guitarist Jim Hall, upon presenting the NEA Jazz Masters Advocate Award to manager John Levy quipped that he never expected to see his son-in-law as “older than me.” Levy, who passed January 20 at his Altadina, CA home, was married to Hall’s daughter Devra. Levy planned to celebrate his century mark in 2012. i was at his 90th which was celebrated at Carnegie Hall.

Levy’s was a tall, slender but strong presence. he was never demonstrative as well he might have been. think of his stable of clients –he never called them that– among them Joe Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Arsenio Hall and most prominently my friend Nancy Wilson. [find a more complete list on the AP website.] “i never had but one manager from the get go,” Wilson told me. “and we never had a contract.” John Levy found her working as a secretary and hand-guided her to multifarious stardom. Nancy’s first recording was with Levy clients, Cannonball and Nat Adderley. thence with another, George Shearing. John was the bassist in the original Shearing Quintet. Shearing became the first in the John Levy Enterprises house. Nancy remained his longest and most loyal friend.

all of John’s clients were his friends. he would sooner set them free rather than harm them. if he thought he could no longer serve their purposes, they were gone. no regrets. friendship retained. if there was balance due, forgiven.

the tall black man with the very Jewish name quietly broke through as manager when black people did not –could not– do such things, i.e., show biz manage. his hip coolness was infectious. there wasn’t a trip i made to the west coast where i did not at least make the phone call. it was such an honor to talk jazz with him. he was, after all, living history.

Nancy had drifted away from pure jazz, i always believed John facilitated that for broader exposure although Nancy said it was her idea. she made disco and r&b recordings as did such colleagues as Lou Rawls and Al Jarreau. they all had their share of juke hits. but Nancy, ever restless, was ready for a maturity turn; she chose to return to her roots.

it was on one of those California sojourns in the late ’70s that Nancy invited me to lunch, and would i drive her to the airport later, please? while at her home we did a conference call with John. seems John wanted Nancy to hear from another –shall we say street-wise?– friend about her acceptance getting back into the jazz mileau. was it too late? was her rep damaged from the pop stuff? but instead of asking me straight out John asked me as encouragement to suggest tunes for Nancy to put on a potential new jazz album. sensing that this was to be another John Levy resurrection i obliged perhaps a bit too over zealously running off a string of jazz-composed or related songs and blues which would fit Nancy’s innumerable depths.

John took the ball and ran with it. the two of them developed a rhythm section –drummer Roy McCurdy whom she had met with Cannon, remained– tours were scheduled and thankfully she never looked back reaching new heights of popularity. think the Bill Cosby television show. such was the guidance of John Levy.

others were beneficiaries of his friendship and largess. Joe Williams, a powerful blues shouter, wished to become a “household face.” John made it so with ballad recordings and an offbeat opera(!) based on the life of legendary John Henry called Big Man.

at a NARAS pre-Grammy cocktail reception for their Studio MVP Awards there sat John with his old rhythm section buddy from the Shearing groups. harmonicat Toots Thielemans, who was a guitarist with Shearing, later a whistler too, saw me with my camera, clasped John about the shoulders shouting, “Arnold. look! a reunion.” i clicked. it ran in Billboard and remains among my fav photos.

- © arnold jay smith
January 2012

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