Hank Levy, 73, jazz musician who taught at Towson University

September 19, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Hank Levy, a jazz musician hailed as a brilliant composer and orchestrator, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at Oak Crest Village in Parkville, where he had lived the past four years. He was 73.

The retired director of jazz studies at Towson University's music department, where he taught for 21 years, Mr. Levy wrote jazz compositions and band arrangements, conducted and recorded extensively.

"He was extraordinarily talented. He turned jazz music right around when he started working with time changes," said Audrey Kenton, wife of the late band leader Stan Kenton. "Our band members had to relearn how to play Hank's music - they liked Hank personally, but they'd groan when he'd show up for rehearsal.

"They had a terrible time with his music initially, but they mastered it. We recorded quite a bit of it, too," said Mrs. Kenton, a resident of Los Alamitos, Calif.

Mr. Levy said he wanted "to give jazz a kick in the rear end" by writing and arranging numbers in odd meters - 5/4, 7/4, 9/4 and 13/8.

"He broke music up, into increments - and it was still enjoyable," said Baltimore jazz vocalist Ethel Ennis. "He had fun with his music. He took his compositions and arrangements to another level. Music is mathematical - and he was very mathematical."

Ms. Ennis recalled Mr. Levy as a "soft-spoken, unassuming man" who "knew his music." She said she had memories of jamming with him at the Redd Foxx Lounge on Fulton Avenue. "He made an indelible mark in life and in his music. We can listen to him for a long, long, time."

Born Henry J. Levy, the Baltimore native was raised on Barrington Road and was a graduate of City College. He studied at the College of William and Mary, Peabody Conservatory, Catholic University of America and Towson University, where he received his doctorate.

He attended the Navy School of Music during his military service in the late 1940s, and in 1953 in Los Angeles got a job playing saxophone for the Kenton orchestra. It lasted only about six months, but Mr. Levy maintained a friendship with Mr. Kenton that lasted until the band leader's death in 1979.

After his stint with the band, Mr. Levy returned to Baltimore to join his family's Independent Beef Co., a gourmet food and wine shop at 897 N. Howard St. He traveled to France, studied wines and became the store's wine importer. He also sold hundreds of country-cured Smithfield hams.

But even then, music remained a big part of his life, as a profile of Mr. Levy in The Sun showed in 1968: "[W]hen you go in [the store], Levy is usually bent over a desk, seemingly checking accounts. As you get closer, you see that the ledger books are score sheets and instead of figures, he is writing notes."

In the mid-1960s, Mr. Levy formed a band that performed at the Mardi Gras Supper Club on Harford Road and the Eastwind catering hall in Baltimore County.

"I was totally enthralled by his music and the quality of his orchestra," said Bernie Robier, a musician who lives in Carney and became a close friend. "It was big-band jazz like I'd never heard before."

Eventually Mr. Levy gave up his interest in the family store and turned his full attention to teaching at Towson.

"He built the jazz program from scratch," said Joseph Briscuso, professor emeritus of music at Towson. "He had an international following of fans and students. He made Towson a leading jazz program in the country. He also trained a lot of high school music teachers who went out and proselytized his music."

Mr. Levy's life was the subject of a video documentary, A Head of Time: Ahead of Time, made last year by Audio Visual Artist's Productions in Silver Spring. The company's owner, Dick Slade, recalled yesterday his first musical encounter with Mr. Levy - in 1972, when he bought the Stan Kenton LP Live in London.

"I was listening to the music and I thought, `Wow! This is different. There's something extra in there.' I looked to see who had written it, and I saw it was Hank Levy," said Mr. Slade. "Hank was influenced by Stravinsky and Dvorak. They also did writing in unusual meters."

Mr. Levy's wife of more than 30 years, Gloria Frances Hildebrand, died in 1996. The couple lived in Lutherville.

Services will be held at noon tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

He is survived by two nephews, Lewis Robert Levy of Springfield, Va., and Stewart J. Levy of Columbia.

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