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|Jass It Up!: Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band at the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, August 2 and 3|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Monday, 22 July 2013 06:00|
He’s performed alongside such talents as Wynton Marsalis and Mel Tormé, and worked as personal assistant to jazz great Dick Hyman. He’s toured nationally and internationally, landing everywhere from Paris’ Bilboquet Jazz Club to Los Angeles’ Playboy Mansion. He’s been featured on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and the soundtracks for The Aviator, Ghost World, and Boardwalk Empire.
But in the early 1980s, says jazz aficionado Dan Levinson, he couldn’t even convince friends to listen to the music he loved.
“I was taking records out of a library in Santa Monica,” says the 48-year-old Levinson, “and landed on a record that RCA Victor had put out called The Best of Dixieland, and the last track on it was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s recording of ‘Livery Stable Blues.’ It was the first so-called ‘jazz record’ ever issued, in 1917, and I was absolutely blown away by it. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I just assumed that when I played it for all my friends, they would feel the same way I did.
“So I played it. I said, ‘Listen to them! Listen to that sound!’ And I remember them saying, ‘Oh, God, turn that off. What is that screeching noise?’ And I said, ‘That’s the clarinet ... .’
“These were the same people who went to rock concerts and had music blasting in their ears, but they couldn’t listen to 1917 jazz. They just looked at me. ‘What happened to Dan?’”
Audiences will get at least some sense of what happened to Dan during Levinson’s forthcoming sets at this year’s Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival, when the widely admired, New York-based bandleader and clarinet and saxophone player brings his ensemble Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band to Davenport’s Adler Theatre and RiverCenter August 2 and 3.
With his group performing genre classics – including its own rendition of “Livery Stable Blues” – and lesser-known titles from the late-1910s through the swing era, Levinson hopes to inspire an appreciation for early jazz that eluded his friends 30 years ago. But more than anything, he hopes to inspire simple happiness.
“What’s wonderful about this music that we play,” Levinson says during our recent phone interview, “is that it’s accessible to people who know nothing about jazz. You can just listen to it and feel good. There’s no pretense about it, and you don’t have to understand it. It’s all right there in front of you.”
A Los Angeles native, Levinson says he displayed an affinity for music “apparently from a very early age. I’m told that when I was two years old, I wouldn’t go to sleep unless my father put his transistor radio in my crib.”
Yet despite Levinson’s musical leanings from childhood on, he says, “I didn’t have the discipline to really learn an instrument when I was young. I kind of dabbled with piano and guitar and singing a little bit, but unfortunately, I didn’t have parents that disciplined me and forced me to learn.” Laughing, he adds, “They were very indulgent. If I didn’t want to practice, that was okay.”
In 1983, Levinson moved to the East Coast to study musical theatre at NYU, a decision that he says was made “because I was always looking for a shortcut – a way to be involved with music without having to practice an instrument.
“But when I was 20 years old, I realized that I’d better get cracking and either learn an instrument or learn to do something, because I was looking the rest of my life straight in the face and didn’t know how to do anything. And I really, really wanted to be a musician.”
He didn’t, however, want to pursue the instruments he dabbled with as a youth. “Being a terrible reader [of music], and playing guitar and piano where you play multiple notes at once, I really had a hard time. I would just sit for hours trying to read a page of music, one part at a time. And so I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I played an instrument where I only have to play one note at a time’ – again, a shortcut – ‘maybe it’ll be easier to learn.’
“So I took a trumpet lesson first. And I told my teacher, ‘Look, I’m going to school full-time, and I may not be able to practice trumpet every day,’ again looking for ways not to do all that hard work. And my teacher – I’ll never forget – said, ‘Well, man, you don’t want to play the trumpet then. You gotta practice this instrument every day. If you want to play an easy instrument that you don’t have to practice every day, play the clarinet.’”
Levinson laughs. “So I took a clarinet lesson, and after the first one, I could pick out ‘When the Saints Go Marching in’ in the low register. And I thought, ‘Yeah, this is much easier. This’ll be an easy instrument.’ And I learned very quickly that I was wrong.”
Yet he was also determined.
“I tend to have an obsessive personality,” says Levinson. “If I decide to focus in on something, I do nothing but that. So I would practice – I know this sounds crazy – up to 10 hours a day sometimes. There were practice rooms at NYU, and I would get in there as soon as my classes were over, and I’d be in there until they threw me out at whatever time that was – sometimes 11 o’clock at night. And then I’d go sit at, like, the East River, or at a park someplace, or at my apartment, and just keep practicing. I was absolutely obsessive about practicing.”
Levinson credits several specific jazz artists with helping him turn those early years of practice into a career that has now lasted more than a quarter-century. One, he says, was James “Rosy” McHargue, “who was a clarinetist, saxophonist, arranger, singer, and a great personality. I met him in 1984 when he was 82 years old, and he lived another 15 years after that. He knew and recorded with Frank Trumbauer, he knew Benny Goodman and all those guys who were gigging around Chicago, he had met and seen Bix Beiderbecke many times ... .
“Can you imagine,” Levinson continues, “being that close to someone who knew Bix, and told stories about going to see Bix, and about Bix taking him to his cabin and playing piano for him? I was sitting with someone who was there. Who was my living connection to that era of music that was my passion. More than anybody else, Rosy was my inspiration and my mentor.”
Another influential musician, Levinson says, “is Max Morath, who’s a singer and pianist, and still one of my great friends. He was a television star in the ’50s and ’60s, and I befriended him by calling him out of the blue one day – he was listed in the phone directory – just to tell him I loved his music. He invited me over, and I went to see him, and when we were talking, he said, ‘Dick Hyman lives upstairs, and I think he’s looking for an assistant.’”
... and All That Jass
Enter influential musician number three.
“I got that job in 1987,” says Levinson of his employment with the legendary jazz composer/pianist Hyman, “and held it for six years, until Dick moved to Florida. And during that time, I was making all sorts of contacts and practicing, and he was a great influence on me in terms of career choices.
“One time he said to me, ‘You know, Dan, you can’t make a living just playing the clarinet.’ And I said, ‘Well, Benny Goodman did.’ And he said, ‘All right. Benny Goodman was Benny Goodman. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, before he was Benny Goodman, he was playing saxophone in studio bands. Even he had to do it, so you need to play saxophone.’ So I got myself an alto and started playing that, and then somebody gave me a C melody sax, and ultimately, I learned the saxophone.”
(Asked if it was an easy transition from clarinet to sax, Levinson says, “No, but it’s easier to go from clarinet to saxophone than saxophone to clarinet. A lot of what you learn transfers over, so if I’m practicing clarinet, I don’t have to practice saxophone all that much.”)
During his first summer working for Hyman, Levinson also formed his first band – the same band, albeit with different musicians, that he’ll be bringing to the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.
“I put together the Roof Garden Jass Band the year I graduated from NYU,” says Levinson, “and we did a concert – my first public concert – on July 1, 1987.” The Original Dixieland Jazz Band tribute event, which was held at the Eisner & Lubin Auditorium in NYU’s Loeb Student Center, “was sold out, and John S. Wilson in the New York Times gave it a really good write-up.
“And in many ways, I’ve never been able to duplicate that in terms of success,” he adds with a laugh. “Just a couple months ago, somebody wrote to me and said, ‘I was at your concert in 1987 and I’ve never forgotten it. It changed my life.’”
It also changed Levinson’s. The concert’s acclaim led to continued bookings in New York City; a year-long, 1990 stint in Paris, oftentimes playing alongside noted jazzman Dick Miller; six months of jazz immersion in New Orleans; and a 1993 invitation to join the ensemble of Vince Giordano & the Nighthwaks, which Levinson calls “a great gig that’s still going on now. Having honed my reading skills over the last 20 years, I can get by all right alongside all those strong players.”
He was also, in the mid-’90s, occasionally invited to sit in for an absent Woody Allen during sets with The Bunk Project, the jazz ensemble that showcased the filmmaker’s intimidating clarinet skills. The musician admits, however, that those particular gigs – both on the band’s Brazilian tour and in their regular Monday-night sets at New York’s famed Michael’s Pub – did lead to some disappointment.
“Can you imagine the looks on people’s faces when I walk out on-stage at Michael’s Pub, and people have paid all this money, and Woody’s not there?” asks Levinson with a laugh. “You hear people saying, ‘Oh my God ... who is that?!’”
Among fans of early jazz, such a question doesn’t arise much anymore, considering Levinson’s active leadership of numerous New York-based ensembles including the New Millennium All-Stars, the Swing Wing, Fête Manouche, and his Roof Garden Jass Band.
(A note to the curious: Levinson states that while “tomes have been written about it and everybody has their different theories” why the original spelling of “jass” morphed into “jazz” in the early 1920s, “one theory is that people couldn’t seem to resist the temptation to obliterate the letter ‘j’ from bands’ posters.”)
Although the Roof Garden Jass Band was officially retired in 2007, local jazz favorite Josh Duffee convinced Levinson to re-form the ensemble for Bix festival performances in 2010 and this year, and it now boasts several musicians still in their early 20s.
“I’m very excited about that,” says Levinson. “Because it’s new blood – it’s young guys who’ve just discovered this music – and they can read anything I put in front of them.
“We had a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. It was the first time we’d played together, and they read it as though they’d been playing it their whole lives. And the beauty of it was watching them exclaim at the end of an arrangement, ‘Wow! This is great! I can’t wait to play this at the Bix festival!’
“I mean, that’s the kind of enthusiasm I’ve been looking for. Because when I play this music, that’s what I feel.”
Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band is scheduled to play the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival at the Adler Theatre (1 p.m. on August 2 and 7 p.m. on August 3) and Davenport RiverCenter (9 p.m. on August 2 and 4 p.m. on August 3). For more information on Levinson and his ensembles, visit DanLevinson.com.
For the full Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival performance schedule, visit BixSociety.org.
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