“Lou Levy and I became quite close friends on (a) Jazz at the Philharmonic tour…. I loved Lou and really enjoyed him musically.”
–Is there another musical instrument as sublime as the piano? And can there be any higher musical joy than listening to great pianists, especially when they play solo? I was raised in a family with an enormous “classics” collection and a willingness to go places to hear the master pianists in person. We debated Rubinstein versus Horowitz, and we knew that Oscar Levant, perhaps a little crazy, could really play Gershwin.
–Well, there are some exceptions to the classical masters. I don’t mean by “exceptions” to imply “better” but to bespeak an artistry able to reach the highest levels; an artistry that can instill rapture.
–Here I refer to a handful of jazz pianists. When it comes to solo piano, perhaps regarding those two paths Craggy Robert the seminal poet says early diverged through his woods, either of the above paths of piano artistry when traveled could make all the difference.
–But if you do Robert an indignity and overlook that his poetic paths are different, mutually exclusive Life Paths, then my advice is to make sure you take both pianistic paths. The jazz one is much shorter anyway, but the time spent on it is indispensable for piano lovers.
–So: The rewards of the second path would be to hear but a handful of jazz pianists playing solo.
–The premiere jazz piano soloist is, of course, Art Tatum. Vladimir Horowitz frequented the Onyx Club on 52nd Street in Manhattan when Tatum was playing there in the 1940’s and early 1950’s; I sense it’s reasonable to assume Horowitz spent little or no other time in jazz clubs.
–Imagine those two titans being together in the same room, a room holding a grand piano! It is perhaps the perfect apple and the perfect orange. You’d want them both in that crystal bowl on your dining table, and you wouldn’t allow yourself or any others to touch either perfection. Of course, no one could anyway.
–Reportedly, Gershwin couldn’t believe his ears when he first heard Tatum play piano–it was out in Hollywood at the home of someone with great ears and a Steinway. Duke Ellington, a wonderful (underrated) solo jazz pianist in addition to being the premiere jazz orchestra leader (hear him noodling those perfect solo piano blues James Stewart “plays” as the country lawyer with a jazz ear in Anatomy of a Murder), once said when Tatum took the bandstand alone at the piano in a club, “God is in the house.” Tatum was, well, perfect: Impeccable and previously unheard of technique; the subtlest of harmonies; immense range; dazzling but, finally, moving readings of the Great American Songbook–Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rogers, et al.–and other tunes such as “Danny Boy.” Shortly before Tatum passed in the 1950’s, jazz impresario Norman Granz put him in a recording studio for a few days and Tatum recorded what had to be very nearly his entire repertoire. There is nothing in jazz piano like these sublime recordings.
–I first heard Tatum in person when I was an underage prep school twerp who bluffed my way into a little jazz club in Cleveland, and thanks to an announcement by the proud club owner I learned that among my fellow audience members were Coleman Hawkins, the tenor sax giant, and George Szell, the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony and a few members of his orchestra, smiling members of the small audience in the cramped room in Heaven. I’ve listened to many of the classical greats in concert, and I must say the jazz giant Tatum was for me the peak experience of listening to a piano master.
–There are a very few others in jazz besides Tatum who do this, and none are on his level.
–One occasionally came frighteningly close, though. There is one preserved example of it.
–The pianist is Lou Levy. Levy is of the jazz generation after Tatum. Stylistically, he was surely of another time. He was the pianist for some of the early Woody Herman bands (the “Herds”). Levy tired of the road life of bands and went back home; but soon the bug infected him again. So he got a job playing intermission piano at a club in Chicago. The Herman band happened to come through that club to play an engagement. When his old friends, who hadn’t seen him for a while, heard him playing solo piano, they were overwhelmed by his greatness. How to account for the inspired solo piano Levy was playing? He’d always been wonderful in the Herman rhythm section; but the full range of his solo playing hadn’t been evident. Passing by that Chicago club on the street outside and dimly hearing Levy inside, Horowitz would, I must believe, have pulled up short and possibly gone in to listen to Levy.
–Levy must not have cared much about self-promotion. But, a story goes, the Herman players got a tape recorder and taped one of Levy’s intermission sessions. Soon the recording became widely heard among jazz players.
–Finally, I guess, RCA Victor virtually abducted Levy and he made one session, and only one, for them. This was in 1956. It’s called Solo Scene with Lou Levy, Pianist.
–I had worn out my vinyl version long ago and–thank goodness it was still available–ordered a CD a few months ago from Barnes and Noble.
–Levy, like Tatum often did, plays pieces from The Great American Songbook on this precious CD: “Lullaby of the Leaves”; “Makin’ Whoopee”; “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; “Violets for Your Furs”; “Get Happy”; “That Old Black Magic”; “I’ll Take Romance”; “Black Coffee”; “Cheek to Cheek”; “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead.”
–Andre Previn wrote the liner notes, and you’ll see his respect for Levy. Previn is well-suited to do the notes for this rare piano masterpiece because he has been preeminent in both jazz piano and the classical music world.
–Jazz appreciators should not miss this session.
–Levy was a popular pianist for many fellow jazz musicians and is on many jazz recordings as a member of the rhythm section. He was also sought as an accompanying pianist by several famous jazz and pop singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra who called Levy “Luigi” and sometimes organized parties at his home at which Levy entertained guests with a program of solo jazz piano. Such parties were also given by Don Rickles, James Stewart and Michael Caine.
–Levy’s solo jazz piano was too much of a secret.
–There’s not much more to say; analysis fails at this level of piano mastery. Levy is not Art Tatum. But perhaps Tatum, brutally honest about his colleagues, would have listened to Levy with more than a little approval.
–Here is Lou Levy playing “Black Coffee” from the album, Solo Scene: