Tony Levin: Drummer who excelled with Tubby Hayes and became a leading exponent of free jazz
Saturday 23 April 2011
Although best known as the drummer in tenor saxophonist Tubby Hayes's quartet, Tony Levin was an adventurous musician who liked to move forward.
Because of this, his tastes led him to become one of the leading free-form musicians in Europe. Rarely, if ever, did he play music that he didn't enjoy – he even tired of Hayes's work at the end – with the result that he moved in several different jazz fields without ever making a fortune in any. He could have done, for he was completely adaptable, playing for Humphrey Lyttelton at one end of the scale and for free-music groups with saxophonist Paul Dunmall at the other.
The Hayes quartet with which Levin played from 1965-68 was one of the finest British jazz groups. Hayes determinedly refused any jobs that required him to play with local rhythm sections and insisted on travelling with this one, the Rolls-Royce of jazz. His bassist, Ron Mathewson, was an extraordinary virtuoso, while Mick Pyne was the most seriously underrated of all jazz pianists. Levin himself was incredible: like his hero Elvin Jones he could play in a whisper with one hand while demolishing buildings with the other.
"I do think it was a more completely developed band than any other that Tubby had," Levin said. "It was in 1965 during a gig that I was doing with my own quartet in Birmingham that Tubby made a surprise visit. We were delighted, especially when he chose to play with us on a very fast number called 'Cherokee'. Soon afterwards he asked me to join him as his regular drummer, for me a dream come true. It seems to me that great opportunities can turn up for anybody providing they have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time."
Levin spent most of his childhood in Birmingham. Largely self-taught, he took up drums when he was 13. "I remember when I was about nine we went on holiday and there was a band in this hotel and I asked if I could play the drums," he told Mark Gardner of Jazz Journal. "So I just got up there and played because I was full of confidence and convinced that I could play them. I couldn't understand why they wanted me to come off so soon!"
By the time Levin was 14, he was leading his own quartet and began putting advertisements in the Birmingham Mail saying "Drummer available". "Soon people were ringing me with gigs. A pianist would offer me a job at a wedding or a school and that's how it started. People seemed to like how I played and soon I was working all the time." In 1957 he formed a quartet with local saxophonist Johnny Collins and soon they were accompanying visiting London stars like Joe Harriott, Don Rendell, Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Skidmore and Kenny Baker on tours of the Midlands and the North.
When his father died in 1967, Levin took on the running of the family furniture business in Birmingham. From 1968 until the late 1970s, he worked for long periods as the house drummer at Ronnie Scott's club in London. Here he worked with greats like Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin and Lee Konitz, making a six-week tour with the latter.
"I wasn't keen on listening to other drummers and mostly concentrated on hearing the horn players. But I did greatly admire Elvin Jones and once played his drums at Scott's because they were all set up and there was no room for my kit. Later that evening, Elvin's wife came up to me very cross that I'd played his drums." Subsequently the two men became friends, although they rarely talked about drumming.
In the late '60s Levin began a musical association with Alan Skidmore, who bestrode the English scene of tenor-sax playing. Their friendship lasted for life, and the two played together as recently as last November.
He returned to Tubby Hayes in the early '70s and also played with Gordon Beck's Gyroscope, Stan Sulzmann's quartet and Ian Carr's Nucleus. He led his own trio in the early 1980s and in 1984 opened his own jazz club in Birmingham with the bassist and piano teacher Chris Bolton, later to become his wife. They ran the club until 1990. After his divorce from his first wife in 1990 he returned to live in Shropshire, where he had been born.
During the 1990s and into the 2000s Levin played in Mujician along with Paul Dunmall, Keith Tippett and bassist Paul Rogers. Levin did lots of European work and played frequently with the guitarist Philip Catherine. In 1994 he made an extensive tour of the Middle East with his trio, made up of the French pianist Sophia Domancich and Paul Rogers.
He taught music at Birmingham University's Conservatoire and ran his own record label, Rare Music, on which he issued, among other things, music by the quartet with Hayes.
Anthony Charles Levin, drummer, bandleader, teacher: born Much Wenlock, Shropshire 30 January 1940; twice married (two daughters, three sons); died Shrewsbury 3 February 2011.
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