Hank Levy is Towson's quiet link to jazz

Music: As a composer, baritone sax player and educator at Towson University, Henry J. `Hank' Levy has made his mark in the jazz world.

April 13, 2001|By Mark R. Smith | Mark R. Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There are a few things Baltimoreans should know about Henry J. "Hank" Levy, professor emeritus and retired director of the jazz department at Towson University.

As a young man, Levy played baritone sax in jazz great Stan Kenton's band. Many peers judge his talent level to be on a par with other greats of the genre. And writing music, notably his love of exotic and challenging time signatures, was his main claim to fame.

He also didn't want to travel, instead staying in his hometown of Baltimore and sharing his life and gifts with his beloved late wife Gloria, family, friends, colleagues and students. Some observers think that lack of travel cost him far greater notoriety.

Today, as Levy struggles in the Cardiac Care Unit at Baltimore's Franklin Square Hospital, that could be changing.

Dick Slade, who runs Silver Spring-based Audio Visual Artist's Productions, released a lengthy documentary about Levy last fall called "A Head of Time: Ahead of Time," and the Towson University Jazz Ensemble yesterday released "With the Old Man in Mind," one of the few CDs that consists entirely of Levy compositions.

Today, Levy, 73, is keeping up the good fight in his long battle against heart disease that close friends thought he might lose years ago. Yet, the Oak Crest Village resident still swings to his trademark odd meters as his illness allows.

Until the '60s, jazz had been approached, by and large, with a 4/4 beat, though multi-instrumentalist and writer Benny Carter and drummer Max Roach had experimented with waltz time (3/4).

But then, some rules changed.

Greg Reese, a 1978 Towson State graduate and longtime Levy friend, explained it this way: "To know Hank's effect on jazz, you have to turn the clock back a few decades to Dave Brubeck's `Time Out' album [Columbia Records, 1960]. It was all odd meters, which started the ball rolling. Hank picked it up from there."

Also around that time, Levy's friend Don Ellis started playing Hank's and his own odd meter music with his orchestra. Then Kenton, whom Levy also wrote for, picked it up. "Trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis started doing it, too, when they were the artistic darlings of the world," Reese recalled.

The reason Levy, who was also influenced by classical composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, wrote in odd signatures is that if he wrote in 2/4 or 4/4 time, "he just would have been another member of the group, like Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Kenton or Maynard [Ferguson]," said Slade. In other words, they were commercial.

Eventually, the style ran its course. Ellis died young in late 1978 and Kenton less than a year later. "So there was no more push from below, so to speak," Reese said. "You still hear odd meters at times, but it's a novelty now."

The odd meters' demise drew a collective sigh of relief among many musicians, since they are difficult to play. "It's hard enough to pay the rent as a musician, then go play something that tough," Reese said.

His former classmate, Joe Corral, now a music teacher with Anne Arundel County schools, agrees. "Hank writes in duple or triple meters, which means the beat is based on twos or fours for the duples, or threes for the triples. What he did was write music in five, seven, nine, 11, 13, even 23 beats to a measure. It's asymmetrical. For someone who's been playing in twos, threes and fours for a hundred years, that's hard to adjust to."

Levy has attained international respect for his creativity, ability to inspire and his teaching career at Towson from 1968 to 1982.

Although Towson had no degree program in jazz at the time, it had become the jazz college. It won so many competitions that rival schools didn't want to compete against Towson, notably at the Quinnipiac Festival in Connecticut. Eventually, Towson was invited back as the guest band.

"It wasn't that Towson's band was better, but Hank's music and arrangements were," Slade explained with a chuckle. "Other bands would enter and play Hank's older music, since they knew it would get them noticed. Then Hank would come in with new music and [Towson would] win again. The administration told Hank that it didn't want the school to be known as a jazz school, but Hank just smiled and told them it was too late!"

"So, there you have it," said Reese. "A tiny little place that had no jazz program until after he left, even though he taught there and at least 20 pro musicians came out of the school from my era. They're playing all over the place now."

Reese allowed that there are two sides to the story, noting that in the late '70s much of Towson's money went into the sports program, when the Towson Center was new. "Towson was just starting to grow then, but the budget for music was still extremely low. One year, there was only $35 in the kitty for Hank to buy new music. But that might have been a blessing in disguise, since that's partially why he was such a prolific writer."

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