Tony Levin – October 2010

Tony Levin will be celebrating his 70th birthday tomorrow evening (9 Oct) at Birmingham’s mac in Cannon Hill Park. The drummer may be a little late in doing so – he reached his three score and ten in January – but that’s in stark contrast to his playing.

There is certainly no time lag when this modest giant of British jazz is behind the drum kit; he has been pushing himself, and other players – most of them star names in jazz – for the last half-century.

Those players who have played a big part in his career have included the great British tenor saxophonist and vibes player Tubby Hayes – Tony was drummer in his band for four years in the late ‘60s – through to the pre-eminent free jazz players of today, like saxophonist Paul Dunmall, pianist Keith Tippett and bassist Paul Rogers, with whom Tony plays in the band Mujician.

Hear the septuagenarian tomorrow evening at the CBSO Centre from 8pm. Tony will be playing with Mujician and with a trio with Japanese pianist Aki Takase and bass player John Edwards.

This is a Birmingham Jazz gig, tickets are £10 (£7 members and concessions) and you can book on 0121 446 3232 or via

Before the Tony Levin 70th Birthday Tour started, he had a few minutes to spare to talk to me. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Q A lot of jazz musicans do their more adventurous work early in their career and then mellow and move towards the mainstream as they get older. You seem to have gone in the opposite direction…

A Well, I have been playing this freer kind of music since 1970, and Tubby Hayes, when I was with him – Mexican Green was like the start of the freer way of playing, so in a way I’ve been involved with that all along.

Q But you’ve been more able to specialise in that field in later years, would you say?

A Oh yes, definitely.

Q You played with Tubby Hayes for three or four years in the late ‘60s. Do you have happy memories of those times? What was he like?

A Oh, yes it was a marvellous time. He was a phenomenal musician. It was a fantastic experience.

Q How did the jazz world then compare to now? Do they feel like very different worlds? How would you say they’ve changed?

A I think the major change is there are so many people playing instruments in jazz music now – I mean it’s phenomenal how many players there are these days compared with the  early days. It’s a lot to do with jazz courses at universities and such. There are a lot more people wanting to play gigs, but of course there are less gigs to play at because the majority of the public don’t go out to see live things, they stay home on their computers. So the main difference is there is less interest in live music.

Q So there were fewer musicians in those days playing to more people? And did it feel like quite a compact world?

A Yeah, I guess so. There was a certain number of considered star players and they would tour around Britain playing either with their own bands or with a local rhythm section. Well of course that still goes on anyway.

I mean the audiences are old people now, they’re the same people that were young people coming to gigs all those years ago… I mean, there’s a huge lack of young people interested in jazz – I mean, I’m excluding the actual musicians now – I’m talking about the people who follow the music. There seem to be an even smaller number of young people following the music than when I was young… But when I was young all the audience were young people… and now the audience are mostly older people… and they’re the same people!

I teach at the Birmingham Conservatoire… and on Thursday nights they tend to put on something at the Yardbird, and that’s the only time you see a jazz gig full of young people because they are all the students.

Q The baton is being passed on from generation to generation. Are you optimistic about jazz in this country and the younger musicians?

A Well, yes, because there are so many of them and they are so talented. I mean of course one of the other problems is that sometimes people might believe that learning to play an instrument, because they’ve got the ability to do the mechanical aspect, take the instructions off a piece of paper, etc, often times you can get people playing music instruments but they are not musical people. I mean you don’t need to be a musical person to play a musical instrument, if you’ve got the ability to do the mechanics of it.

Q How did you yourself learn? Did you have much formal teaching or not?

A No, I didn’t really have any at all… I mean jazz music is a language, and the most important thing is to learn the language, and the way you learn a language is just be listening to the language, and that’s how people learned to talk and all of that… they don’t usually go to lots of books when they start to learn, they just listen to others and they learn to talk. It’s the same with jazz music.

Q Jazz course are great but to you think in a way it has diminished the idea of the self-taught musician?

A No, I think it’s wonderful that these options are there for people. They are very talented, the people that go, and they are pretty much very musical people. I think a good jazz course is run by people who know the language of the music, and I think they can spot someone who’s musical or not.

I mean you have to teach yourself whatever you do. You get help at school, but it’s the work you put in yourself that is the most important.

Q In the last 20/30 years you have had a particularly close relationship with Paul Dunmall. What is it about his playing that particularly connected with you, and what is the special ingredient you find when you play with him?

A Well, the first and most important thing for me is that I am attracted to the sound of the instrument and I am completely attracted to the sound of Paul Dunmall’s instrument and I find that he is very original. There is nobody plays like Paul. He’s totally an individual, the same as you could say about Evan Parker. There are a lot of musicians who sound very similar to each other, and I find Paul Dunmall a very spiritual player.

Q And you will by playing with him on this 70th birthday tour…

A Yes, well Mujician has been together for 22 years…

Q Have you always lived in the Midlands?

A Well, I have been in Shropshire for the last 20 years, and lived in Birmingham from 1945 to 1991… so most of my life has been in Birmingham.

Q Was it more difficult maintaining a career in jazz without being in London?

A Well, it wasn’t for me because the fact that I was fortunate enough to be in Tubby Hayes’s band meant that I was well known in London, and most of my gigs were in London, so I just used to be going backwards and forwards. I was in the rhythm section that used to play with all the so-called star London players that came to the Midlands – I knew most of the star players from when I joined Tubby Hayes.

Q One final question – have you ever been confused with the King Crimson bassist Tony Levin?

A Well, yes. In fact I used to run a jazz club in 1984 at the Barton Arms, and I remember somebody came all the way from Nottingham to the gig and he said well, where’s Tony Levin, and I said, I’m Tony Levin, and he said, Well your’e not, he plays the bass. So I said, well I’m really sorry you came all this way, and don’t pay to come in. If you feel it was worthwhile, you can pay when you leave. And he came up to me at the end and said: I’ve paid.

Q Have you ever met the other Tony Levin?

A Well, I did meet him once, in the early 70s. Were both playing at Ronnie Scott’s – there were two posters up, one was for the month that I was doing and the other was for the next month that he was doing, and somehow it overlapped, and people came up to me and said I didn’t know you played the bass. So I did meet him though we didn’t have time to say much to each other.

Categories: Interview, News

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