January 27, 2012

John Levy: Musician Turned Manager

Anyone in the arts who needs a manager loves to find one who has paid the same dues: artist first, manager second. When a musician needs a manager, it’s a comfort to know that the person running their career has experienced similar trials and tribulations, someone who knows the areas of concern, and doesn’t have to be educated about the day-to-day issues related to the work of a musician. John Levy, owner of John Levy Enterprises Inc., passed away on January 20, 2012, just three months shy of his one-hundredth birthday. John fit the description of musician turned manager better than anyone else in the entertainment industry.

John was born in New Orleans on March 12, 1912, and he ignored his father’s advice to find work in postal system for security. He became a jazz bassist and played with the greats, or the soon-to-be greats.

Typical of the musical chairs that went on in the heyday of jazz, John moved from being the bassist with Billie Holiday, to a brief stint with Buddy Rich, and then into a fruitful relationship with George Shearing. Eventually his skills with the day-to-day logistics of playing gigs became apparent, and John became a full-time manager. His client list eventually included Cannonball Adderley, Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton and Joe Williams.

In our interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive, conducted in May of 1995, John related the atmosphere in the fifties, and the exponential growth of his business:

JL: That was the time when Basie finally broke up and had the six pieces, because it was really rough out there for big bands. But groups like George [Shearing’s] was really hot, and Dave Brubeck, and that was the hottest things going, playing the colleges. The big band just cost too much to travel. And the economics of it at that time was even worse than they are now. I mean they’re bad enough now, but for a big band it was terrible. But anyway, that’s how I got into that end of the business. And then one by one different people came along. And for years I’d known Joe Williams. And when he left the Basie band he called me one day and said “come and take this telephone out of my hands.” And that was it. No contract. No nothing. And the other people I guess came along through the record companies. In those days, especially Capitol Records, almost anybody who was anybody that came through the label that didn’t have management (in jazz that is) I’d get a call and they’d say “do you want to manage this person?” Or they’d recommend me. I remember Dakota Staton was one. So a lot of the people that I had at that time were on the Capitol label. Nancy Wilson came along through that. Through Cannonball I met Nancy, and it just went from one to the other. And all of a sudden I found myself —

MR: Somebody take the phone out of your hands —

JL: Yeah. I needed somebody to take the phone, that’s right, that’s right.

Just like musicians are hired on their reputations, the quality and honesty of managers is a topic of conversation with musicians. Nancy Wilson, a longtime client of John’s, talked about the start of their relationship:

NW: I met Cannonball though, with Rusty Bryant, in New York City, on the corner standing at 52nd and Broadway. That’s where we met. Cannonball had just come up. He was with John Levy. John Levy, I knew the name. If you were in this business, you knew who John Levy was. John Levy was the former bass player with George Shearing, who became George’s road manager, eventually his manager, and because he did such a good job for George, that just opened the door. By the time I went with John, he had Ramsey Lewis, Gene Harris, The Three Sounds, he had Cannonball, I mean he had so many wonderful artists that he nurtured and made sure that they took care of the business and did wonderful things for them. So the object of my strategy was, if I’m going to do this, the only person who I would trust to help and be there for me would be John Levy.

MR: What a rare commodity — to have a musician, a fine musician, who would step into that role. “I want to be with him.”

John himself spoke about the challenge and the changing responsibilities of being a manager in today’s music business:

JL: Managers like myself, they don’t exist today with the upcoming people, because in most cases they are lawyers or accountants that do the managing. And they have no idea of what it’s about, but there’s so much legal stuff going on, as I call it “legalistic” — the legalese of the business.

MR: Is it getting harder?

JL: Oh, yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. A person like myself who is not a lawyer, and I know about contracts, I know enough about it, I’ve been it long enough that I can draft one and I know exactly what’s happening with it. But they won’t accept that. You have to be a lawyer. Because you can, the record company can be sued if the artist signs with them without having a lawyer represent them. So it’s gotten to that point, where, like everything else in this country, anything you do, you have to have a lawyer almost to do it. Normally oh, it’s just pages. I have a contract, a Nancy Wilson contract that has forty pages on it, for Columbia Records. Forty pages. And it gives you one thing on page five and takes it away on page nine.

MR: And then it’s got something right at the end that says “if we forgot to say anything in this contract” you know — don’t forget about that.

JL: They’ve got it worded, and you’ve got to go through all of that stuff today. And it makes it a little difficult.

John was not a man who was afraid to say no to the powers that be, and he related the status of a project he was working on during our 1995 interview:

MR: I think the musicians must have always thought of you as being on their side.

JL: That’s right. And I was always on their side. I still am.

MR: Yeah. That’s good.

JL: Oh, yeah. When it comes down to negotiations and anything about money, well what about the musicians? And you know, we’re talking about a tour next year with Nancy and Joe, for Columbia Artists. The people at Columbia Artists were talking about, “well, the sidemen, how do you want to work that?” You know, okay, we know what Nancy gets, we know what Joe gets, the group that’s going to work with them together and we worked all the details of that out, who’s going to play for who, and we won’t carry a lot of musicians, we’ll carry a small group. And it got down to the point of what the musicians are going to get paid. So the first couple of figures they brought us I said “oh, na, na, na, na, na. They have to get more than that.” And they have to get certain conditions and certain things for them. Because I still feel like a musician.

John found time to author the book Men, Women and Girl Singers and subtitled My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Scout, written with his wife Devra Hall. He was honored frequently for his contributions to the music business, and in 2006 he received the highest award in the jazz world, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.