The entertainment industry thrives on honors and awards ceremonies, tributes of all kinds. It’s part of the show in show business. Over the years I’ve been in the spotlight a couple of times. I received plaques and statues from all kinds of organizations, and even celebrated John Levy Day in Los Angeles with Mayor Tom Bradley, complete with proclamation and a framed Certificate of Appreciation from the Mayor’s office. I am not very comfortable center stage and I really prefer to stay in the wings, but there were two occasions in recent years where I was unable to avoid that walk on stage.
The first occasion was my induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997. To be perfectly honest, these “inductions” mean very little, but in the case of IJHF, I was impressed with their mission statement. Their purpose was to provide support to the jazz icons whose accomplishments were under-appreciated and who frequently had been taken advantage of in the music industry. I told the audience that I applauded IJHF’s goal and was thankful that I personally had been able to provide similar support to my artists. That has been my goal throughout my career. And while I feel fulfilled and believe that I have been successful overall, it’s always nice for those efforts to be acknowledged.
The second occasion took place almost a year later and it was a tribute concert honoring me during the JVC Jazz Festival lineup. Again, I was somewhat embarrassed by the idea of being honored, but I was also quite pleased and proud and appreciative. The concert featured George Shearing, Shirley Horn, Billy Taylor, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson. Again I had to speak, but this time I was not prepared. I had decided I was not going to go onstage, I would just stand and wave from the audience. They wouldn’t let me get away with that so there I was, on stage, with no speech. I don’t remember what I said. George Wein and Billy Taylor were at the podium with me, and one of us said something about how nice it was for me to be honored while I was still alive and healthy. That got a few laughs, but it is really true. Most tribute concerts are memorials and the person being honored could not care less because they’re already dead. Time is really precious and you have to do what’s important while there is still time. Who would have even imagined that Joe Williams was going to die just nine short months after that concert? Joe came to me for management in the early 1960s, but our friendship dates back to the 1930s.
I go back a long way with a lot of people. In fact I go back so far with so many that I’ve outlived more of them than I’d care to count. But some of them are still around and several are still active in the business, like those artists on the tribute concert and George Wein. It is George’s company, Festival Productions, which produces the JVC Festival and made that Beacon Theatre concert possible. Today George enjoys the hard-earned reputation of jazz impresario, producer of jazz festivals worldwide including the legendary Newport Jazz Festival. But I remember the early days when George and I would have dinner at his parent’s house and they would ask me to “try and talk George out of that Dixieland stuff.”
I have wonderful memories of George and all the other people whom I’ve known and worked with, more memories than I’ll be able to share in this book. When you get to be my age, the highlights alone would fill these pages. But I’ll pick the best stories and introduce you to lots of people; and some of them are real characters. It’s not the awards that are important; it’s the people I’ve known who have made my life worth living. You have your business battles and disagreements over the years, even some personal ones, but the relationships hold fast, weather the storms. I don’t plan to preach, but in telling my story I’ll show you examples of the values that shaped my life and the results it brought…and is still bringing.
People have so many misconceptions about old age—mostly that it’s too late in life to start anything new. Too late to fall in love, too late to start new projects or sign new artists, too late to move your home and office, just too late. I’m 88 years old now, and I’ve been in the management business for more than fifty years. In the last two years I signed two new artists, got divorced and engaged, and moved into a new home and office. Never say “too late” to me.
I can’t say that I didn’t have some doubts. For many years now I’ve said that I was not looking to sign any new acts. “I’m too old for this,” I told people. I didn’t think that I really still had the burning desire it takes to launch a new talent. But when I heard Nicole Yarling’s tape I got goose bumps again, and that started me to thinking that maybe I had just one more shot left.
Goose bumps is my one measure of certainty about a talent. You can’t put your finger on exactly what it is, but you know in your gut that this is real talent, talent that can reach you emotionally. When I hear real talent, I want everybody to hear it. I can’t help but want to do something to support that artist. Goose bumps is my informal audition standard; if an artist’s musical performance gives me goose bumps, they’re in. I remember getting goose bumps at the Blue Morocco in the Bronx when I first heard Nancy Wilson sing “Guess Who I Saw Today.” I signed her the next day. Sarah Vaughan gave me goose bumps too, lots of times. I could say that Ben Webster gave me goose bumps, but the truth is that he actually made me cry right there on the bandstand at the Onyx Club. We were playing “Danny Boy,” and the tears just rolled down my face. But it is usually singers who make me feel this way.
Then just before Christmas 1998 I was in Salzburg, Vienna with both Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson. I hadn’t been to Europe in many years, and I don’t know what possessed me to make the trip, but it was meant to be. While there I met another girl singer, Vanessa Rubin. She too approached me about management, Joe and Nancy encouraged me, and suddenly I had another singer on my roster.
It takes a certain temperament to do this job, at least to approach it the way that I do. If I were to measure my life in money, I’d have to admit that I have earned a lot. But I spent a lot too, mostly on my clients and my families. If I were to measure my life by my level of clout in the music industry, let’s just say that I’m well respected. Even in my heyday, with the top artists on my roster, the industry would not empower a black man.
Nevertheless, I have been successful. I have contributed in no small way to the success of many people. Not only the scores of artists with whom I have worked, but other people who I have helped to get their start in this business as well. I am successful by my own standards, the only ones that should matter, and I have not compromised my values to get there.