When I was born in March 1933 in Chicago, John Levy was on the verge of his 21st birthday. While John and I are a generation apart, our early lives reflect some curious parallel tracks. We both left Chicago around the same time: I was getting settled in my new Seattle home in 1943-44, and John was preparing to join the jazz greats working on 52nd Street, New York’s street of jazz.
Nineteen fifty-one was also a pivotal year for both of us. I accepted a scholarship at Berklee School of Music in Boston, and John opened his first office as a personal manager. A year later, I joined Lionel Hampton’s band and hoped to make my mark as a jazz trumpeter. By then, John’s reputation was already made—nothing is faster or more pervasive than the jazz musician’s grapevine. Later, we both married and divorced actresses, and we always continued to love music. We had both started out as jazz musicians and moved on to the production and business sides of the industry.
I knew who John Levy was when he still played bass, and I heard about it when he put down his bass to become a full-time personal manager. John knew who I was too, having heard me play with Lionel Hampton’s band. But we never actually met until the 1960s when I was a record producer for Mercury Records. During the 1960s John was the manager for the top musical acts in the country and every week, two or three of his artists could be found on the Billboard record charts. His musical career began over 70 years ago, and the year 2001 will mark his 50th anniversary as a personal manager.
The release of this book to coincide with such a major milestone is accidental. If John had had his way, this book would have been published more than 10 years ago. It’s been at least that long since that day I stopped by his office to say hello, and John said, “For years, people have been telling me that I should write a book. I think I might do it.”
“That’s great, man,” I said. “You should call it Male, Female and Girl Singers.” Whenever John and I talk, the conversation inevitable turns to girl singers. Girl singers are a breed apart, and John has represented almost all of them. I, too, have had my fair share of experience working with girl singers, and both of us have had some degree of success in helping them to achieve their musical goals. We joke about this a lot.
As time went by, the book project was shelved, rekindled, and shelved again. “The only publishers who are interested want a dish-the-dirt kiss-and-tell book,” John told me later. Everyone who knows John knows that he is not that kind of a man. Then a couple of years ago, the project came to life again when a small East Coast publisher with a special interest in African-American culture accepted the proposal. And I happily agreed to write this foreword.
You can’t play jazz without an appreciation or basic knowledge of the music’s history, of its roots. That’s true of all fields of endeavor, and of life itself. And it’s especially true for African-Americans. John told me about a schoolteacher in Oakland, California who wrote the name “Duke” on a blackboard and asked the kids to talk about what they knew of this man. Some kids talked about gunfights, thinking that Duke referred to John Wayne. One or two kids thought maybe Duke was some royal person from England. But no one mentioned Duke Ellington. Why? They had never heard of him.
Anyone with an interest in jazz and its players will find John’s story appealing. For those with an interest in the entertainment field, whether as an artist or businessperson, John’s life story is an important one. But it is especially important for aspiring young blacks, who in a lot of cases have had no exposure to the history of the people or personalities that have made it possible for them to be able to perform or to follow their craft.
These pages contain some of the stories about the people with whom John has had the privilege to work and play. He takes us from New Orleans, to Chicago, to Harlem and to 52nd Street in New York…and then on the road (in those days traveling by car) with the George Shearing Quintet. He talks about the business and the political side of the jazz music world and introduces us to many of the great talents that he has known. And along the way, we come to understand what John believes is the measure of personal success.
Quincy Jones, September 2000