Chris Levey recalls his earliest interest in music.
“My parents would tell the story … they had the marimba set up in my bedroom,” he says. “I was six or seven and I started to pick some of the melodies out of the books and play them on the marimba. [My] parents looked at each other, rolled their eyes and said, ‘Here we go.’”
The struggles of a musician’s life were all too familiar to Levey’s family – his father was Stan Levey, one of the earliest bebop drummers. A protégé of Dizzy Gillespie and alumnus of Stan Kenton’s orchestra as well as Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, Stan Levey was a major force in Hollywood studios throughout the 1960s and 70s, driving the beat for a number of TV classics, including “The Tonight Show,” “The Munsters,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Addams Family,” “Laredo,” “Batman,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Bewitched.” His film credits include “Cool Hand Luke,” “Bullitt,” “The Cincinnati Kid,” and “The Amityville Horror,” all of which he did under the direction of Lalo Schifrin, as well as numerous other soundtracks composed and conducted by Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, and Andre Previn.
While Chris Levey’s profession as a radiologist may have made his mother Angela and father Stan proud, he says that he and his two brothers – one of whom is also a physician – were not dissuaded from pursuing music as a hobby. However, he notes, they were emphatically discouraged from pursuing it – and the typical musician’s lifestyle – professionally.
“When my dad saw that I started to play music in my teens, he said, ‘Play all the music you want, but if you drop out of school, I’ll kill you.’ And he used to be a boxer, so we took things like that half seriously,” laughs Levey.
Music also had a great impact on Angela Levey’s teenage years.
“I was about 11 or 12,” she recalls. “On my street in Washington D.C., there were four or five musicians who liked jazz, when it was very new. I liked to dance, so I had the record player going on all the time. And one or another of them would march into the house and take the stuff off my player and put on what they wanted me to hear. So, when I was very young, I had a jazz education from my neighbors, guys that were working – like Earl and Rob Swope.”
Angela moved to New York City when she was 16, and got a job as an assistant manager at the newly opened Birdland. One night, she and a couple of girlfriends went to the Three Deuces and it was there that she saw Stan Levey for the first time.
“I really liked him,” she recalls. “A couple of nights later, I was at the Royal Roost. They had what they called the bleachers. Most of the people, especially people that didn’t have any money, would be sitting in the back on chairs and benches without going to tables and eating and drinking. So, I was there and Stan was there, maybe three people away from me. And he kept talking to me. We walked down the street to the drug store and sat at the counter and talked until light. Hours and hours and hours.
“And that was it. From that moment on, we were never apart. It’s been eleven years since Stan passed, and instead of crying 22 hours a day, it’s like one or two now – I think that’s really great progress.”
When he was 16, Stan Levey had been discovered by Gillespie when he chanced upon a rehearsal at the Downbeat Club in their mutual hometown of Philadelphia. Self-taught up to that point, Levey was invited to sit in and was eventually hired to play in the band when Dizzy’s drummer Jerry Gilgore found another job.
Levey eventually followed Gillespie to New York and played with his mentor, as well as a who’s-who of other bebop pioneers: Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, and fellow drummer Max Roach, who Levey replaced in Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars when Roach left to form a quintet with Clifford Brown.
Angela Levey recalls their move to Los Angeles, a couple of years after their marriage in Atlantic City when Stan was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Her first and lasting impressions of Los Angeles were formed the morning after they spent their first night at a hotel in Hollywood.
“We had spent four days and three nights in our car, so he was really tired,” she says. “But I got up and walked down the hill, Vine Street, all the way to Sunset Boulevard, and it was glorious. When I had left the East, it was snowing, and this was gorgeous and beautiful, I can still remember how it looked. I walked to Sunset Boulevard and got a manicure and pedicure.”
Levey says that she and her husband Stan, who both had less than ideal childhoods, really worked at being good parents.
“Surprisingly, I was a terrific mother,” she laughs. “And that really shocks me – I don’t know where that came from. [Stan] had a terrible childhood, so he kind of watched me and one lick behind, would do the exact same thing, and he was a wonderful father. [The kids] were very lucky and they know they’re lucky.”
Levey says that although her sons grew up in the entertainment business, they managed to stay grounded.
“Chris and I have laughed about this – David too – that we never knew one person that had a ‘real’ job,” she says. “It was like, writers, directors, producers, agents, actors, singers, musicians. We wouldn’t have liked them if we didn’t like them, they were lovely people who were just doing their jobs and that’s what it felt like to us.
“[Stan] had season tickets to the Dodgers game with all these guys that he worked out with three days a week,” Levey recalls. “They would go to lunch after working out, and they were hilarious guys, like Milton Berle, Bobby Morse, and Neil Simon and his brother Danny. After Stan had gone, my kids had lunch with them. And they did the same thing that Stan did whenever he left. They all stood up, threw their napkins down and said, “I’ve had it with you people,” and just stomped out.”
Chris Levey says that his father, who was often the only White musician playing with first-string bebop giants like Gillespie, Parker, and Miles Davis, was part of a period where the music took precedence over race. In his 2016 book, “Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight,” Frank R. Hayde observes that, “… the interracial aspects of bebop, as personified by Stan Levey, are also vital to the music’s history.”
“My father was Jewish, so I guess he had a little higher consciousness of the division of ethnic groups, so maybe that concept was a little more familiar to him and he had less of a hard time with it,” notes Chris Levey. “He used to share rooms and even beds with these guys. He and Miles Davis had a one-room apartment with one bed and a lightbulb hanging. When they played in the South, the hotels and the venues where they played had no problem with a Black band coming in and playing or staying. But they had a problem with an integrated band with a White drummer.”
While Levey says his father’s career as a studio player for television and film was purely a practical matter of generating a reliable income, there was a level of artistic satisfaction to be had from the experience.
“I think it was also an opportunity for growth for him and he rose to the occasion,” he says. “It was almost like a whole other art form. These things were beautiful, a lot of them had words you never heard, like the “M*A*S*H” theme, that’s a nice little bossa nova tune. [Pete] Rugulo and a lot of other guys got to write things that they were never able to write before and it opened up new vistas for people who were creative enough.
“It was important for the evolution [of jazz], it gave them whole new avenues with which to write. Those [TV themes] would never fit with a swing band, a bebop band, or anything else. But here was a medium that really opened up those avenues. They may seem like corny songs, but if you put them in the right hands, they’re smokin.’”
Levey recalls going to the studios with his father for recording sessions.
“It was mostly a lot of his old buddies that I would see with him when he was still playing live music,” he says. “Many of them migrated to studio work, so they were all pretty comfortable with each other, just talking and joking. No one was particularly anxious. It was all by what we call networking these days – you call a guy when there’s a need and the same guys, little by little, migrated to that industry.
“Some of these guys would do two to three record dates in a day. They had to bang one out and on to the next one. I think they were particularly qualified because on the bandstands – particularly Kenton’s and [Woody] Herman’s – they all had to sit down and sight-read pretty quickly so they had those chops already.”
Angela Levey also had a career in film and television, in front of the camera. In the late 1980s and 1990s, she did bit parts in episodes of programs and films like “The Nanny,” “Six Feet Under,” “Thirtysomething,” and “True Lies.”
“I had the kind of – in parentheses – ‘career’ that every actor over 40 that had children wanted,” Levey says. “Nobody knows it, but that life is extremely difficult – I never worked less than 12 hours a day, sometimes more, much more. But I did exactly what I wanted to, it was really great. My agent was married to a director who was one of Stan’s best friends. She said, “Every actor in this town wants more, more, more. I have this woman that tells me, ‘If you work me more than once every two weeks, I’m quitting.’
“It was tiny, tiny little bit [parts],” she says. “But when you’re in the union, it’s really good money. When I was doing it, it was never fun, except when it got to the twelfth hour, which was the golden time when everybody would perk up. But when I look back on it, it was fun.”
Unfortunately, studio work was not as enjoyable for Levey’s husband, the drummer.
“It was just soundstages where the film would be showing on a huge screen and the composer had written the music according to him seeing what was on the screen,” she says. “The musicians had the music in front of them, interpreting it. They had to play exactly what was in front of them.
“One time, he was doing a Streisand [album]. She stops and looks back at him and says, ‘What did you just play?’ He said, ‘I played what was on the paper.’ He said, ‘I knew it was wrong, she knew it was wrong – but I saw it and I had to play it.’ It was like, mechanical. But it came out beautifully.”
Stan Levey, who had seen the advent of bebop, the rise of the West Coast Sound, and the usurping of jazz audiences by the growth of rock and roll, was ultimately disheartened by the automaton performances that were demanded by studio work. He decided to put his drumsticks down for good in 1973, after completing the soundtrack for “Rosemary’s Baby,” and turned his artistic sensibilities toward an aspect of the jazz world that is almost as celebrated as the music: photography.
A self-taught photographer who began by documenting life on the road as a musician with friends and colleagues, Levey shot album covers for Gillespie, Victor Feldman, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Stitt, while still keeping up his “day job” as the drummer on their recording sessions.
Chris Levey says that his father’s athletic discipline was evident in the way he conducted both his musical and photography careers. Stan Levey, who had a brief stint as a heavyweight boxer in his youth, eventually opened his own photography and video business, processing his own film and producing videos, including his autobiographical documentary, “The Original Original.”
“I think he was just happy to be working and he did whatever he needed to do – that’s why he learned all the percussion instruments,” recalls Chris Levey. “He just worked his ass off, and he achieved what he needed to. He was extremely disciplined. He went and took music theory classes, he would play with an Earl Hatch music book – he just dove in head-first. He still boxed. He worked out with a punching bag constantly and still had these routines that he did. He did his own development, including a color lab at home.
“At one point, he shot a wedding and took the film to his local lab, and something happened to the machinery and all the negatives got destroyed,” he says. “After that, he went out and bought his own negative developing machine and did all of it, not just the printing but the negative production as well. And he was not a terribly technical guy, but he learned a whole other skill and industry by himself.”
Levey’s brother David, who is a radiologist as well, played the drums in a band in Stan’s home studio, with his friends Jeff, Mike, and Steve Porcaro; David Paich, son of arranger Marty Paich; and Steve “Luke” Lukather, who went on to form the rock band Toto. Their half-brother Robert Levey is a master woodworker, who also played the drums in high school, hanging out with a group of friends that included Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, Leroy Vinnegar’s sons Mark and Kevin, and Red Rodney’s son Mark. Chris Levey plays the bass with local jazz, Americana, and big bands in his current hometown of Easton, Maryland. He says that his father’s example of determination and hard work set him and his brothers on paths to their eventual success in their fields.
Angela Levey now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, to be near Chris and her sister, who has nine children. While she enjoys having family close by, Levey misses Los Angeles, where she and Stan raised their family and thrived for more than 50 years. When “La La Land” was being filmed at iconic L.A. locations like the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach – where Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars were the band-in-residence – the production company contacted Levey for permission, which she gave, to include a photo taken by Stan in an interior shot. Ultimately, much of the club’s original décor was replaced with props for the film, but Angela is still a fan. And unlike the aspiring actress played by Emma Stone in “La La Land,” Levey got her guy.
“Oh G-d, I loved it,” she says. “People ask me if I like it and I always say, “I’m going to tell you I loved it, but you don’t necessarily have to love it.” Here’s why I loved it. They mentioned a lot of people that I know. [Ryan Gosling] mentions Hoagy Carmichael, whose son is a good friend of mine. And the pictures of the Lighthouse. Some of them were fake and some of them were really taken in there – I spent years there.
“When they were dancing in the street, up on Mullholland, I could practically see my house, which was right down the hill. The street that ran along the foothill was Valley Vista, and that was my street. And, where she worked on the Warner Brothers lot is where I worked. The whole thing was so familiar, it’s like my life. I just saw it again on HBO and I sobbed through the whole thing.”
© MMXVII Joanie Harmon – From the forthcoming book, “Jazz on the Small Screen”