Yesterday was a very sad day for music. A great man died. Tony Levin was an inspiration and an example to many of how a jazz musician should be. For me he was my teacher and mentor. I adored and looked up to Tony, not just for his amazing musicality but for the way that he conducted himself in the world. He was one of the most generous people I have ever met.
It is really hard to write anything about Tony that could ever do him justice. Those who have met him or heard him play will know what I mean. He had a unique energy and passion for life that was contagious. Pianist Liam Noble has described his playing as being 'like a benevolent rage with no anger'. He would shower you with an overpowering joy whenever he got behind a drum kit.
He played the drums for artists/bands as diverse as Tubby Hayes, Stan Sulzmann and Mujician to mention but a few. Whilst he was house drummer at Ronnie Scots in the 60's he played behind musicians like Joe Henderson, Zoot Sims, Hank Mobley and Lee Konitz.
His huge breadth of experience made him a wonderful teacher. I remember him once telling me in a lesson about how Hank Mobley would count in a tune. He said he would stride around the stage clicking his fingers and singing the tune over and over to himself until he could find the right tempo. He didn't worry about how long that took him and if he couldn't find the right tempo he would call a different tune.
What was so special about Tony is the way that he encouraged others to see life as he did. He wasn't in music for money. He used to run a carpet business in Birmingham at the same time as being house drummer at Ronnie Scots Jazz Club in London. There was not a single time that I saw him play music half-heart-idly. He would give all of himself whatever the situation and whoever he was playing with.
I would like to leave you with a story of Tony at his best. The last thing I had to do whilst studying at the Conservatoire was to run a jam session for prospective students on an open day, something I have done many times before. Needless to say the standard of musical ability is not that high at these events. There is often a very strange atmosphere. Some of the attendees are desperate to to play all the time in an attempt to show off- which if they are not that great ,which is usually the case, leads to ridicule behind their backs from some of the current Conservatoire jazz students. You also get the ones that are scared rigid and don't play because they assume that all the pushy people must be way better than them. Sometimes you get a saxophone player who is really advanced for their age and then all of the current students want to barge in and prove that they are still better than this talented youngster and take really long solos. Either way towards the end of the session the bass player's fingers have fallen off from trying to be a metronome to out of time drummers and the rest of the college rhythm section have run away. At this point entered Tony Levin and Fred Baker (Bass guitar virtuoso).
Tony and Fred played with the open day musicians that were still hanging around and blew everyone away. Tony played just as he would have done if he were up there with Paul Dunmall or Tubby Hayes. He didn't hold back because he was playing with inexperienced musicians, or try to out play them and show them up. For Tony every playing situation was important, he was in the music all of the time. All the college students came back to see him play. He never did anything by half. This is what makes him one of the most generous people I have ever met. He will meet everybody with respect and as an equal. Music was more important to him than ego.
Tony was a genuine and well loved man and it is a tragedy that he has left us when he still had so much to give. He leaves behind him a loving family and many friends.
I hope anyone who has not heard Tony play will take the time to watch a couple of the videos I have posted below or buy some of his CDs
Both of these are videos of Tony playing with Free improv band Mujician
You can find out about the rest of Tony's career and albums he has played on here.