Every time I look at one of those small black marker board erasers, I think of the late jazz musician and composer Hank Levy. Hank was the Director of Jazz Studies at Towson University (Towson, Maryland) from 1972 – 1989, and he was a musical force to be reckoned with. He also had a pretty good throwing arm.

When Hank would lead his ensemble practices, he would sometimes reach his limit and send a black eraser across the room at a player who needed waking up. I played drums in two of his three bands and used to get a good laugh out of his trajectory. It kept me on my toes, and that was what he wanted most from his players.

Hank was a trail blazer when it came to his passionate love affair with odd time signatures. Like Don Ellis, for whom he wrote several pieces, Hank believed that the Western jazz world needed a wake-up call and a boot in the ass when it came to the exploration of rhythm. And wake it up he did.

Hank had played baritone sax for the Stan Kenton Orchestra before landing at Towson, where he founded the Jazz studies program. He wrote most of the program’s music because, as he told me once, the Music Department wouldn’t generously give him funds and really didn’t want to be known as a jazz school. However, after Hank’s ensemble took top honors all over the country for just about every competition they could find, the argument that Towson was now known for its jazz became a moot point.

Hank came to my high school in the early 1970’s on a government grant to spread his odd meter word, and I took to it like a fish to water. It was the most exciting music I had ever played, and it was backed up by the emergence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I cannot tell you how intense it was to be present at the birth of this transition. Don Ellis had been exploring big band odd meter jazz, as had Stan Kenton, and Hank was fueling both of these orchestras… and to the extent possible WE got to play those same charts, as teenagers!

Hank had a gruff but honest way about him, and he gave me guidance that I desperately needed with my drumming and overall focus. I took first chair my senior year in the Delaware All State Jazz Band, and Hank came up to direct it. It was an extraordinary experience to be led by the man who was ushering a huge change in the jazz world, but it was not met with open arms by all.

Hank told us in our high school class one time that he sent a chart over to Buddy Rich, who after trying to play through one piece became very frustrated and tore the charts up! And many of the big name players in jazz were not following the time revolution that Hank believed needed to happen, preferring instead to stay the safe tonal exploration course.

But when you listen to the music of today, odd meters have become vastly more common, and are no longer so odd. Both Hank and Don Ellis observed early on that rock music seemed to be more interested in odd meters than many jazz players, and the power behind rock makes the shifting contours of 5’s, 7’s, 11’s and beyond a perfect breeding ground for the next stages of music exploration.


Hank passed away in 2001, but the Hank Levy Legacy Band is alive and well, preserving Hank’s musical vision (and they do have a Facebook page) and have recorded a CD of his music

http://www.sonorityrecords.com/Hank_Levy_Legacy_Band.htm

Sierra Music Publications (www.sierramusicstore.com), owned by Kenton alumnus and arranger Bob Curnow, still carries Hank’s charts and music. And hopefully after reading this post, you will want to learn more about Hank by doing a bit of research on your own…

When I was 20, I had the opportunity to audition for Frank Zappa, in his North Hollywood rehearsal studios. I went in having little idea of what to expect, and Frank described what he wanted me to play, an odd meter rock groove in 13/8 with a 12/8 bridge. I asked him if I could write out the subdivisions, just like Hank had taught me to do five years before, and he said, “Sure.”

Arthur Barrow was playing bass, and I was sitting behind a replica of Bozzio’s double bass kit at the time. The song began, and I hung in there pretty well. When Frank asked me if I could play reggae in 13, I hit a wall with no idea of what to do. He kindly shook my hand, thanked me for coming in, and as I left, a drummer who had been watching the auditions stopped me.

“Where did you learn how to do that? Guys have been dropping like flies all day?”

I replied, “Hank Levy taught me how to play odd meters.”

“Who’s he?” the drummer asked.

“Well, he’s this guy who came up to our high school…”

… and in my mind, he never left.