Mathew Klickstein | The Baltimore Sun | April 7, 2017
Tony Campbell laughs as he tells one of many infamous stories about Baltimore-born jazz innovator Henry "Hank" Levy.
Levy had an eminent reputation, having churned out compositions since he was 12 for the likes of influential big band leaders Sal Salvador, Don Ellis and Stan Kenton. Despite lacking a college degree, Levy was brought in to take over the fledgling jazz studies program at Towson State College in 1968.
Yet it was only a few years later, in the early 1970s, that he was summoned to speak with the administration.
"Mr. Levy, we don't wish to be known as a jazz school," was the message, according to the version relayed to Campbell, professor of politics and religion at what's now Towson University.
Levy sat back, folded his arms and smirked, responding, "Too late."
At the time, Towson didn't exactly shine to the idea of the spotlight being shifted from its mission of grinding out future teachers. But the university has come around, and next week — grateful for its jazz program — will honor Levy posthumously at a ceremony Thursday graced by Baltimore's own Hank Levy Legacy Band.
Levy not only helped to establish jazz at the university, he also pioneered "odd meter" (a now long-standing concept) in the genre and composed the song "Whiplash" (the namesake for the award-winning 2014 film). He is still venerated by musicians, former students and, particularly, the band that bears his name.
"Every college has a few highlights of things that have made an impact way beyond its walls, and this was one of them for us," said Susan Picinich, dean of Towson's College of Fine Arts and Communication.
Levy grew up in northwest Baltimore listening to swing-era icon Tommy Dorsey and his ilk and took up the saxophone in grammar school. He joined a handful of bands before performing as a musician with the U.S. Navy throughout the late 1940s.
But it was Levy's compulsion to write music that would become the touchstone of his life. Levy worried that big band jazz was "in danger of stagnation," according to the liner notes for 1997's "The Legacy of Hank Levy," from the U.S. Army's touring jazz orchestra, the Jazz Ambassadors.
Because "[t]oo many bands that are left are just playing music from the past," Levy contrived a revolutionary form of music that would become the framework for "new ensembles that are progressive in their thinking and performance."
Levy's secret weapon was his use of "odd meter," establishing an exotic time signature or beat that was so challenging to play, many of the world's most accomplished instrumentalists struggled to perform his vast repertoire of charts. Instead of the standard time signature of four beats per measure or the waltz time of three beats per measure, think five or nine beats per measure.
"I thought I was going to die when I first started playing Hank's music," confessed Bernie Robier, a 73-year-old bass trombonist featured on multiple Grammy-nominated big band albums.
"I was in way over my head in the beginning," said Robier, who performs with and manages the Hank Levy Legacy Band.
Absorbing the concept from late 19th-century classical pioneers Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Antonín Dvořák, Levy became one of the first composers to popularize odd meter in jazz.
"La La Land" writer-director Damien Chazelle was so awestruck by Levy's 1973 song "Whiplash" that the wunderkind filmmaker invoked the piece in the title of his 2014 film, which won three Oscars.
"There was no other song that Damien wanted," the film's producer Couper Samuelson said. "It was in his head throughout development and production. He wouldn't consider any alternatives: this was the song."
Fragments of the frenetic piece pop up throughout Chazelle's "Whiplash," which showcases Levy's hand-written charts as used by the character of violently mercurial band director/teacher Terence Fletcher.
Manager of his late uncle's estate, Stewart Levy was ecstatic about Chazelle's film and its rejuvenating worldwide interest in Levy's work.
Stewart, a 65-year-old Columbia resident, is nevertheless concerned viewers may mistake Fletcher's apoplectic flare-ups — shouting or throwing chairs at students who make mistakes — for Levy's own classroom behavior.
"He was 180 degrees from that character," Stewart said. "Totally the opposite."
Campbell, 51, doesn't remember Levy raising his voice, but Levy would sometimes wind up his tobacco pouch and lob it at a student who flubbed a rehearsal.
"Every once in a while, you'd get a chalkboard eraser thrown at you if you were out of tune," Campbell said. "I missed a few chalk erasers to the head myself."
Still, a student who may have just narrowly missed getting hit by a low-flying projectile could always go to Levy's office after class and enjoy a thoughtful discussion about what went wrong.
The exacting approached paid off: "Hank's ensemble won so many intercollegiate festivals," Campbell said, "that directors around the country asked Levy to stop competing and just perform for exhibition instead."
Campbell believes that Towson's discomfort with a teaching college building a reputation for its jazz education may also have been a result of the unconventional music Levy was writing for the school's ensemble.
"I think Towson was worried about the kind of music education Hank was offering, which was avant-garde," Campbell said.
Because Towson afforded Levy a scant budget for the purchase of new music to be performed by his band, Levy was more or less forced to write his own compositions. His music's idiosyncratic flair may have been a core reason his group won so many awards around the country, but it was also a source of umbrage for the more traditional Towson at the time.
Asked about the discord, Picinich, a relative newcomer to Towson, said she had no information about it. But other Levy friends echo Campbell's recollections.
Levy continued fine-tuning the program until he retired in 1991. He remained prolific, filling entire athletic lockers with his arrangements or "charts" right up until he died in 2001 at the age of 73.
On April 13, Towson will celebrate Levy's 90th birthday by presenting his professor emeritus status, an informal honor granted by the school 25 years ago. The Hank Levy Legacy Band, the 20-piece tribute project comprising Levy alumni and fans, will also perform a 90-minute show of his work.
His steadfast work in musical education, in conjunction with an inestimable effect on modern jazz, motivated Picinich to work with Campbell on the tribute. They are also developing a website that will be an extensive resource for Levy lovers and novitiates alike.
"I didn't want the stories of Hank and his work at Towson, particularly from the people who knew him who are still around, to be lost or fade away," Picinich said.
Robier delights in continuing to play Levy's music regularly with the Hank Levy Legacy Band for the sheer "fun of it," he said.
It can be difficult to organize and schedule 20 different musicians — some coming from as far as Delaware and West Virginia — to rehearse at Pikesville High School nearly every Sunday. But Robier and his group have been doing just that for the past 10 years, all for the love they have of performing such complex and unique music.
For many, particularly Robier, the memory of Levy himself is its own impetus to continue playing week in and week out.
Stewart believes the use of odd meter today is a reflection of his uncle's inspiring students who have in turn gone on to spread Levy's influence throughout the world.
"If they didn't really love the music and love Hank, they wouldn't have put so much effort into learning it and playing it," Stewart said.
Levy and his wife, Gloria, who died in 1996, did not have children. Said Stewart: "I think his legacy lives on through his students."
Mathew Klickstein is a Mount Vernon-based writer and filmmaker whose documentary about TV icon Marc Summers, On Your Marc, will be released in October and whose new book will be published by Harper Collins in Fall 2018.
For further exploration
HankLevyJazz.com (includes information about recordings and Hank Levy Legacy Band shows)
"A Head of Time, Ahead of Time," a 1999 Telly Award-winning feature-length documentary; AVA Productions (301-384-9595, AudioVisualArtists@verizon.net)
"Music at the Crossroads: Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz," (Aperio Series: Loyola Humane Texts, 2010) includes chapter "Hank Levy: Giving Jazz a Kick in the Rear End" by Baltimore jazz musician and scholar Bob Jacobson
If you go
Hank Levy tribute. 8:15 p.m. April 13. Center for the Arts, Towson University, 8000 York Road, Towson. $5-$15. events.towson.edu.