Twitter and I are not strangers, but I recognize the addictive potential of tweeting and try not to get hooked. Still, occasional Rifftides announcements via Twitter turn up followers whom I, in turn, follow. A new one is Ken Pickering, the artistic director of the Vancouver, Canada, Jazz Festival. He liked an item he found in the archive and tweeted about it. It was from this blog’s Neolithic era, about the late composer, arranger and bandleader Rod Levitt.
Mr. Pickering’s tweet reminded me how much I miss Levitt and how jazz now could use his rare combination of solid musicianship, adventurousness and wit. Levitt’s recorded work is increasingly hard to find. Here is that piece, revised slightly and illustrated.
From January 15, 2007
Rifftides reader Russell Chase writes:
Last night, my wife and I watched the 1933 movie 42nd Street on TV. I promised myself that I would listen to Rod Levitt’s LP with the same title today. I wound up playing all of the four Levitt LPs that I have. They have always rated very highly among my favorite things. Such consistently interesting writing and fine playing over a span of four LPs is hard to match.
When your name popped out of the notes of the Insight album, you were immediately nominated as the person with whom I would share my elation at having a non-CD day, and the reason why.
Well, Mr. Chase, now you have shared your elation with all of us, and that’s good; Levitt’s music deserves recognition. Rod Levitt played trombone in the Dizzy Gillespie big band that that toured Latin America and the Middle East in 1956, and in Gil Evans’ orchestra. For a time, he made a dependable living in the orchestra of the Radio City Music Hall. But he had a compulsion to write music, and in the early 1960s, he began turning out ingenious arrangements for an eight-piece rehearsal band. Levitt made use of audacious harmonies and spacious voicings, and many of his horn players doubled instruments, so that the octet often sounded twice its size. He adored Duke Ellington, and reflected Ellington’s influence. Yet, without embracing free jazz, he also managed to impart a rambunctious feeling of abandon, and Down Beat included him in a survey article about nonconformist composers. All of the other subjects of the piece were card-carrying members of the avant garde. I remember Levitt’s being amused, if surprised, by the company in which the magazine put him.
Over three or four years in the mid-sixties, he turned out the four albums Russ Chase mentions. 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. Most of his players were top studio professionals who were superb improvisers. Among them were the trumpeters Rolf Ericson and Bill Berry, the pianist Sy Johnson and the saxophonists Buzz Renn and Gene Allen. Levitt’s gutsy, often raucous trombone was at the center of many arrangements, but he also fashioned delicate woodwind ensembles. None of Levitt’s three RCA Victor albums has been reissued on CD. Five tracks made it onto a 1988 RCA compilation CD with other works by Hal McKusick and John Carisi. The disc is difficult to track down. Amazon continues to list it, but as “currently unavailable.” Trolling the web may now and then turn up vinyl copies of Insight and Solid Ground, but 42nd Street seems to have evaporated.
For the most part, the demand by a modest-sized core of listeners for reissue of Levitt’s albums has fallen on deaf ears (also known as recording company accounting departments), but there is a happy exception. Before his company sold itself to Concord Records, Ralph Kaffel, the president of Fantasy, Inc., succumbed to years of entreaties from pesky critics and reissued Levitt’s first album on Riverside as a CD in the OJC series. That was 1963’s Dynamic Sound Patterns. In his 2003 National Public Radio review of the CD, Kevin Whitehead said, “He liked blaring harmonies and primary colors,” and that’s true, but Levitt also fashioned delicate woodwind ensembles. He knew how to use space. He was a master of balance among the sections and a creator of droll surprises. The enthusiastic cadre of admirers he accumulated with those LPs wasn’t big enough to earn him a renewal with RCA. Now that the Victor catalogue has been absorbed into the massive Sony empire, chances of the Levitts being reissued seem small. By the early seventies, possibly discouraged but a cheerful realist, Levitt began making a living writing music for advertising and turned out some of the hippest background music ever to grace TV commercials in New York. He kept the octet going as a rehearsal group, playing occasional concerts and, sometimes, simply hiring musicians to play his charts for fun. He also played for a time in the 1970s in Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble, a pioneer jazz repertory orchestra. For the NJE, he expanded the arrangement of “His Masters Voice,” Levitt’s evocative tribute to Duke Ellington. Happily, it is available in a splendid reissue CD on the Chiaroscuro label. For the past several years, Rod Levitt has been living in Vermont, largely inactive in music.
A sidebar to the story: When I was anchoring and reporting television news in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-sixties, I was addicted to Dynamic Sound Patterns. Levitt came to his hometown to visit his parents, I invited him to be a guest on a series I put together, a hybrid documentary and discussion program. It was called Insight. I told Levitt the broadcast needed theme music and asked, with trepidation, what it would cost to commission him to write it. He named what I thought was a reasonable figure. The program manager approved the deal. When Levitt got back to New York, he wrote the music, recorded it with his octet, notified me that it was ready and sent an invoice. The management reneged. They wouldn’t pay the bill. I was angry and embarrassed. When I told Levitt, he said not to worry, he would make use of the music. It became the title tune of his next album. In the liner notes, he mentioned me and the station, kindly. That’s class.
The piece stands alone, but it was also perfect for its intended use. In the unlikely event that I ever go back into television, I’ll do a documentary series, call it Insight, use that music and see that Rod gets paid for it.
Rod Levitt died less than six months following this post, on May 8, 2007.