Repeating Stephanie Stein’s observation regarding Rod Levitt – “The Arrangers is rounded out by the work of Rod Levitt, a trombonist and commercial arranger who occasionally worked with Evans in the ’60’s. His charts, excerpts from his mid:60’s recordings for RCA, make full use of the experimental ideas that the “Birth of the Cool” crowd had ushered in years before.
Don Heckman wrote an appreciation of Levitt for Down Beat in the February 25, 1965 issue – “Rod Levitt – Mark For Future Reference.”
The jazz composer requires—more than anything else—an instrument for the realization of his music. The classic example, of course, is the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which has produced a brilliant series of compositions out of an intimate musical relationship between composer and performers.
Recent jazz composers have had tougher going. Gil Evans, George Russell, John Lewis, Charles Mingus—to name only a few—have made individual, and usually fruitless, efforts to maintain regular groups for development of their musical thoughts.
Last year a Riverside recording called The Dynamic Sound Patterns of the Rod Levitt Orchestra surprised many jazz professionals. Levitt’s eight pieces had been rehearsing, unpublicized, and slowly evolving a cohesion and craftsmanship usually found only in groups that have endured the long trials of road tours.
Rehearsal groups are not exactly a new idea. They meet in studios and lofts throughout the country, calling themselves workshops, lab bands, and clinics. Somehow, Levitt’s group managed to succeed where so many others foundered, but its success was hardly an overnight phenomenon.
Under Levitt’s firm leadership, many months of rehearsals preceded its first recording. Fortunately Levitt, besides possessing an ability to work hard, has been around too long to expect things to happen by themselves. Now 35, he has come a long way from pre-med studies in Portland, Ore.
“I started playing trombone when I was 10,” he said. “When the war started, it gave young guys like me a good chance to get started. I wasn’t particularly good at first, but I kept at it. My dad finally bought me a new Conn trombone, and then I was able to get with one of the three local bands. I’d get 5 bucks when I played. I was about 15 when I started writing. I just wrote simple arrangements like “I Surrender, Dear” and “Moonglow” with simple chords. And I used to copy records; Woody Herman’s first herd was the rage at the time.
“I even remember writing an arrangement of “Blue Skies” when I was in grade school with every part in a different key. I thought arranging was writing the melody on different steps of the scale. Then my trombone teacher straightened me out on that point. And I wrote another arrangement of it with just kind of dumb chords. My brother, who was taking piano lessons at the time, straightened me out on the chords. By the time I got to high school, I understood that part of it pretty well. We had our jazz band at school—the Mad French Lepers—with trombone, alto, and rhythm. We wore berets and little coat-sweatshirts.”
Levitt’s reminiscences describe an environment far removed from what one usually associates with the young jazz musician. After graduation from high school, he went to Reed College, a small, progressive school in his home town of Portland. But the experience was not an ennobling one. Despite family pressures to lead a more “conventional” life, Levitt found the urges and demands of music more and more powerful.
In college as a pre-medical student, Levitt played on weekends but then decided, “Well, I can’t make this— staying up all hours and just barely passing. Reed is full of a bunch of professors’ sons, and these guys would tell me they wouldn’t stay up past 12 for any school work. They were just brilliant, but I couldn’t make it any longer; I was a wreck. So I transferred to the University of Washington [in Seattle]. They had a pretty good music department with a lot of good musicians.”
At Washington, Levitt made important contacts with musicians who had interests and abilities to match his own. A significant friendship, one that had an effect upon his later life, was with Quincy Jones—still in high school at the time.
“Quincy used to come to hear the University of Washington sessions that we had once a week at the student union,” Levitt recalled. “I heard the first arrangement he ever wrote. It was for the Garfield High School Band. Ernestine Anderson was the singer in his small jazz group. I used to play jobs with him; he played good ones—all the college sororities and stuff.”
Like most other young college graduates in the early ’50s, Levitt’s only choice of employment was that provided by the armed services.
“After college,” he said, “I joined the Air Force and went into the band at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. All through the service, I studied the trombone—actually it is where I learned my craft. I got very interested in symphonic music. A lot of guys goofed off, but I practiced two or three hours every day. We had a pretty good service band, and I was able to write for it; we had a radio show, and I was in charge of the band for that. I didn’t play trombone much in the jazz band—when we lost our piano players, I had to play piano.”
Levitt was fortunate to find life in the service tolerable, but he was soon to discover the difficulties facing the civilian musician. During his last few months in the Air Force he began to audition for symphony orchestras. Among them the Philadelphia; the Baltimore; the Washington [D.C.]; the New Orleans; and the Boston Pops.
He flew 1,600 miles for one audition—his first visit to New York City. He walked into the audition at the Great Northern and recalled, “This cat says, ‘Oh, you’re in the service?’
” ‘Yeah, I’m getting out in a few months.’
” ‘Well, are you a member of the union?’
” ‘Well, I was, but you know, I’m an honorary member now.’
” ‘I’m not allowed to hear any players who aren’t members of the union.’
” ‘Man, you mean I flew all the way up here to hear you say you can’t audition me?’
” ‘That’s just a rule. Naturally I’ll hear you since you’re here and everything.’
“I got real mad and played a good audition, one of the best I ever played—all the symphonic excerpts—I read alto clef—I wailed it off. Then he said, ‘Gee, I’m sorry that I just hired somebody.’ “
Then Levitt finally went to New York for good, he concentrated on legitimate work. “I just went around the city, was in the National Symphony, which is a training orchestra, played in some of the amateur orchestras around, and got a few jobs here and there,” he recalled. “Then I ran into Quincy Jones, and he said, ‘Man, let’s go to the Middle East with Dizzy Gillespie.’ “
“I thought he was kidding,” Levitt added, “and it was sort of weird, but here was the first name band I ever played with, and it was Dizzy Gillespie’s.”
Levitt played with the band through an eight-week tour in the Middle East, four weeks in South America, and a subsequent tour of the United States. He described some of his experiences:
“I stayed with the band for about a year, but I did very little soloing. I used to do a Dixieland thing with Dizzy; the other trombone players didn’t want to play it, and I think that’s how I got stuck with it. Occasionally I got a lead part, but since I had my big trigger horn, it was better that I played third anyway. One night a big fat cat in Philly demanded that I play a solo. He kept bugging Dizzy, so Dizzy finally said, ‘Okay, you play a solo in this tune and get this guy off my back.’ It was Because of You, and I played the first 16. It was sort of a faked arrangement—although Melba Liston had written a sketch. I think I played a good solo, as far as that goes—but, you know, nothing special.”
After leaving Gillespie in 1957, Levitt freelanced for three months and then took a job with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra.
“I jumped at it,” he said, “because it was steady and the kind of job I felt I was cut out for at the time. I was in the Music Hall orchestra about six and a half years. In some ways it was a pleasure; there were a bunch of good guys there with similar backgrounds, and I sort of blended in with the scenery. I was getting record dates from the association with Dizzy, so it was a period of pretty good financial rewards.”
By 1960, however, the financial rewards—without equivalent musical satisfaction—had begun to pale. Levitt’s interest in writing—an interest that, despite his extensive activities as a player, had always been central to his thoughts—began to predominate. He explained how the octet began:
“I figured I’d get a group up of Music Hall guys. We began having rehearsals every week or so, but in some ways it was a drag. Some guy would always say, ‘I’d rather go bowling.’ But after five or six months, we managed to make a demo. I wanted the thing as a workshop for my own writing but also as a break-away for tired commercial musicians. I felt I could get a number of guys to come if I told them they’d get to hear themselves play and get an occasional solo. At first it was hard to get guys; the people I wanted didn’t know me from Adam. I used to call bass players frantically at the last minute. The personnel finally got set the way it is now sometime before the first concert in 1963, so it’s actually been together around two years.”
Levitt spoke unassumingly about his approach to composing for the octet, saying that the only approach he takes to structure is just to make it different. That’s probably the reason, he said, that he shies from standards—their structures are too binding. With his own compositions, he can try something different—”maybe a six-bar phrase or something”—and try to let the composition force the soloist into a certain kind of improvisation. “I give as few chord changes as possible and make them simple,” he said. “Some tunes have a definite chord pattern, but I don’t use a lot of altered changes. I try to give the soloists as much freedom chord-wise as possible.”
Among today’s jazz composers, Levitt has perhaps an unusual bent for writing ensemble material and says he offers this one excuse for it: “I played in an authentic Dixieland band in Portland—the Castle Jazz Band. I was worried when I came to the band because I was known as a bopper, and the leader said, ‘Well, you’d better cool it now. Don’t start playing any bebop.’ I fell into it pretty naturally, but I began to worry about my solos. So the leader said, ‘Look, kid. Don’t worry about the solos; they’re just for the ensemble to rest. That’s all solos are for.’
“Before the octet’s first concert I was worried that we didn’t have enough jazz solos. It really contrasted with, say, George Russell’s groups, where he had so much emphasis on solos but still kept ensemble interest. For me, I just find my attention waning when I hear a long solo. If there’s anything I don’t want to do, it’s bore the audience. Since you’re dealing with a very small group of people, you’d better not bore the people you do have.”
Some of the reviews of his Riverside album found a similarity in his music to Gil Evans’. But his admiration of Evans’ work notwithstanding, Levitt is hard put to find it.
“I was so taken with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and possibly Basie—the earthier approaches—that when I heard Gil Evans’ charts for the Claude Thornhill band,” he said, “they sounded like pretty polite stuff to me. Gil’s textures at that time didn’t have any meaning to me at all. Of course, I was younger then. Now I think I hear these things in their proper place.
“When I played with Gil, I was pretty taken with the way he writes, but sometimes when you’re playing, you don’t get the full impact. When I bought all his records, then I really enjoyed his music. His orchestration is just earthshaking.”
Levitt’s ambitions for his octet and for himself are tempered by his realistic appraisal of the scene. “I’d like to do some college dates,” he said, “and I’d like to do more concerts. I think we have a better listening chance in concerts. We can do more, and people are more receptive. I’m pushing my commercial work too. Mainly, I just want to write music.”
The key is in that last sentence. Levitt is forthright and uncomplicated in stating his goals: he is a composer who wants to spend as much time as possible composing. His octet—the most satisfactory instrument for his music—is an integral part of these goals, and there can be little doubt that he will scratch and struggle to keep it together.
John S. Wilson’s Down Beat review awarded Rod Levitt’s Riverside album five stars.
Levitt, quondam trombonist with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, who has had a workshop octet since 1960, makes a disc debut here that is bound to be one of the jazz events of the year.
He has written six pieces that are compositions rather than sketches, that are packed with unusual and interesting ideas, and which may draw from numerous sources but rarely reflect any particular influence except, occasionally, Edward Kennedy Ellington, than whom who could be better.
Levitt’s octet, as a group, plays brilliantly, and the soloists are, for the most part, magnificent. Levitt himself is a marvelous trombonist with a broad, expansive, and sometimes blustery open style and great facility with and feeling for muted work. Balancing his pungent playing expertly is Ericson, whose trumpet work is clean and fiery. Between them, they play some brass ensembles that would do credit to a full-scale section. Allen’s baritone saxophone is warm, full, and unmannered while Renn holds up his alto passages well. Marge is on hand mainly as a versatile jack of all woodwinds.
All Levitt’s pieces have body. Things happen—all kinds of things, unexpected things, in solos and in ensembles. And this band rides hard. It generates a kind of excitement and sense of originality dressed in full professionalism that is scarcely ever expected in jazz any more.
—John S. Wilson
David K. Martin’s original liner notes from the Riverside LP.
The dynamic patterns of the very big-sounding eight-piece group heard here manage, among other things, to demonstrate a most significant and often overlooked truth that the combination of skill and enthusiasm remains just about unbeatable in jazz.
Rod Levitt, although he has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, is not a man whose name is particularly known to the jazz public. The same is true, for the most part, of his associates here, with the possible and partial exception of the Swedish-born trumpeter, Rolf Ericson, who has been part of several of the best big bands, most recently including that of Duke Ellington. These are all musicians who spend the greater part of their professional time in the studios and on “commercial” gigs (which is to say basically noncreative, steady employment work). But, as their work here quickly demonstrates, they all can play with imagination and fire. In addition, all of them have a real zest for the particular project they are involved with here that would be hard to equal. The task of interpreting the writing of the leader is one they originally took on because it appealed to them and intrigued them. They have stayed with it because they have continued to feel a rare degree of enthusiasm for Levitt’s bright and brisk and unhackneyed music.
This is at times a working group, but more often it is a “rehearsal band.” That is a term that has pretty much disappeared from the musical vocabulary in recent years, which is a real loss. Such bands would gather together on their own time, and play for hours, exploring the ideas of a young arranger or seeking to develop individual and ensemble techniques. It was a form of workshop that probably sometimes just gave a few musicians some place to go on idle afternoons, but that on many occasions proved quite valuable. At its best, such a setting can come up with music as exciting and original as that of Rod Levitt. This is jazz that avoids both the tired old cliches and the self-consciously avant-garde, that combines the discipline and full sound of a big band with the solo freedom of a small unit, producing something very much worth paying attention to. . . .
Levitt, who created (and titled) all six selections, has some comments of his own on the various positions. “Holler,” he notes, “was suggested by the ‘hollers’ in the repertoire of the late blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. It features six soloists in different tempos and moods.” “Ah! Spain” takes its title from the standard expression of nostalgia for a fondly-remembered foreign country. Rod, it turns out, never has been to Spain, but this number makes it clear that he wishes he had, while also underlining the fact that “the modal character of Spanish music, with its soulful brooding, suggests a satisfying rapport with jazz.” “Jelly Man” is described by the composer as painting a portrait of an imaginary clown, with George Marge’s opening and closing twelve-tone English horn solos providing a frame for the picture.
“Upper Bay” (meaning the top floor of an Air Force barracks—in this case an Air Force band barracks), which tells a quite specific story: “A drummer is practicing, trombone and clarinet are running through a dreary melody, some of the men are sleeping, and a noisy card game is in progress. There is much mutual objection to the competing noise, several individuals have their say in the ensuing argument, and as the tension grows the voices become more dissonant. After a while, things drift back to normal.” Regarding “El General,” which features Gene Allen’s baritone sax, Levitt notes that “in this country most young boys aspire to be president; in Latin American countries, however, the youngsters dream of being a general in the army, a safer occupation.” Finally, there is “His Master’s Voice,” “a tribute to one of the great jazz instruments of all time, the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The piece is in three sections, marked stomp, ballad, and shout; Rolf Ericson, currently a member of the Ellington orchestra, is featured in the last section.”
—DAVID K. MARTIN
Rod Levitt’s new two albums for RCA Victor, Insight – The Rod Levitt Orchestra and Solid Ground – The Rod Levitt Orchestra, did not receive a compact disc reissue from RCA Victor. JC – Jazz Collectors, an EU firm undertook this task in 2010 and combined both albums on a single CD release, JC 431. The booklet accompanying the reissue began with a remembrance from Bill Crow who knew Rod Levitt during his University of Washington days in Seattle.
“When I got out of the Army in 1949 and returned to my studies at the University of Washington, I soon discovered the afternoon jam sessions that went on in the U.’s music annex. I was a bebop valve trombonist and sometime drummer in those days. I met Rod Levitt at one of those jams, and we hung out a little together on the Seattle music scene until the winter of 1950, when Buzzy Bridgeford, a drummer from Olympia, invited me to go with him when he went back to New York. I kept hearing about Rod, but when he came to New York, he didn’t hang with the same people I was interested in at that time. Whenever our paths crossed, we had a nice reunion, and he called me to play on a couple of his projects, which I enjoyed very much. I liked his playing and his writing, and always appreciated his sunny disposition.”
Rodney Charles Levitt (better known as Rod Levitt) was an American trombonist, composer and arranger. He was one among many underrated and forgotten jazz musicians who briefly entered the spotlight only to return to obscurity soon after.
Levitt was born in Portland, Oregon, on September 16, 1929 (he died in his sleep on the night of May 8, 2007) and studied composition at the University of Washington, where he received his B.A. in 1951. He was in the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall from 1957 to 1963, and played with Dizzy Gillespie (from 1956 to 1957 -with whom he made his first recordings), Ernie Wilkins (1957), Kai Winding (1958), and Sy Oliver (1959-60). He also worked with Gil Evans in 1959 when his orchestra accompanied Miles Davis. He played with Gerry Mulligan and Mundell Lowe in 1960, with Quincy Jones in 1961, and with Oliver Nelson in 1962. His career reached its zenith during the period from 1963 to 1966, when he fronted his own octet (titled “Rod Levitt and his Orchestra”) and recorded four albums under his own name. He continued to work with this group into the 1970s. During the decade he also played with Chuck Israels. Later in his career he worked with Cedar Walton and Blue Mitchell, and wrote music for commercials with a company he ran from 1966 to 1989. In the late 1970s he taught at Fairleigh Dickinson, Hoftra University, CUNY and Hunter College.
According to his friend Doug Ramsey, during his final years “Rod had Alzheimer’s. He was not warehoused in an institution, as so many Alzheimer’s patients must be. [His wife] Jean kept him with her at home in Vermont. She said that although much of his past had slipped away, he kept his horn near and played it his last week even as he was declining. ‘You know, his trombone, his music, were his life’, Jean said. She left out the most important element in his life, Jean”.
Stephanie Stein’s liner notes to the RCA Bluebird reissue concluded with comments on the Rod Levitt tracks selected by Ed Michel for that release.
Rod Levitt had come to New York from Seattle in the mid- ’50’s. After luckily running into his hometown friend Quincy Jones on the street, he ended up joining Dizzy Gillespie’s dream band for its historic Mideast tour. Upon his return, he played in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra and worked with a variety of groups.
One of them was the band Evans had formed to play at Birdland opposite Davis’ late ’50’s sextet (which included Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). “We had to practice like fiends,” recalls Levitt. “The charts were really difficult. Some of the players were not such great readers, so the band wasn’t too steady. Later, I subbed for Tony Studd when the band played at the Jazz Gallery. Out of the Cool had come out and people were really interested in the music and the band sounded incredible. I don’t buy many records, but I bought that one.
“I started my band because I was really straining to do something different. We rehearsed a lot, but the players didn’t mind because everyone was featured. Sometimes they didn’t even want to be—Gene Allen used to call me up just begging me to take him off the solos. And he was such a marvelous player!”
Levitt is the least well-known jazz arranger in this volume. His compositions also use extended forms, with the exception of the Latin-tinged “Morning in Montevideo,” which has a straight-ahead song form. His orchestral approach is often as delightfully eccentric as his trombone style. Listen to the oboe lyrically open “Greenup,” only to collide with the brash trombone which then carries the theme, surrounded by dissonant winds. Levitt keeps his adept multi-reed players hopping through their arsenal—from bass clarinet and baritone to piccolo—on the slowly simmering modal tune, “Vera Cruz,” and on “Holler No. 3,” a rousing Southern-flavored piece with some wild ensemble flourishes.
No typical scores here—or people. No typical arranging style to pin on any of these individualistic writers. This is tricky work—painting sonic pictures that keep the improviser in mind. A few common threads run through this collection; the musical intent went beyond writing a well-crafted chart that swung. Everybody took some risks, and it sounds like they had a good time doing so. One can hear that Ellingtonian code: these charts were written for the players, letting their personalities and eccentricities lift the parts right off the page.
Let this volume conjure up a different image of the ’50’s, a conservative time in so many other ways. Rehearsal time was cheap, musicians were anxious to experiment, and the ideas exchanged were truly Original.
Evans and Russell continue to come up with some of the most startling sounds in jazz. Through the music, their ensembles accomplish that most magical arranger’s feat (with Ellington as the eloquent standard bearer once again): becoming their instruments, and in the most seductive moments, taking on a life and personality of their own.
John S. Wilson reviewed Levitt’s first album for RCA Victor giving it five stars’
Levitt’s second album is, if anything, even better than his first, issued last year by Riverside. The imaginative writing, the ensemble precision, the combination of a deeply rooted jazz foundation and adventurous ideas, the humor that crops up again and again in Levitt’s approach and in the brash, blowsy sound of his trombone are a mixture of elements that make this band unique and fascinating.
Despite its individuality, there is nothing pretentious about Levitt’s group and certainly nothing stuffy or esoteric. This is a fun band that swings, rocks, laughs, and has a wonderful time through everything it plays.
Levitt has included four standards (to balance five originals), and it is a measure of his outlook and ingenuity that two of them, “All I Do is Dream of You” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” get a kind of treatment they probably never experienced before, while a third, “Cherry,” is founded on the Jimmie Lunceford attack but develops this approach in an original manner (particularly through Beal’s amusing sliding bass).
Levitt is the most distinctive of the soloists with his broad, Tricky Sam Nanton approach, but Ericson, Renn, and Allen add charging vitality to the performances with their more conservative styles.
Rod Levitt’s second album for RCA Victor, Solid Ground – The Rod Levitt Orchestra, scored another five star review in Down Beat.
What a pleasure to hear a group that has, for its collective bag, humor and the ability to swing, both within a contemporary framework.
There is a healthy sparkle to Levitt’s writing that seems to shout: “Forget the dialectics—let’s get back to the business of just blowing!” Between the tongue-in-cheek artistry of Levitt (as writer and trombonist) and the inspired solo work of the other seven, Solid Ground is solid enjoyment.
The instrumental versatility of the front line makes it possible for Levitt to devise some remarkable sounds throughout: the chord clusters of flute, trumpet, and tenor that play the octave leaps in “Levittown” wail like a passing train; the unison drive of trombone and saxes on the same track build up enormous energy; the suggestion of “Rite of Spring“ with unison clarinets at the outset of “Borough Hall;” the chamber blend of Marge’s oboe against flute, clarinet, and piano overlapping a martial waltz in “Greenup,” which also has an enigmatic, repetitious two-note closing fade by Levitt; the tossing back and forth of a unison figure in the release of “Rio Rita,” especially effective because of the fine stereo separation; and ditto for the fiendishly difficult unison theme toward the close of “Mr. Barrelhouse.”
Solo highlights are so numerous that there is room to mention only a few. Ericson steals the show with his exciting trumpet and fluegelhorn statements; he drives on “Levittown” and gets with the satirical flair of “I Wanna Stomp.” As a trombonist, Levitt has an amazing range of colors, plungering into an Ellingtonian funk on “San Francisco,” or swinging with a vengeance on “I Wanna Stomp,” and sounding positively mischieveous on “Mr.Barrelhouse” Allen’s baritone conjures up the pure, tenor-range image of Gerry Mulligan on “Borough Hall,” especially alongside Beal’s sympathetic solo walk. As for Beal, he displays a great talent for mimicry on Borough and a penchant for bent tones on “Morning in Montevideo.”
For pure playfulness, nothing tops “Rio Rita,” which includes Levitt’s put-on vocal.
For uninhibited swing, “I Wanna Stomp” has all the unabashed ingredients: old-fashioned riffs, Charleston proddings, even the age-old piano tremolos way up in the treble. For a witty, miniature tone poem, “Borough Hall” offers a montage of rhythmically variegated impressions that are captured faithfully and, above all, musically.
Rod Levitt’s three five stars albums as reviewed by Down Beat regulars John S. Wilson and Harvey Siders established a benchmark that has rarely been achieved by jazz artists. It is especially notable as these albums were created outside the mainstream of jazz in the 1960s. They continue the lineage established by the “Birth of the Cool” sessions of 1949-1950 and carried forward by Jack Lewis’ Jazz Workshop albums.