Do you like jazz? If so, there’s a good chance you like bebop, and for that you should thank drummer Stan Levey. And it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate him a bit, shall we?
An early pioneer of bebop along with drummers like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, Levey played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s (starting at age 16), when bebop was a fledgling style not yet widely accepted by all audiences. He reportedly made $18 per week playing with Gillespie in the beginning.
He managed to sneak some of those bebop chops into a big band format. He was so good, that some members of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, which Levy played with in the early ‘50s, were intimidated. “The band just got better and better and better, and by 1953, it was dynamite,” he says in the video above. “We went to Europe and tore up the whole place.” He went on to play in big bands with Benny Goodman and Woody Herman as well.
In 1954, he moved to the West Coast to play with the influential Lighthouse All-Stars with Howard Rumsey and Don Joham in Southern California. The lefty’s bopness stuck out as inspiring even against the coolness of jazz on the west coast at the time.
He did sessions, too—lots of ‘em. His drumming can be heard on more than 2,000 recordings with some of the biggest names of his era, like Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.
Levy retired from music in 1973 and started a second, and successful, career as a photographer, beginning with album covers. He died in 2005 at age 79, two months after the release of “Stan Levey, The Original Original” DVD about his 30-year drumming career.
He was also a professional boxer. “I sort of grew up in the gyms, skipping rope with my buddies, the boxers,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 interview. “Every ethnic group had its own favorites, and I did pretty well as a white Jewish heavyweight.”
Listen to Levey and Max Roach on the album Drummin’ The Blues from 1957:
And hear about his career in California with the influential Lighthouse All-Stars:
Here are some Stan Levey albums on Amazon, including Grand Stan and recordings of his own Quintet and Sextet. Please note Drum! will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!