The Extraordinary Career Of A Man Who Managed Jazz Musicians

Jan 23, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 6:13 pm

This post was originally published shortly after John Levy's death late last week. Click the audio link above to hear a remembrance of Levy by NPR's Sami Yenigun.

This weekend, we learned that the jazz businessman John Levy died on Friday. His wife, Devra Hall Levy, announced the news on Saturday in a press release available on John Levy's website, Lushlife. He was nearly 100 years old.

Levy was once a musician of some renown — he played bass with Billie Holiday, Stuff Smith, George Shearing and many others — but he's primarily remembered for his advocacy. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2006 for representing dozens of musicians as a manager, and also produced concerts and recordings.

According to Devra Hall Levy's statement, John Levy's clients included "Cannonball Adderley, Betty Carter, Randy Crawford, Roberta Flack, Herbie Hancock, Shirley Horn, Freddie Hubbard, Ahmad Jamal, Abbey Lincoln, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Wes Montgomery, George Shearing, Dakota Staton, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Williams, and Nancy Wilson, who remains a John Levy Enterprises client to this day."

When Levy was given the NEA award, Sara Fishko created this story about him for NPR's All Things Considered:

If we stop right there, that's already an incredible career. But it becomes extraordinary with a few other details.

  1. John Levy was a black man. That makes him the first, or at least one of the first major African-American personal managers in music. By extension, he was also dealing almost entirely with club owners and record producers who were white, representing clients with national, even international reputations. His first client was the white Englishman George Shearing, who he began to manage full-time in 1951 — an era where overt racism and segregation were still prevalent in the U.S. Not only was he able to navigate this situation; the work that he did resulted in new models of black success in the U.S. during the civil rights era. For example, in working with vocalist Nancy Wilson, he helped broker the deals which won her many television appearances and eventually her own NBC program, The Nancy Wilson Show, in the 1960s. And of course, his own career was pioneering in and of itself.
  2. John Levy was a musician. As someone who lived through the experiences of touring and recording, he was very perceptive about how musicians actually made a living. When he graduated from being George Shearing's bassist to his full-time manager, he insisted on creating a publishing company in Shearing's name so he could collect royalty payments from his compositions, a practice he followed with all his clients. At the time, many musicians weren't aware of these revenue streams, often signing away rights to their compositions to record labels or other entities. John Levy taught himself about things like this. He wasn't formally trained in music or music business — he never finished high school. But he was a very good observer. When Cannonball Adderley first came up from Florida with his own rhythm section, Levy realized that his initial reception by critics would determine the course of his future career. So Levy made sure to surround him (and his brother, trumpeter Nat Adderley) with a top-notch rhythm section of Junior Mance (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums). That band became the Cannonball Adderley quintet.
  3. John Levy didn't usually draw up contracts with his clients. At a point, he realized that the music business — the jazz sector in particular — relies heavily on interpersonal respect and trust. When a deal with the singer Dakota Staton went sour, he walked away from it rather than pursue expensive legal action. When he saw that his association with pianist Ramsey Lewis had outlived its usefulness, he simply left the business end and preserved the friendship. He understood how the music business blurs the lines between the formal and informal, the personal and professional. His knowledge of this dynamic, it would seem, helped him to be as successful as he was.

A further recommendation: Much of the information referenced here can be found in the Smithsonian's oral history with Levy, and his interview with Marc Myers of JazzWax.

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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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