Stan Levey, 79; Drummer Influenced ‘Cool School’ of Modern Jazz

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Times Staff Writer

Stan Levey, an influential modern jazz drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and other musical giants, has died. He was 79.

Levey, who underwent surgery in February for cancer of the jaw, died Tuesday at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, said his wife, Angela.

A self-taught drummer, Levey was only 16 when he first played with Gillespie in a hometown Philadelphia club in 1942. Levey later moved to New York City, where, on Gillespie’s recommendation, he joined bassist Oscar Pettiford’s group.


After working with Charlie Parker’s band, Levey became part of what The Times’ late jazz critic Leonard Feather called “the first genuine all-be-bop group to play on 52nd Street, the famed block in midtown Manhattan where clubs lined both sides of the street.” The group included Gillespie, Parker, pianist Al Haig and bassist Curly Russell.

Levey also had big-band stints with, among others, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. He rose to national jazz fame during his two years with the Stan Kenton orchestra.

After leaving Kenton in 1954, Levey settled in Los Angeles and began a steady, five-year gig playing with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, where Levey became a major influence in what was called “West Coast jazz” or the “cool school” of modern jazz.

“He was everything a good drummer should be,” jazz critic and historian Ira Gitler told The Times on Thursday. “His technique and his feel for the drums were used in the service of whatever group he was playing with, from Stan Kenton’s large orchestra to piano trios.”

As a drummer, Gitler said, Levey “began to come into his own at the time Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were changing American music. That’s when he played on 52nd Street, so he was in on the beginning of the great jazz movement.”

Vibist Terry Gibbs, who hired Levey in 1959 to play drums with his jazz quintet at the Seville, a club on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, told The Times: “Anybody who was there at the beginning and played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie has to be that good.


“If I had to name three of my favorite drummers to play with, Stan Levey was one of them. He was an accompanist: He sat back there and gave you that good time to where you can go anywhere you want to go rhythmically and musically.”

“Stan Levey: The Original Original,” a DVD in which Levey discusses his life in jazz and recounts stories of the greats he worked with during his 30-year career, was released in February. The documentary includes rare film clips of Parker, Miles Davis and other musicians, as well as comments about Levey from Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Charlie Watts and others.

Said Gitler, who reviewed the DVD for the upcoming June issue of Down Beat magazine: “The main point I made in there is that a lot of people, especially the last few generations, aren’t aware of his stature as a drummer, and this DVD will show his amazing career.”

Born in 1926, Levy was the son of a car dealer and fight promoter. Levey recalled in a 1989 Times interview: “I sort of grew up in the gyms, skipping rope with my buddies, the boxers.” At one point, he boxed professionally.

“Every ethnic group had its own favorites, and I did pretty well as a white Jewish heavyweight,” he said. “Then I got hurt, and it was time to quit.”

While growing up, Levey made rhythms with spoons and forks before teaching himself to play the drums. One night, he dropped in at a local club where Gillespie was playing and asked to sit in.


“At first, Dizzy thought it was a joke, but he liked me, and his drummer had just quit, so I got the job -- at $18 a week,” recalled Levey, who dropped out of high school and spent his days cleaning cars on his father’s car lot and his nights at the club.

“After Dizzy left,” he said, “I stayed on there until he encouraged me to come to New York.”

As a studio musician, Levey performed on more than 2,000 recordings with singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. He also played on the sound tracks of more than 300 movies and more than 3,000 TV show episodes.

During his time performing at the Lighthouse in the 1950s, Levey expanded his hobby of photography into professional work, shooting numerous album covers.

Retiring from the music business in 1973, he turned to photography full time, working for major ad agencies and shooting everything from fashion to industrial photos.

In addition to his wife of 53 years, he is survived by his three sons, Dr. Chris Levey of Easton, Md., Dr. David Levey of San Antonio and Robert Levey of Aspen, Colo.; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.


A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.