The death of drummer Tony Levin, aged 71, on February 3rd robbed both the British and the international jazz scene of one its most accomplished, dynamic and resolutely dedicated individuals.
Levin had been fighting a debilitating form of cancer for close to a quarter of a century, itself a remarkable struggle, but concurrent with this fight he maintained a busy schedule, touring internationally and making all-too-rare appearances at home in the UK, each performance a testament to the energy he could bring to any band stand. Levin’s career began humbly.
Self-taught, he began gigging around the Midlands jazz scene in his teens, working with musicians such as Joe Harriott and Ronnie Ross, before being plucked from a late-night jam session by none other than Tubby Hayes, the tear-away saxophonist whose skills had elevated British jazz to an international level. Hayes realised that Levin’s youthful audacity and confidence, and his style marrying elements of the latest drum pioneers Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, was unrivalled anywhere on the London jazz scene and although the drummer remained a key part of the family business in Birmingham he joined the Hayes quartet, earning the nickname “The Second City Steamer” for the lightning trips he’d make to and from Birmingham to honour the bands gigs. The album the group made in 1967 “Mexican Green”, remains a classic, mixing ferocious free-form, delicate balladry and scorching hard-bop, each stylistic turn knowingly underpinned by Levin’s immense musicality.
At this time he was also the choice accompanist of a number of visiting American jazzmen, ranging from Zoot Sims to Hank Mobely and beyond. In the 1970’s Tony Levin’s workload broadened further with stints with both Humphrey Lyttelton and Nucleus to his name and there were close associations formed with saxophonist Alan Skidmore and pianist John Taylor.
Levin’s enthusiasm for free improvisation led him into collaborations with many European musicians and in the 1980’s he co-formed Mujician, a sort of avant-garde supergroup with tenorist Paul Dunmall, bassist Paul Rogers and pianist Keith Tippett which produced a series of intensely passionate albums into the 21st century.
During what was to be the last year of his life, Tony’s musical activities continued unabated; he was a much valued contributor to the teaching faculty at Birmingham Conservatoire and, as a performer, was working with both the Peter King quintet and the European Jazz Ensemble, an international line-up featuring old friends including Alan Skidmore and Gerd Dudek.
His last gig, with Peter King, barely a few days before his death contained all his signature energy and musicality, making his sudden tragic passing all the more lamentable. Unlike many jazz veterans, Levin was still creating and operating at the top of his game. To his friends and colleagues, Tony Levin was a man of grace, wit and extreme intelligence. He was universally liked, admired and respected and never lost sight of the basic belief that music was an arena that was best entered unburdened by ego. Indeed, he was a rare combination of a beautiful soul and a beautiful performer, one whose contributions to jazz will be sorely missed.
The tribute gig held at London’s 606 Club on April 19th will feature many for Tony’s friends and colleagues, including Alan Skidmore, Stan Sulzmann, Steve Melling, Dick Pearce, Clark Tracey, Andy Cleyndert, Mark Fletcher, Peter King and Miles Levin, Tony’s prodigiously talented drummer son.
Proceeds will go to the Shropshire Blood Trust Fund (Reg. Charity 1107883) assisting those who continue to live with the condition that Tony so bravely combated for many years.