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Jazz Clarinetist Walt Levinsky

You may not know him, but you have heard him.

Walt Levinsky (b. April 18, 1929 / d. Dec. 14, 1999) was a terrifically talented musician whose genius escaped the glare and hubbub of the “fame machine” by his own choice. A standout talent on the clarinet, alto saxophone &  flute, Walt was dubbed “the most talented musician that ever came to this school,” by the Woodwind instructor at the Music Conservatory where he trained in Anville, PA. [wikipedia]

Even before becoming a full-time professional, Walt started right near the top, with the Les Elgart Orchestra. His first full-time position was replacing the  noted Buddy De Franco in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He left Dorsey to enlist in the U.S. Air Force during The Korean War and played with the renowned Airmen of Note.

Walt with Airmen of Note

Walt settled in the New York City area in 1954, upon mustering out of the  Air Force. In 1956, Benny Goodman added Walt to his orchestra for a set of appearances at The Waldorf Astoria. Walt was the lead saxophone player but was also tapped by Goodman as his backup player on clarinet solos. If Benny couldn’t play, he trusted Walt to deliver the “Goodman sound.”  Walt toured, briefly, with Benny Goodman‘s orchestra but he hated all the flying. Strange for an Air Force guy, huh?

Eschewing the life “on-the-road,” Walt began a life-long involvement as a session musician on the highest of high-end recordings. He worked with pretty much all of the best: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, often contributing arrangements in addition to his playing.

Walt was always in demand by the best in the industry for recordings and major appearances.  He is credited over-and-over on recordings by the best of the reed-men like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. From his work with Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, Walt became a fixture on recordings in the Bossa Nova and Samba styles. A master of his instrument as well as all styles of music, he played on a number of Cal Tjader‘s tracks and ventured into Acid and Fusion Jazz.

Levinsky joined the NBC staff orchestra and in 1962 became a member of Skitch Henderson‘s Tonight Show Band. Enjoying the regular work so close to home, with talented musicians, Walt stayed with the band when Doc Severinson took over as leader, and appears on most of Severinson’s recordings. In the 60s, Walt left NBC join MBA Music, a producer of theme show music and commercial jingles. This gave him an opportunity to really utilitze his composing and arranging talents. Among his many compositions for television is the theme music for The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

Perhaps the highest professional accolade any clarinetist could ever earn came to Walt Levinsky in 1962. Artie Shaw, the noted perfectionist, was recreating his all-star 1938 Orchestra and needed someone to be Artie Shaw. Artie went straight to Walt Levinsky and there are some who say that Walt played Artie better than Artie did.

Although Walt played in some 5,000 recording sessions, he only produced one album as the headliner: Walt Levinsky and his Great American Swing Band (featuring Lynn Roberts). On the Kenzo Records label, it is a terrific CD and it really swings. The production values are top-notch and the band he has assembled is just terrific. Here are two tracks from the CD, which do not sound nearly as good on Youtube as they do on the original source material:

#1 – Let’s Dance + Bugle Call Rag

#2 – Wang Wang Blues

cc -Some rights

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About thejazzmonger
Music fan. All types of music but, especially Jazz, Big Band, Swing & Oldies from the 50s & early (pre-Beatle) 60s.

9 Responses to Jazz Clarinetist Walt Levinsky

  1. Pam says:

    Love the piece on Walt Levinsky.

  2. Great site…keep up the good work.

  3. Aaron Taylor says:

    Hey, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, anyway cool blog, I bookmarked you. 🙂

  4. Thanks a lot, Aaron. It is a treat to have people enjoy the ramblings of my wild mind. I hope you keep coming back and always find something to make your visit worthwhile.

  5. Donnieboy says:

    Just wanted to drop you a line to say, I enjoy reading your site. I thought about starting a blog myself but don’t have the time.
    Oh well maybe one day…. 🙂

  6. Rich says:

    Hi Jazzmonger. I’m a fan of both Lynn Roberts and Walt Levinsky. Thanks for the good report on Walt and the Great American Swing Band. I had the opportunity to see the band with Lynn in person in New York 15-20 years ago. I’ve been searching for that CD for years. Could you contact me?

    Rich

    • Roy Yokelson says:

      I have many original copies of this CD, as I was the recording engineer, project coodinator, and co-producer of this wonderful album. I also produced “Walt Levinsky in Concert, As He Wanted To Be Remembered” for Arbors Records.

  7. Theoacme says:

    If you can find the “Four Roses Dance Party” album (1961), get it – two excellent Levinsky solos – “Darktown Strangers Ball” and “Hawaiian War Chant” are worth the cost alone.

  8. Barbara Herman says:

    Good to know I can get online and listen / watch Walt’s band today. Thank you.
    I still get goose bumps, when I hear Walt playing the clarinet. I also remember in the mid 50’s the company that made his saxophone offered to buy it back after he got a new one. He endorsed the manufacturer in advertisements in Downbeat magazine. His flute abilities made him Dinah Shore’s only choice for her weekly solo on her TV show. It was her voice and only Walt playing the flute.
    Pres. Lyndon Johnson had Walt’s Great American Swing Band play at The White House.. and later Richard Nixon got him for a return engagement. He took his band on good will tours to Scandinavian countries and Japan. He had a varied and interesting career.

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