Big Band of the Week – Hank Levy Legacy Band

This big band’s entire repertoire consists of compositions and/or arrangements by Hank Levy. In case you are not familiar with that name, here is a short synopsis. Levy was a Baltimore saxophonist who played briefly with the famous Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1953, then returned to Baltimore. In the mid-1960s he began experimenting with writing arrangements in odd meters such as 5/4 (the meter of “Take Five”). In the 1960s and ‘70s his odd meter compositions and arrangements were performed and recorded by the nationally-known big bands of Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. In 1968 Levy was recruited to direct the Towson State College jazz band, which he built into a powerhouse that constantly won collegiate competitions playing his music. Levy then began developing a jazz curriculum at Towson which grew into the university’s major in Jazz and Commercial Music. Along the way Levy taught many of the best musicians performing jazz today in the Baltimore area and a few who are even known internationally.

Levy eventually formed an alumni big band at Towson. Ten years after Levy’s death in 2001 the name was changed to Hank Levy Legacy Band. Today the band still has five alumni of Levy’s college bands. The Legacy Band is highly organized, with a musical director, drummer Steve Ashcraft, and general manager, trombonist Bernie Robier, whose main task is staffing the weekly rehearsals (to which some players come from as far as West Virginia and Pennsylvania). Ashcraft is a Towson alumnus who has been musical director for ten years. Robier, not a Towson alumnus, began playing with Levy in 1962. Hank Levy’s nephew, Stewart Levy, directs HankLevyJazz, LLC, which administers not only the Legacy Band but also Hank Levy’s archive of compositions and arrangements, which will soon be housed at Towson’s University’s Cook Library.

Hank Levy’s legacy and the Hank Levy Legacy Band were both given a boost by the 2014 Academy Award-winning film Whiplash, named for one of Levy’s most famous compositions, which was played extensively throughout the film. The film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle, had played Levy’s tune “Whiplash” as a high school student in Connecticut. The Hank Levy Legacy Band played the tune for a shorter version of Chazelle’s film released in 2013. (If you saw Whiplash, in which J.K. Simmons plays a sadistic band director, Steve Ashcraft wants you to know that Hank Levy was the “exact antithesis” of that character).

The Legacy Band has played concerts at An die Musik, Linthicum Concerts in the Park, Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club and Towson University, commemorating the 90th anniversary of Hank Levy’s birth. They appear in several videos on youtube.com.

Robier says that band members are “chomping at the bit to play,” but bemoans the lack of venues, adding, “They don’t necessarily have to be paying gigs.” Any ideas? Contact StewartLevy@HankLevyJazz.com.

This article continues our series on area big bands — if you missed any of them, you can catch them here at Big Band of the Week.