What can you say about someone who you contact for professional reasons but who opens up his heart and his mind to you? This describes my relatively brief but spirited encounter with jazz composer and arranger Alonzo (Lonie) Levister, who passed away this past December 6 at the age of 91. I didn’t know him long—only three and a half years—and only via e-mail, because by then he and his wife of nearly a half-century, Gloria Bleezarde, had moved from New York City to faraway Nazare, Portugal, a semi-sleepy but beautiful nook in the middle of nowhere. Gloria had been attracted on a visit by its rural charms, its open-air fresh-food market and its breathtaking scenery from the hilltop, and so persuaded the then octogenarian Levister to move there with her. “For the rest of my life?” Lonie asked. “You’re almost ninety,” the younger Gloria said. “What do you think, you’re going to live forever?” “Well, yeah,” Lonie said. “At least, that’s my plan!”
It was a typically witty and almost childlike response from a man who viewed life as an open book yet to be written, no matter now many pages were in it already. I had been writing my book on the cross-influence of classical music and jazz, the original working title of which was Classical Gas (which I reluctantly abandoned because I feared copyright infringement on the title of Mason Williams’ hit single from eons ago), and was frustrated that I couldn’t find a copy of Levister’s one and only LP, Manhattan Monodrama to listen to and evaluate. Indeed, the origin of that LP came about as a result of Levister’s typical open heart and generosity, even as a young man. He had become infatuated with Charles Mingus’ lovely but quirky jazz ballad, Portrait (also known as God’s Portrait), and so sent him a lush arrangement for strings and winds that he had written. Mingus, who had never even heard of Levister, was struck by the incredible beauty and inventiveness of this score and so recorded it for his Debut record label with trumpeter Thad Jones as soloist. This led to his being invited by the bassist to record a full-length album of music for his label. Levister responded with a handful of superb but unrelated individual pieces and a jazz ballet he had recently composed entitled Manhattan Monodrama. This was during a period in which he was writing ballet scores for such folks as Katherine Dunham and Donald McKayle.
The record went nowhere. Jazz critics thought it was too classical and classical critics found it too “simple” and therefore boring. The only spin-off came when one of the side one pieces, one Slow Dance, attracted the ear of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane who recorded it for Prestige. Ironically, the little piddly royalty checks from this Coltrane recording were the only income Levister ever received from any of his work in his later years, the Debut LP having long since gone out of print, sunk beneath the waves, and virtually forgotten.
Yet Levister was eternally grateful to Mingus, not only for the chance to record his music but also because the bassist introduced him around to the jazz elite in New York, including the irascible trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis asked Levister to write something for him. When he did, he brought the music around to Miles who looked it over and said, “You sure are thorough wit’ your shit, ain’t you? There’s no place in here for me to improvise!” Davis never recorded that piece (neither did anyone else), but ironically he went around town talking up Levister as a first-rate talent. Miles Davis was one strange dude!
Levister was bemused and a little suspicious as to why I was suddenly so interested in his work, but once I explained my mission he was completely supportive. There was just one catch: he himself only had a very battered-up copy of the album and didn’t know how to convert it to wav files, so he contacted his old friend Dan Morgenstern, former director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, to have the Institute send me a copy. Morgenstern wrote the Institute an e-mail—he was long gone by this point from the Institute—and copied Levister on it. Levister copied me on Morgenstern’s letter. Weeks went by. Nothing happened. Not knowing Morgenstern at all, I took the plunge and contacted him on it. He seemed annoyed, not necessarily because I wrote him but because he thought his name and clout would have gotten the job done. He wrote them another e-mail and was more insistent, mentioning that Levister was 90 years old and wasn’t going to be around forever. I hid this from Lonie; it would have probably hurt his feelings to realize he was mortal!
Eventually I got the recordings, which I then proceeded to clean up (they, too, had come from an old copy of the LP, probably the only surviving one outside of Sue Mingus’ own collection or the two copies I saw being sold on Ebay for hundreds of dollars) and sent a copy to Levister. He was pleased with my audio editing, and then sent me more things I had no idea about: video and audio clips from his two “pocket operas” of the 1950s, The Happy Hypocrite and Blues in the Subway, and a piece he had written on commission for Cannonball Adderly on the recommendation of Mingus, the Bedrock Suite. The latter was in absolutely miserable condition: obviously recorded on a private acetate, it not only had ticks, pops and plenty of surface noise, but the treble was so covered that you couldn’t even make out the instruments clearly or hear the drums much at all. I proceeded to clean this up as well and send it back to him.
Lonie was so grateful for all my attention to his music (“People aren’t exactly breaking my door down to hear it”) that he then sent me other things, such as excerpts from a late-’60s musical (that also went nowhere) called Slave Song, a faux-cowboy song he had written (Holy Cow [Bust My Knee]) and a Christmas song (The Prince of Peace). I sent him pages from the book, particularly the chapter in which I described his music alongside of that of his equally-neglected contemporary, Herbie Nichols. He was thrilled to me taken seriously, something that had never happened to him in his life. He then explained to me via e-mail how he came to involved with classical music, how he presented some pieces to Leonard Bernstein who recognized his talent but told him that “Your sonata is excellently crafted, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not personal or interesting. You need to write music that reflects you.” Bernstein then wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation to Nadia Boulanger in Paris on his personal letterhead, which led to that eminent teacher accepting Lonie as a pupil. It was the turning-point of his life.
But for Levister, nothing really came easy after the Manhattan Monodrama LP, although he did write the arrangements for the Prestige All-Stars album Roots. Cannonball Adderly, hearing the Bedrock Suite, promised to record it on his next album but didn’t. In fact, no one recorded it other than Levister himself on that faded demo disc. Hearing it years later, Atlantic Records producer Nesuhi Ertegun said that it was a mistake for Adderly not to record it, that it would have been the highlight of the album. Such was Levister’s professional life. He arranged the music for one of those peppy but generic musicals that hit Broadway like a passing storm, Kicks & Co., and won a Clio Award for his Prell Shampoo jingle, but that was about it. While working on the 1968 musical New Faces of 1968 he met a young dancer-actress in that show, Gloria Bleezarde. They fell in love and were married. After that period, however, work dried up for Levister.
We kept in touch all through the gestation process of my book. At one point I listened to a new opera based on a famous jazz musician that I had been eager to hear, but which turned out to be not so great because the singers were too formal and couldn’t swing if you put a gun to their heads. I complained about it to Lonie, who asked to hear the music which I then sent him. He agreed that it was too stiff and too formally written. I told him my opinion that it was because opera singers can’t swing, but he disagreed with me. “It all depends on how you write it,” he wrote to me. “If the lyrics and the music are hip enough, they can get into it.” I demurred, so he sent me a five-page handwritten scenario (with lyrics) for a jazz opera based on Louis Armstrong meeting Luciano Pavarotti. Its title was “Pops” and Luciano: The Lost My Hat Blues. Here’s page 1 of what he sent me:
But Lonie wasn’t done. He also sent me as a gift an astounding handwritten book describing his and Gloria’s expatriation adventure, life in Nazare, and real life/fantasy life adventures all wrapped up in 178 pages which included nearly 170 full-color photographs. The book was titled All In: An Expatriate Journey. It was stunning. It is stunning. The cover and 14 pages are reproduced here as an Adobe file for your enjoyment. I couldn’t thank him enough.
But Lonie wasn’t done. One my book was finished, he suggested a new title, From Bach to Bop, which I loved. In changing it, however, some other people who had been pre-reading it said that it was rather misleading since it indicated a linear connection between 18th century Baroque and the bop era whereas my book was much more far-ranging than that, so I changed it again to From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter from Lonie on his personal letterhead extolling the virtues of my book. “I wanted to do for you what Leonard Bernstein did for me,” he said. I was deeply touched. How can you thank someone for that much generosity?
As I became busier and more involved with my blog last year, we lost touch…not that we kept in touch that frequently to begin with. Then a few days ago I wrote him an e-mail to see how he was doing. He didn’t answer for three days. This, too, was not unusual; often when I wrote him I’d get a reply a week or so later saying, “Oh, I just found this in my inbox.” I don’t think Levister was that diligent about checking his e-mail. But this time something told me to check, so I entered his name in Google. His Wikipedia page came up, saying that he had died
It’s hard to say goodbye to someone who opens his heart and his mind to you in such a way. I’m grateful for being able to get to know this talented, gentle and funny man. He was one of a kind.
You can listen to Levister’s full 1956 album Manhattan Monodrama here, along with excerpts from Blues in the Subway and Slave Song. They are the tracks numbered 73 through 90.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley