John Levy broke the mold of White management among African American Jazz musicians, and in doing so elevated the income and the status of many if not most Jazz artist.
A former bassist himself, he performed with such giants as Erroll Garner, Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday and Billy Taylor before joining the quintet of pianist George Shearing.
But Levy was drawn to the business side, and that proved to be where his genius lay.
According to an article by Nat Hentoff written for JazzTimes in September 2001, Levy “… thought of himself ‘as a good journeyman bassist,’ but not a soloist. Yet Duke Ellington asked him to join his orchestra, but John [Levy] turned him down because the money and 52nd Street, where he was working, was much too exciting to leave ….”
Hentoff continued, quoting material from Levy’s book, “Men, Women and Girl Singers: My Life as a Musician Turned Talent Manager”: “During the 1950s, when John signed George Shearing to Capitol Records, John said to Nat Cole, who was doing a session with George Shearing: ‘The only Black person in this entire company is the janitor.’ By the early 1970s, John writes, ‘Arnold Larkin was the first Black man to be on the legal staff at Capitol, and he knew where the bodies were buried and how much the different artists were making. This time around we doubled the amount of Nancy Wilson’s advance.’
“In 1976, negotiating a deal for another artist with Warner Brothers Records, a lawyer John consulted about the contract told him: ‘This is the Black deal.’ As John explains: “The recording industry used two separate types of contracts–one that they offered to White artists and another that was used for Black artists. The royalty rates were usually lower, the advance was always lower and the amount of money they put in promotion was always lower in the Black contracts. Except for the Black superstars–they get a very good budget … And sadly, I don’t believe that separate Black arrangements have really changed that much.”
“Though Levy was an accomplished bassist in his own right, it was the business aspect of the music industry to which he dedicated his life,” says the Lushlife website, which is the virtual home of John Levy. “From the time he put aside his bass to handle the business affairs of the George Shearing Quintet in 1951, he learned how to guide raw talent to polished professionalism.”
Tom Reed, since 1962 a local disc jockey, writer and producer of “For Members Only TV,” had Levy on his show twice. “He was the Black talent manager of the time,” said Reed. “He stood out.
Most Black recording artists then had White agents and managers. And they still do to this day.”
John Levy Enterprises Inc. would eventually represent a pantheon of stars such as Nancy Wilson, Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Joe Williams, Herbie Mann, Betty Carter, Roberta Flack, Herbie Hancock, Randy Crawford, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, Abbey Lincoln and many others, including comedian Arsenio Hall.
Six years ago, Levy received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards Concert in New York, the nation’s highest honor.
Levy was born in New Orleans on April 11, 1912. There were plans being made to celebrate the centennial of his birth, but those plans were thwarted as death arrived at age 99 on Jan. 20. Levy died in his sleep. He was less than three months shy of his 100th birthday.
There will be no funeral service. Levy is survived by his wife Devra Hall Levy of Altadena; his son Michael Levy and daughter Pamela McCrae, both of Youngstown, Ohio; daughters Samara Levy of San Diego, and Jole Levy of New York City; 14 grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.
According to the Lushlife website, donations may be made to the “MCG Jazz John Levy Fund,” which is earmarked for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild’s nationwide “Jazz Is Life” educational programs–mcgjazz.org