“Jazz Provides Background for Death,” screamed the Associated Press headline following the January 26, 1959, murder of Irving Levy at Birdland in New York. Levy was the manager of the popular jazz venue, located near the burgeoning musical mecca of West 52nd Street. His brother, Mo Levy, owned the club.
The Levy brothers grew up in a struggling Jewish family. Eventually, they ran one of the hottest jazz clubs in the country, named after one of the genre’s biggest stars, Charlie “Bird” Parker.
On the fateful night, Birdland was filled to its 500-person capacity. Irving Levy confronted an uninvited guest — a man he claimed was a pimp escorting a prostitute. The man fatally stabbed Levy, who bled out as the Urbie Green Big Band continued playing. This is a seminal moment from a new book that explores a complicated historical relationship, “Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld,” by veteran crime writer T.J. English.
“I was aware of this element of organized crime’s involvement in the business of jazz,” English told The Times of Israel. “I knew it was a subject that needed to be written about.”
The book tells a complex tale about race and immigration in America. On the one hand, there were the largely Black jazz luminaries such as Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday who dazzled onstage while facing racial discrimination. On the other hand, there were the Mob-connected figures with immigrant roots — Jewish, Italian and Irish — who ran many of the nightclubs that featured jazz stars.
The longtime jazz enthusiast added some creative touches once the book was published. It has its own Spotify playlist, and the book launch took place at Birdland, which is under new management and ownership. There was a musical performance by a band that English put together — the Dangerous Rhythms All-Stars, consisting of mainly Latin jazz performers from the author’s hometown of New York.
“I have a special love for Latin jazz,” English said, citing such legendary performers as Machito, Mario Bauzá, Bebo Valdés and his son Chucho Valdés. “It’s the most exciting form of jazz.”
The All-Stars earned some additional gigs, prompting English to reflect that in addition to being an author, he is now also a band manager.
There were pluses for jazz musicians performing at mobbed-up clubs, according to English. The lawless owners were surprisingly effective at protecting Black talent against the racial violence of the era. Illegal profits, including during Prohibition, paid for the expanding size of jazz orchestras and meant that the musicians did not need to turn a profit. The handful of white jazz stars profiled in the book sometimes had other motivations — such as Frank Sinatra, who allegedly used his Mob buddies to get out of an exploitative contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, which is rumored to have inspired Mario Puzo while writing “The Godfather.”
Yet partnering with the Mob had many downsides for Black musicians. Names of popular venues such as the Cotton Club or Plantation Club humiliatingly alluded to the antebellum, slaveholding American South, while Jim Crow laws were in effect for the general public — even in Harlem, where, at the most famous Cotton Club of them all, Ellington created some of English’s favorite jazz music while performing for segregated audiences.
The Jewish part of the narrative is depicted through figures such as Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s longtime manager. English describes their relationship as a key part of the book.
An Ashkenazi Jew with family roots in the Pale of Settlement, Glaser became Armstrong’s advocate after meeting him in Chicago, where Glaser ran the Sunset Club in quiet partnership with Al Capone. When Glaser touted Armstrong as “The World’s Greatest Trumpeter” on the marquee, Capone sent an order to take it down through a henchman — which was refused. Yet Glaser was also indicted twice for statutory rape in the late 1920s, and many of the jazz talents he worked with, including Armstrong and Mary Lou Williams, came to regret their association with him.
El Judio Maravilloso
Jewish mobsters connected to jazz included some of the most legendary names in organized crime, from Arnold Rothstein to Meyer Lansky.
Rothstein is “kind of a legendary figure in the history of jazz,” English said. “What I always find amazing about Rothstein is, he was somewhat of a middle-class kid, not a criminal type, who was never arrested or prosecuted for any crime.”
Yet he made a fortune in illegal booze and gambling during Prohibition, an era that was “truly when jazz and the underworld could almost be one and the same,” English said, calling it “the pinnacle of the relationship.”
Rothstein used his illicit funds to finance not only jazz, but Broadway shows. Due to his untimely death in a 1928 shooting, he did not live to see the fulfillment of his last production — “Hot Chocolates,” an all-Black show featuring the music of Fats Waller, with Armstrong performing the song “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Yet Rothstein left an impression on Lansky that lasted long after the end of Prohibition in 1933.
“I think Meyer Lansky learned a lot from the example of Rothstein,” English said. “Always present yourself as a legitimate businessman, don’t become involved in the violence of the business.”
Decades later, Lansky became a pivotal figure as the Mob pursued an ambitious international venture, running casinos in pre-Castro Cuba. His involvement in this venture is also chronicled in a previous English-penned book, “Havana Nocturne.” One of its chapters is titled “El Judio Maravilloso,” Lansky’s Spanish nickname in Cuba, which translates to “The Marvelous Jew.”
From his base in Havana, Lansky played a key, if inadvertent, role in the popularization of Latin jazz.
“I think it’s kind of ironic,” English said. “He was not a guy who would hang out in the club anyway. It was not his lifestyle. But his business success created a gateway for this kind of incredible flavor of Latin influence on jazz.
Sometimes I’m asked who’s the toughest guy I ever wrote about? I always say Meyer Lansky
“It reverberated all the way to the US. Latin jazz became very popular in the 1940s, in the ‘50s. It was just a very exciting influence, a new rhythm in the music of jazz. We’re still feeling it to this day,” he said.
Even if Lansky preferred the slower, more formal Havana danzón music, he earned a singular distinction from the author.
“Sometimes I’m asked the question, who’s the toughest guy I ever wrote about?” English said. “I always say Meyer Lansky.”
“Although he was not a violent man by nature,” English explained, “his ability to circulate, do business with some of the toughest people in the world — like Rothstein [had done] — is the true definition of a tough guy.”
The most mobbed-up club in history
Mo Levy’s Birdland earns a different sort of distinction.
Birdland, English wrote in the book, was “perhaps the most mobbed-up club in history, with an owner — Mo Levy — who set the standard in thuggish business practices that blurred the line between gangster and businessman.”
“He was not a mafioso himself, because he was Jewish,” English told The Times of Israel. “He was not allowed to be a made member of the mafia. But he had a tight relationship with Mob figures. He seemed to admire them. Mo Levy had, let’s say, a definite fascination with the dark side.”
Mobsters enjoyed their own booth at Birdland, with occupants including the Genovese crime family. When Levy branched out into forming his own record label, Roulette Records, he shared office space with Mob associates while signing deals with such jazz greats as Count Basie.
Levy became a respected civic figure, serving as a chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and displaying a plaque marking a decade as chairman emeritus in his office. However, during jazz’s decline in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, he sought questionable ways to profit from it — including through Betty Carter’s 1976 album “Now It’s My Turn,” which did not credit Carter for three original songs and contained illegally obtained live recordings.
“It was kind of the dark side of Mo Levy,” English said. “He screwed the talent and the artists. He was known for this. He provided opportunities for them to perform in clubs and get record [deals]. But Roulette took advantage of them… It became kind of the nature of the beast after a while.”
English remembers browsing the selections at the Strawberries record-store chain once owned by Levy. That is, before Levy had to give it up, along with Roulette, after his final, fateful get-rich-quick scheme in the 1980s. His partner was Vincent “the Chin” Gigante, a mafioso known for walking the streets of New York in a bathrobe and slippers in hopes of paving the way for an insanity defense. When the FBI prosecuted Levy for the scheme, it finally rewarded the G-men’s long, on-and-off surveillance of him dating back to 1962. Levy never saw jail time because he died of colon cancer in 1990.
By then, perceptions of Levy and his Mob friends were changing in the jazz world, thanks in part to growing social awareness. The status quo of Black musicians being financially exploited by white club owners and white record label heads was finally challenged.
“There was a different attitude [toward] the Mo Levys out there,” English said. “People started to see him as an oppressive force. I think some of the earth shifted beneath his feet.”
The book also addresses the additional obstacles faced by women in jazz, mainly through the story of the multidimensional career of Mary Lou Williams.
Williams endured sexual harassment in the mostly all-male world of jazz musicians and mobsters. She later converted to Catholicism, and composed and performed jazz music for Catholic masses.
“I welcomed the opportunity to tell her story,” English said. “It’s one of the few triumphant conclusions to a story of a jazz musician from the era. She kind of ended it with a different sort of jazz, in her own words, on her own terms, escaping from the tough men and tough music of the jazz business.”
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