Remembering Barry Levitt

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Barry Levitt

Back to Jazz

By Peter Haas

Editor’s Note: We mourn the passing of maestro Barry Levitt on September 22, 2017. The  following articled appeared in our April 2007 issue.

Lights up! Music up! The pianist begins. Four young women bound onstage and begin to sing. Eighty solid minutes later, they’ve performed more than 30 numbers in a musical tribute to more than two dozen songwriters—all of them women. The show is called Her Song, and it’s been going strong at Birdland for over a year with no end in sight. What’s more, it’s one of the many productions involving the kaleidoscopic talent of the man at the piano. He’s the show’s co-conceiver, co-producer, arranger and musical director—and, on other occasions, jazz producer, jazz composer, jazz pianist, Broadway and Off-Broadway conductor and musical arranger, songwriter, and sought-after accompanist for musical theater artists. His name is Barry Levitt.

Her Song is an outgrowth of another facet of Barry’s career. “For 18 years, I worked with Maurice Levine at the 92nd Street Y. It was Maurice who originally created and produced the Lyrics & Lyricists series, starting over three decades ago,” Barry recalls. “When he died, I became artistic and music director, for six years. At one point, it became apparent to me that, with the exception of two major figures—Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh—no one talked about the women songwriters. There was this huge void waiting to be tapped. So we tapped it!” The script for the original Y show was created by Barry’s frequent creative partner, his wife, Brenda; she has now adapted it for the Birdland production. The show’s director: their daughter, choreographer and dancer Dori Levitt. “At the Y, we were able to go into an in depth examination of the lives and background material. In the club, we’ve put a much more entertaining spin on it—more singing, less talk,” says Barry. Not shy about sharing his opinions on music, cabaret and the world at large, he adds: “Many, many singers spend entirely too much time talking. They should spend more time singing!”

Sundays find Barry in another role: producer, pianist and bandleader for the popular jazz brunches at Iridium, on Broadway. “This past January marked the series’ first year,” he comments, “and we’re going straight on. The Iridium is one of the best things that ever happened to me: it’s gotten me back to playing jazz piano again. It’s my style and what I do. Now I’m doing original music that I’ve written, as well as jazz compositions I haven’t played in years.” Adds Scott Barbarino, Iridium’s manager, “Barry ’s an absolutely consummate musician, one of the best I’ve worked with. We often bring in young Broadway singers, and with their chops plus Barry’s piano and his band, we soar! He’s spot on!”

Barry Beginnings

“There was never a time in my life that I didn’t know I wanted to be a musician,” Barry reflects. “The first time I heard music, it was such a strong and forceful experience. I was three, and I still remember that vividly. I remember little else; I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning! “As a kid, I studied drumming. I was home practicing one day, and the drumstick flew out of my hand and into a window—at which point my mother said, ‘why don’t you try something nice, like a piano?’ That’s what I did, and I liked it! I started out studying classical music and classical piano, and in high school, I was in the Juilliard Prep Division. From there, I learned from the best teachers: my fellow musicians; I learned about trumpet from trumpet players, I learned about violins from violinists, I learned jazz piano by listening to every piano player in the world. I studied arranging the same way: by listening. A lot of it was learned at the same ‘university’ where Duke Ellington matriculated: the bandstand.

“I got bit by the jazz bug at the age of 15,” Barry recalls, “and I started playing piano on gigs at 16. I went up to the Catskills for the first time—and they sent me packing: They wanted an accompanist, but I couldn’t sight-read the arrangement charts the singers brought in. I went home and — stubborn soul that I am, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to learn how to do that.’ And, over the next couple of years, I did. I listened to all the great accompanists, the men who accompanied Pearl Bailey, Billy Daniels. I got pretty proficient at it, and singers took notice. From that, I got recognition as an accompanist, and I had the start of a career.”

Barry’s music education was far from finished. “If you’re going to work with singers, you have to know how to conduct an orchestra,” he says. “So I learned that. In those days, nightclubs hired professional singers—cabaret was a vocation, not a hobby—and the performers came in with arrangements, ready to work with professional musicians. From that came conducting—and I have been conducting for the past 35 years, such spots as the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, in Las Vegas, in Los Angeles, Florida, all over the country, for stars like Ben Vereen, Eartha Kitt, Connie Francis, Sergio Franchi. Often, through them, I conducted Pops orchestras. Well, now, a natural outgrowth of that was that a singer turns around and says ‘Hey, I need a new arrangement.’ And I started doing those!”

Barry went on to become musical director and arranger for two Broadway shows: Catskills on Broadway and Swingin’ on a Star, as well as musical director/pianist and/or arranger for four Off-Broadway productions: Little Shop of Horrors, Taking My Turn, Back in the Big Time, and A Match Made in Heaven.

Working with Maurice Levine

“Maurice Levine was instrumental in many of the good things that happened to me around New York,” Barry recalls. They first worked together at WGBH, the public TV station in Boston, on an evening of Kurt Weill music. Maurice, who had been a student and protégé of Weill, was on hand as a Weill expert; Barry was music director and pianist. “I’m all of 25-ish at the time,” recalls Barry,” and, of course, I knew everything about Kurt Weill, like Bobby Darin’s record of ‘Mack the Knife’! I was going to show Maurice how smart I was. Needless to say, he was not impressed— but, by the end of the gig, he gave me what I learned over time was his ultimate compliment: ‘Not bad, kid.’ From that seed blossomed a relationship, and we became best, best friends.” They met again when Barry became musical director and orchestra leader at the Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room. “I was brought in to lead the show band. It was supposed to do a four-week run, and it turned into four years! Eartha Kitt was booked; Maurice was her music director and conductor. Maurice soon invited me to come aboard Lyrics & Lyricists as musical director.”

Barry filled that role from 1981 to 1998; when Maurice died, Barry was asked to take over. Originally, the series featured live lyricists talking about their work; as they passed away, there was the need to have scripted shows built around a theme. Many of those scripts were created by Brenda. After seven years, however, there was a change in administration at the Y, a change in concept for the series, and a change of musical director for Lyrics & Lyricists.

Barry hasn’t the time to look back. In addition to his continuing responsibilities with Her Song and the Iridium jazz brunches, he has been developing three shows a year for the Landmark, in Port Washington, New York, and has been co-producer of the annual fund-raising galas for the Lauri Strauss Leukemia Foundation, held at Carnegie Hall, while also creating musical segments for the evening and conducting the New York Pops.

On the horizon this spring: Barry’s first CD, “all instrumental, all original, all jazz.” It will include a new song, “Now That We’re Sure,” with lyrics by the late Johnny Burke, whose songs made up the musical Swingin’ on a Star. Recalls Barry: “I badgered his widow, Mary Burke Cramer, for several years to see if there were some lyric, some notebook, some scrap of paper of Johnny’s that could be set to music. Finally, when the show was nominated for a Tony as Best Musical, and we were at the rehearsal for the awards show, Mary comes walking in with a hand-written piece of paper, containing a lyric that Johnny had never set. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘I think Johnny would have wanted you to have this.’ I took it home. I had a pile of 20 or 30 assignments on my desk that needed immediate attention; I brushed them all to the side, and wrote that song that night.”

Barry took time several years ago to serve as president of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC). “I felt that this business has been wonderful to me, I’ve gotten recognition around town, and I’m very, very grateful. I wanted to see if I could find a way to give back a little. It’s vital to keep live entertainment … alive!” To guide him in running MAC’s board and general membership meetings, he became familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order. Says Barry: “People have musicalized every movie, every book, Tarzan, the French Revolution, The Bible. Now it’s time now to do Robert’s Rules as a musical! Look for it on Broadway in 2010!”