It was a phone call I wished never to receive and knew was inevitable. Rod Levitt’s wife Jean called to report that he died peacefully in his sleep the night of May 8. A composer and arranger of inventiveness, warmth and resourcefulness, a trombonist whose kindness and humor radiated in his playing, Rod had Alzheimer’s. He was not warehoused in an institution, as so many Alzheimer’s patients must be. 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 this 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.
Mrs. Levitt said that they kept printouts of the Rifftides pieces about him in a neat stack on his desk and that he often asked her to read them to him. She said he was moved by the comments from Rifftides readers. For background on Rod and links to his music, see this item from January, and this followup from Steve Schwartz about Rod in his final years. Here is a little of what I wrote about the importance of his albums:
They comprise a body of recordings that are fresh, evocative and enormously entertaining forty years later. The writing was daring, finely crafted and marinated in wit.
The bassist Bill Crow knew Rod more than a decade longer than I did. He sent this recollection.
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.
Rod Levitt would have been seventy-eight in September.