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Time Signature

Hank Levy, 1927-2001

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Hank Levy

By James D. Dilts | Posted

The Towson State Alumni Band sent Hank Levy off in style on a rainy afternoon last Thursday at the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery in East Baltimore. It played his arrangement of "Time for Love," and one of own compositions, "Quintessence."

Levy died on Sept. 18, at 73, after a long struggle with heart disease. The 19-member alumni band has gathered weekly for some time to play the music, including the charts with odd time signatures, that the members mastered under Levy, who directed the Towson State (now Towson University) jazz program until his retirement due to ill health in 1993. The band members' main problem, along with that of the several other rehearsal bands in the Baltimore area, is that these days there isn't much to rehearse for.

"You just don't find big bands in clubs anymore," says Rich Collier, the alumni band's pianist and interim leader. "We play this music because we all love it, it's a challenge, it's exciting. We'll do a couple of concerts at Towson for the Hank Levy Scholarship Fund, and we'll do a memorial concert for Hank."

Henry J. Levy--everybody called him Hank--came of age in the 1940s, when big bands criss-crossed the country playing one-nighters, and when people in Baltimore and other cities regularly went out dancing in nightclubs and ballrooms. There were also excellent bands in the area staffed by musicians in the armed forces (the Army's Jazz Ambassadors was one), and musicians and ideas circulated freely among these groups. Levy was part of this milieu (he attended the Navy School of Music during his three-year hitch) and took full advantage of it in his later career as a teacher, composer, and bandleader.

A Baltimore native, Levy graduated from City College, where he led his first band, then attended several colleges, including an unhappy year at the Peabody Institute. He didn't receive a university degree until he arrived at Towson State in 1968, where he was forced to earn one in order to teach. He was mostly a musical autodidact, schooled in experience. In 1953, Levy played baritone saxophone in the legendary Stan Kenton Band for six months, which led to a lifelong friendship with Kenton.

On his return to Baltimore after his Kenton stint, he went to work in the family business, the Independent Beef Co., a gourmet food store on Howard Street's Antique Row, but jazz was still paramount. Visitors were sometimes surprised to find Levy, in his white butcher's coat, hard at work writing, only to discover it wasn't ledger sheets he was filling out but score sheets. Meanwhile, he was studying Stravinsky and Dvorák, trying out new things with his small group in local clubs, and conducting big-band rehearsals in his basement. Levy's experiments in breaking the time barrier had begun.

Dave Brubeck's Time Out album, featuring "Take Five" in 5/4 time and "Blue Rondo à la Turk" in 9/8 time, came out in 1959, but other than that, jazz seldom ventured outside the customary 4/4 time, or occasional 3/4 waltz time. Levy composed in time signatures that ventured way outside--to 7/4, 9/4, 11/4. But it wasn't just numbers. The music, while difficult to learn, swung hard. The Kenton band started using his arrangements.

The 1960s were a critical decade for Levy. Out on the West Coast, trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis was also experimenting with new rhythms, running time signatures as high as 19/4. One of the tunes that helped the Ellis band tear up the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 was Hank Levy's "Passacaglia and Fugue." Two years later, after the death of his father, Levy sold the beef business and convinced Towson State College to start a jazz program, with him as director.

Levy spent the 1970s and 1980s building the band at Towson. Collier was part of it. "I started playing in clubs at 13. We played things in [4/4 and 3/4 time]. We played 'Blue Rondo à la Turk' in [9/4], but it wasn't that hard to count. Learning to count in odd signatures, God, it took me the better part of two semesters to get to where it felt right. It was a long struggle for me."

The struggle was evidently worth it for Collier and the other band members. In the early 1970s, the Towson State College Jazz Ensemble won every year at the prestigious Quinnipiac Jazz Festival in New Haven, Conn.; it was eventually barred from competing.

In 1972, with the help of Stan Kenton's Creative World production company, the ensemble put out the first of several albums, with all material written and arranged by Levy. The album still sounds good. The compositions were of sufficient quality that several of them were recorded by the Ellis and Kenton bands. The Towson group lacked the soloist depth of these professional organizations but compensated with crisp, powerhouse delivery. Some of the Towson players later ended up in the pro bands, beneficiaries not just of Levy's writing talent but of an offhand teaching style that charmed his students.

"He had a certain liveliness about him--you could tell he really loved it," says tenor saxophonist Al Maniscalco, an alumni band member.

Levy's love for jazz is made clear in a two-hour documentary on Levy, A Head of Time, produced last year by Silver Spring-based filmmakers Richard and Ruth Slade. In the documentary, Levy is shown playing golf, which he took up after he retired. On one occasion, the story goes, he teed off and strolled down the fairway after the ball. The next player sliced his shot, narrowly missing the composer. "You should have yelled five," Levy said when the group caught up.

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