Erik Lawrence On Rod Levitt

The item in the next exhibit was, I thought, the last Rifftides posting about Rod Levitt. Then Erik Lawrence sent the following message and his obituary of Rod, which is too thorough, touching and well written not to pass along to you. Erik refers to his late father, the multifaceted saxophonist, leader and educator Arnie Lawrence.

(Your piece was) So well put. I knew Rod when I was a child, as my father played alto in the last incarnation of the Rod Levitt Orchestra. Years later my family and I moved to Vermont and heard he lived nearby. We met and despite the beginning of his declining health he became very excited about a recreation of his music. I put together a group and we performed it twice in honor of his 75th birthday. I even convinced him to join the local ragtag big band, which he really enjoyed.
Jean called me as well and asked that I write an obituary based on an article I’d written about Rod in January 2006. I’ve copied it below.
I was blessed to know Rod and Jean. Bringing him and his music back to the stage stands as one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.
In Peace,
Rod Levitt, In Memoriam
By Erik Lawrence
Rod Levitt, jazz trombonist, composer and arranger, 77, died quietly in his sleep late Tuesday night, May 8th, 2007 at his home in Wardsboro, Vermont after a courageous battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Born in September 16th, 1929 and raised in Portland, Oregon, Rod took his love for jazz and his trombone to the University of Washington. It was there he studied music theory, harmony and arranging. Many top bands come through the city of Seattle. It was there that he met a talented a young trumpeter, still in high school, named Quincy Jones. This association put Rod to work in young Quincy’s band, which featured another young jazz artist, singer Ernestine Anderson.
Four years in the Air Force allowed Rod to hone his arranging skills. He played piano and trombone and arranged for the 722nd Regiment Air Force band. They would play dances 5 or 6 nights a week.
Upon finishing his military career Rod made his way to NY, found an apartment and started picking up work as a versatile trombonist, continuing his graduate education at Mannes School of Music. The musician’s union building, local 802, was the place to meet other musicians and bandleaders and find out about work. On his way there one day he bumped into his old friend Quincy again. Quincy quickly offered Rod a gig on the road with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. And Rod was on his way.
He spent a year touring with Dizzy Gillespie, the “clown prince of bebop”. This included several recordings. Dizzy In South America offers a recorded interview with Rod and saxophonist Benny Golson. When asked recently whether Dizzy’s joking and showmanship caused his music to suffer Rod quickly said no. “You can’t hear that on records!”
Rod’s association with Gillespie carried on throughout much of his own career. But upon returning from this first tour he began to find work in town and his reputation brought him into the elite rank as a strong player with many tools, reading, improvising and arranging. Evidence of his work is clear on recordings from that time with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Benny Golson, Gil Evans and many others. A television show is now available showing Rod playing in an ensemble “in the round” under the direction of Gil Evans, featuring the groundbreaking quintet of Miles Davis with John Coltrane.
In 1958 Rod took a job playing in the symphony orchestra at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall, which he maintained for thirteen years. In 1959 he caught the eye of the newest member of the legendary Rockettes. “Who is that man with the Trombone?” she asked on her very first day of work, “Rod Levitt!!! I have all of his records!” Rod and Jean Levitt were married in 1962. They never stopped giggling like school kids about meeting and finding one another.
With a good job and a strong work ethic Rod found opportunities for writing more and more for various musical settings. The recording industry was based primarily in New York and was still in infant stages of technology. Talented craftsmen were responsible for using skills creatively to make recordings that would stand the test of time.
The field of television was blossoming and work was available for musicians who could play and write for commercials (called “jingles”), theme music and soundtracks. Rod found he liked the challenge and diversity of writing music for commercials and moved in that direction. In this setting he had the opportunity to write for an orchestra or flute choir, a playful ditty, or a steamy jazz piece. He would make use of the best musicians and singers available. In a very challenging and competitive field, he was in demand as a top writer, creating the music for thousands of commercials for every product imaginable. The ad men who hired him would not always understand what was and wasn’t possible with music. Quoting Rod, “Sometimes they told you what they wanted, now that was dangerous!”
Despite the years and advancing Alzheimer’s, he could always sing the music he wrote and tell you exactly when he did what and with whom. Much of this is quite interesting. Once he flew to Chicago to record Mahalia Jackson in her living room. Another time he used the brilliant blind reedman Rahsaan Roland Kirk for a spot for Chemical Bank. During this time he also scored music for the film score Bush Doctor, featuring Hugh O’Brian.
This dedication to excellence and strong work ethic also produced the Rod Levitt Orchestra in the 1960’s, perhaps his crowning achievement. This eight piece ensemble earned its title of orchestra with the brilliant arrangements and the virtuosity it demanded of his players as strong readers, the ability to play several instruments, thus expanding his palette of musical ‘colors’ and top level improvising.
From 1962 through 65 Rod wrote prolifically for this group and recorded four celebrated albums. His Dynamic Sound Patterns is currently available on CD. These recordings put him in the pantheon of jazz arrangers. Jazz is a collective art form and only a very few receive the popularity and success they deserve. Critically a hit, he never was able to get enough attention with this ensemble. Though they never released a recording after 1966, the dedicated members played his music and he continued to write for the Orchestra for at least a decade more.
Soft spoken and very wise, Rod had done the nearly impossible in music many times over. He made a fine living, he stayed on a clean path of health, raised a family and he even retired! He lived out his last few years in rural Vermont with his bride Jean. When asked what retirement is like for a musician, he responded; “I practice every day. I pull out my arrangements and check them over (author’s note: these arrangments were perfect forty years ago). In fact I wrote a method book for the trombone. I call it Sure Way to Chops in 20 Minutes a Day. That’s the hawker in me coming out!” he said in an interview in January, 2006, harkening back to the jingle days.
Mr. Levitt is survived by his wife Jean, of Wardsboro, Vermont and son Barry, of Miami, Florida.

To learn more about Erik Lawrence and hear the cavernous sound of his baritone saxophone, go here.

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  1. Charlton Price says

    — In the fall of 1999, while on a year-long consulting assignment in the West Bank (city of Hebron) I went with a Palestinian DJ pal from Ramallah into Jerusalem (you could do that, in those days) for an evening with Arnie Lawrence at his gig in Jerusalem. My young DJ friend was agog as Arnie and I reminisced about Clark Terry and other mutual friends and heroes from NY days (as Dave Frishberg says in his song “I’m Hip”: “when it was hip to be hep I was hep” and (as you’ve gathered) “I don’t blow, but I’m a fan.”
    I write for JAM, the KC Jazz Ambassadors mag.
    — I’ve just caved at last (why did I wait?) to pony up the $$ for Take Five: The Public and Private LIves of Paul Desmond. It’s, of course, magnificent. (as my mother would have said, tartly: “it’s so considered.”) Thanks again for Take Five, and for all else that you have given to all of us.
    Charlie P in KC