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Stan Levey: 1926-2005
Stan Levey
drums, photography

Born: April 5, 1926 in Philadelphia, PA
Died: April 20, 2005 in Van Nuys, CA

Bebop/West Coast drummer, photographer

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins

Few musicians were able to successfully make the transition from New York bebop to West Coast cool jazz with such grace as Stan Levey. Later in life he made another major transition, from sharp, melodic drummer to keen-eyed, creative photographer. Levey died on April 20, 2005, after a long battle with cancer. He was 79 years old.

Stan Levey was born in 1926 in Philadelphia. When he was sixteen he met Dizzy Gillespie and was hired for the trumpeter’s rhythm section. Not long thereafter he followed his boss to New York City, where the two men, along with Charlie Parker, Max Roach and others, helped formulate the bebop revolution. Bebop was largely seen as a black man’s music, a response to the “copping” of prior jazz forms by white players, but Levey’s spirit and keen talents led him to be accepted in the black bop community. Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster was also common partners for Levey in the 40s.

After bebop had become firmly established, Levey’s music career took a radical turn in 1952 when he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra (City of Glass; Portraits of Standards). Kenton pulled the drummer into a style of more reserved, “thinking man’s” jazz. Upon moving to California in 1954, along with a number of other Kenton sidemen, Levey became a catalyst of the West Coast “cool school”. His bop-informed drumming enlivened groups like the Lighthouse All-Stars, based at bassist Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Levey led several sessions under his own name in the 1950s, from Stanley the Steamer (1954, Affinity) through the excellent Stan Levey Quintet (1957, VSOP).

Levey was one of the busiest musicians in America for thirty years, particularly after moving into studio work in 1958. He appeared on over two thousand recordings with artists like Gillespie, Parker (Yardbird in Lotus Land), Barney Bigard, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Stan Getz (Long Island Sound; Prezervation), Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Chet Baker (My Funny Valentine), Woody Herman, Shorty Rogers (Portrait of Shorty), Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, John Lewis, Ella Fitzgerald (For the Love of Ella), Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and many, many more. He was a member of the Tonight Show Band under Skitch Henderson, and played on the scores of more than three hundred motion pictures and over three thousand television episodes including Mission: Impossible, Route 66 and Batman.

Levey eventually became worn out by the music business, and in 1973 he opted to change paths in life again. He became a professional photographer and gained the acclaim of performing artists and fellow photogs everywhere. The UCLA Library of Oral Jazz History catalogued his reminiscences in Stanley Levey: Central and Beyond. In 2004 director Arthur Shelby Pritz filmed the DVD biography, Stan Levey: The Original Original, honoring one of America’s finest jazz drummers and photographers (available at http://www.stanlevey.com). Levey’s survivors include his son, Robert Levey.


Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.

E-mail: Epistrophy@aol.com

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With 1 reader comment, posted October 18, 2007