Robert ‘Bob’ Levy (1971) Trombone
Good times. Hard times. High school times. I was a nerdy kid, pretty athletic though. I could hit a golf ball about 280 yards even with that old wood driver. But I also played a musical instrument.
At twelve I started on the cornet, eventually switching to trombone because of my big ‘chops.’ That’s my big mouth (lips) for all of you uninitiated. I joined the jazz ensemble in 1968, my freshman year, and was a member though 1971 when I graduated. All four years of high school!
We were just kids then, and at the time lacked appreciation of the synergy required for playing within an ensemble. We were just a group of students who made the commitment to meet after school. High school kids who could have been doing anything else, but all had a love of music and jazz…and of playing our respective instruments. Over those four years we turned out to be not just a good band but, allow me to share my obvious bias, a GREAT band. The beginning of something that would last for a long time at New Trier West High School. Great not only through the talent of our players, but also the determination of our director, Roger Mills. I still remember him standing there, in front of us, guiding us to make each note, each phrase, each section, and each song…jazzy. But ‘Mr. Mills’ had to push us hard, because as young student jazz neophytes we had little understanding of the nuances needed to play jazz. But we finally ‘got’ it and began honing the techniques needed to perform within the jazz idiom. Not without some consternation and downright arguing at times but WOW, at the end we recognized our incredible progress. And that was satisfying to all of us.
During my junior and senior years, I was appointed the Student Director of our Lab (training) Band. Yes, by then we had two bands. Analogy: Baseball…the majors and the minors. Essentially the Lab Band consisted of freshmen and sophomores who were learning how to really play jazz ‘the right way’. The Bob Levy way. Actually, the Roger Mills way! It was fun to teach them.
In 1971, just before graduation, I was awarded both the American Music Foundation Award and the Benny Goodman Trophy. I still have both of them, and cherish them, over 50 years later.
I went on two trips with the Jazz Ensemble. One was to Mexico when I was a member of the band. We performed at Acapulco’s Hotel El Mirador where the famous cliff divers entertained, played in Mexico City’s Alameda Park in front of thousands of people, and appeared on Siempre en Domingo, a popular Mexican television variety show. Big audience there too. I remember I had a trombone solo in front of that audience. I think for all of us it was a surreal blur. But a success. I also remember ‘getting lost’ in Mexico City on a little nighttime excursion with my best friend Steve Loewy and my other trombone buddy Al Morris. In reality we were walking in circles and ended up, after a couple of hours, only about three blocks from the hotel. “Donde esta El Hotel Metropol?” I asked someone, and we found our way back.
The year after my graduation Roger Mills invited me to travel, with the group, to the Montreux International Jazz Competition. Since I was no longer a member of the band, but knew all the songs cold, I sat back at the soundboard during the performances directing the operator to, for example, “turn up the trumpets now” and then the band sounded more balanced, the impact to the large audience substantially magnified. The big highlight, and I remember it so well, was the final performance for the competition…and when it was announced that the Jazz Ensemble had won almost all the awards. As an aside, I remember the beer tasting in Germany (don’t tell anyone, especially Mills).
After high school I went to the University of Illinois. They had five jazz bands there. The first band was the music professor’s band. The second band was made up of all music majors except for me. I was a finance, not a music, major but after auditioning I was placed in that band. I guess they thought I was pretty good. I think my improv may have impressed them. I ended up obtaining my finance undergraduate degree and subsequently going to the University of Illinois Law School. I became an attorney, passing the bar exam in Illinois, and later in Florida. I also obtained my CPA license, passing the super tough four-part exam while I still lived in Illinois. A lawyer and CPA! Double whammy or double jeopardy depending how you look at it. Eventually, after my move to Florida, I began my own business and have practiced tax law and accounting for the last thirty plus years. Not practicing jazz, just business. I am somewhat envious of the members of my bands who went on to become professional musicians. I sort of thought they would as they were very accomplished in high school. I still love jazz, and all music, and that Benny Goodman Trophy I mentioned earlier is sitting on top of a piano at my house.
Finally, as this is an autobiography and life goes on, I will relate to you that I had a major heart attack in May of 2018 and after multiple operations, including installation of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in my damaged heart (high tech – look it up, it’s interesting), I had a heart transplant in August of 2019. The docs told me that I am one of those miracle people. There have been some rough times during this latest adventure, including a cardiac arrest of my old heart (no, I didn’t see ‘the light’) and at times it has been almost as rough as trying to hit that high note on my old Conn student trombone…maybe if I just got a better instrument? There’s that Stradivarius trombone I’ve been looking at…hmmmm.
Bob Levy (1971)