY: What happened in John Levy Enterprises is business would be done, deals would be made, schedules would be set, artists received an itinerary, tickets and off they went, no questions asked. That was the level of trust between John and his clients.

YENIGUN: The success of that approach built Levy's reputation.

LEVY: Over his career, we never got a final count but we came really close to 100 artists having been represented by him at some point in their lives. And of that list, I want to say only one or two are people that he sought. They all came to him because of the success of the people he represented.

YENIGUN: That was the case with Nancy Wilson, who said she wanted to work with Levy since she first heard about him at the beginning of her career.

NANCY WILSON: Aside from being very smart about the music, he was a true gentleman in the true sense of the word, you know, like the old sense of the word. He was really special. He was like my dad.

YENIGUN: And like any good dad, Levy took care of his family in jazz.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News.


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