Biography of a Philly-born jazz great

'Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight' by Frank R. Hayde

2 minute read
An extraordinary career. (Photo via
An extraordinary career. (Photo via

The late and legendary jazz drummer Stan Levey, born and raised in Philadelphia, was one of the most influential and least known percussionists in the history of jazz. The first white drummer to play bebop, Levey played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford — and even the King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman — while still in his teens. Frank R. Hayde’s Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight is a sometimes engaging and sometimes colorful account of Levey’s extraordinary career as a drummer, recording artist, studio musician, boxer, and photographer.

Turned on to heroin by Charlie Parker while still a youngster, he served 19 months in federal prison on a drug charge, where he kicked his habit. After his release, he resurrected his career. He spent 1952 to 1954 in one of Stan Kenton’s most famous ensembles, then moved to Los Angeles where he became one of the prime forces in what we know as West Coast Jazz. He backed everyone from Stan Getz and Miles Davis to Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. He was also one of the first jazz musicians to become a “first-call” player on the Los Angeles studio scene, playing on film and TV projects like Rosemary’s Baby and Mission Impossible.

He recognized what would happen to studio musicians once electronics were introduced to the recording process, and suddenly called it quits around 1973. He never picked up a pair of sticks or brushes again. Instead, he concentrated on his successful photography business — among other things, he shot cover art for jazz albums.

Welcome, but . . .

Though a colorful and meticulously researched work like Jazz Heavyweight is a welcome addition to jazz literature and scholarship, the project has shortcomings. Hayde, who has written several books about the Mafia, is not a musician. It shows. Presumably, many drummers would purchase a book about a jazz drumming cult figure, but the book lacks any serious analysis of Stan Levey’s singular style, despite a kind introduction by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. There are plenty of drummers the author could have gone to for technical detail, most notably fellow legend Roy Haynes, who, at age 90, is likely the only drumming contemporary of Stan Levey still performing.

Further, Hayde too often relies on oft-repeated and sometimes inaccurate quotes from writers like novelist/jazz fan Ralph Ellison, hardly a jazz scholar. He repeats apocryphal stories about the jazz scene in general, misunderstands the nature of hard bop (he describes it as “self-consciously black” music), and gets the facts of Levey’s career wrong (he says Levey immediately began studio work upon his 1954 arrival in Los Angeles). Probably the book’s best sources are Levey's radio interviews and the unpublished manuscript of a book Levey was working on with a coauthor.

It’s not surprising that 11 years after his death, Stan is still the Man.

What, When, Where

Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight, by Frank R. Hayde with a foreword by Charlie Watts. Santa Monica Press, 2016. Available at Amazon.

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