Mike Levy is a multi-talented artist who has 15 stringed instruments and a boxful of percussion instruments in his collection. He sings, composes, owns and runs a production studio, record label, and a publishing house.
To listen to Mike play his composition “Straight Up, Right”, while you read, click the arrowhead below:
Mike’s first experience with music was a guitar lesson at the age of 7. His budding career as a guitar virtuoso lasted 2 hours until he returned home, tripped, and snapped the neck off his guitar. His parents quickly switched him to the piano, a more durable instrument. His whole family was musical, some of whom were professional musicians. They were music players and music listeners. Everyone played as an amateur at some point in his or her lives. His mother played the piano and a little classical guitar. His father played the trumpet. An uncle was a professional songwriter. His grandparents played the flute, piano, and guitar. Their encouragement for Mike was for him to broaden his interests but not necessarily to begin a career track.
His mother taught Mike piano for the first 2 years. At 10, he began lessons with a professional piano teacher. These lessons were the classical type, which Mike didn’t take to very well. He switched to a pop piano teacher who taught him how to play Eagles songs. This was music that he was more interested in and he stuck with this for a while. The piano teacher would accompany him on the electric bass while Mike performed his piano lesson. Adam, Mike’s older brother, started taking bass lessons from the piano teacher. So, there was a bass around the house and Mike started picking it up and playing around with it. He found he had an aptitude for the bass.
Mike helped start a jazz band in the 8th grade at the brand new junior high school. A friend of his played the piano. She said, “Hey! We need a bass player. You can do it.” That was when he seriously began to play bass. From that point on, it has been his main instrument. He continued to play bass in high school in the show bands. These bands had 15 singers and a big rhythm section.
Mike first turned ‘professional’ at 15. He started doing gigs and getting paid for playing. For his first gigs, his brother Adam was always the one that opened the doors. Adam played bass in a band and they needed a replacement for the keyboard player. It was a 50s band that was playing 50s music when it was top 40. Mike wasn’t even old enough to drive to the gig. He had to get a ride.Mike began singing in high school. Even though he was the bass player, in order to be in the show band, it was a requirement to be in the chorus. He was good at it. It was ‘legit’ choral singing and he excelled in state competitions.
Music was Mike’s main focus in high school, but, before graduating, he enrolled in culinary school. He wanted to be a chef. (Chef Records, is now Mike’s publishing and record company). He vividly remembers a conversation with his father as they were standing outside a Circle K. Mike discussed his plan of going to culinary school to be a chef and he could play music as well. His dad reasoned, “If you are going to be a chef, when do you think you are going to work? You will probably work at night. If you want to play music, that is going to be at night, too. So there is a good chance that the two things are going to conflict. I think you would be happier playing music.” Mike took his father’s advice and forgot culinary school, and has never looked back.
Having skipped kindergarten, Mike graduated high school at 17. He did a semester in a community college and then entered the University of South Florida. He didn’t have a major. He was actually non-matriculated. But the school big band needed a bass player. He auditioned and, as a 17 year old, he beat out all the other students who had been in the program for a few years.
After the first semester, Mike found an opportunity with an American agency for a gig in Tokyo to play in a hotel for three months. The agency required a singing demo of a couple pop or jazz songs. It was his first recording of himself singing. He still has that recording. Mike traveled to Tokyo with another couple that had done this gig for several years. Mike didn’t actually emerge from the background and sing out as the lead until he established The Lala in 1996.
After Tokyo, Mike pursued continuing his studies at one of three highly respected music schools – University of Miami, North Texas, or Berklee College of Music in Boston. He viewed attending one of these schools as a networking opportunity. As a kid, he read magazines about well-known bass players and other musicians. Whenever these artists talked about who was on their albums, it was “We met when we were at Miami or North Texas or Berklee.” He decided he was going to one of those schools so he could be the guy that gets met at one of those places.
Mike was accepted to Berklee with a scholarship. Berklee was the benchmark for getting into a great music school. It is the preeminent music school. The word ‘legit’ (as in legitimate), when applied to a musician, indicates that the musician is classically trained. The legit players are the ones who play in the orchestra and are the “real musicians.” The term is demeaning towards non-classical music students. When studying in school, the student musician is either ‘legit’ or ‘other’. ‘Other’ is applied to jazz or rock musicians. If you play upright bass, someone might ask, “Do you play legit or do you play jazz?” At the time, Berklee was the only school that had a huge “illegitimate” music program. At Berklee, a musician could play in a rock band ensemble. It had a much broader scope of music.
During Mike’s first semester, he got a call to go on the road with Maynard Ferguson. This was a big deal. Maynard was an extremely well known trumpet player who, in addition to being a wildly celebrated bandleader and player, did the theme for the movie Rocky. Mike did one tour with Maynard. Mike found that the jazz road life was not for him. He moved to New York City and never returned to Berklee.
As a bassist, he plays a lot of jazz, but he doesn’t come from a purely jazz background. Many jazz players don’t come from a place where they learn to make music feel good. Their music is more cerebral. Mike grew up playing rock, blues, and pop music. This background gives his jazz playing energy and showmanship. He brings excitement to his playing but if he is playing background music, he can keep that in check. He is not afraid to make a jazz song jazzy or to play it in more of a blues style. His multi-instrumental ability also contributes to his sound as a bass player. He is influenced, as an upright bass player, by Edgar Meyer and Ray Brown. As an electric bass player, he is influenced by his brother, Adam, by James Jamerson who played with many of the 60s soul artists like Marvin Gaye, by Marcus Miller in fusion jazz, and by Jaco Pastorius.
There was a period where Mike became involved with Brazilian music. This led to his wife, Theresa, and the formation of Nossa Bossa Nova. Nossa Bossa Nova plays traditional Brazilian bossa nova, some samba, and more modern Brazilian pop music. Mike and Theresa frequently perform as a duo. Theresa is fluent in Portuguese and sings the songs while Mike accompanies her. They enjoy playing with a bigger band as well.
Mike began writing music when he was 11. The degree that he plays his own music depends on the gig. When he is playing jazz in the lounge at Loew’s Ventana Canyon, it is jazz standards and pop songs. When he plays with his group Nossa Bossa Nova, it is the bossa nova standards. If he is hosting the jazz jam at Old Pueblo Grill on a Sunday night, he may play 8 songs, 6 of which are his own compositions. If he does a CD, most of the music is his own compositions with a few recognizable song covers.
When he writes, Mike usually gets his inspiration from the instrument itself. He may pull out a guitar or sit at the piano and just sees what comes to him. On his latest CD, he took a different route. He came up with a one line lyric, even though the piece was instrumental, and wrote the melodies of the song based on that lyric. The lyric would never make it into the song. This technique made his music more planned than usual. While he is writing a song, the name may be ‘Fast Song in the Key of C.’ When the song is finished, he stops and thinks about what the song reminds him of and then decides on the name.
Mike has had some personal experiences that he drew on to write some music. While he was in Tokyo, he read the teachings of Buddha. He wrote a 10-minute, three-part orchestral piece inspired by aspects of Buddha’s teachings. He was living in New York on September 11th, which led to a very heavy phase; a spiritual searching diving into his Jewish roots. One of the last major pieces he wrote was Shoah, a half-hour Holocaust symphony that was inspired by this experience. Sometimes he will write satirical songs based on specific experiences. He wrote a song called The Country Bar which was a satirical take on the people he observed in an actual country bar while watching a friend do a gig there.
Mike has a secret technique for drawing his audience into what he is playing. He SMILES. It engages him with the audience. It seems very simple but he sees many jazz artists try to make the performance too academic. It feels like they are doing a favor for the audience by playing for them.
Selling CDs is a high for Mike. Whether it is Nossa Bossa Nova or his personal recordings or through Chef Records, his publishing arm, he gets excited when he receives a check, even for $7 dollars, in the mailbox. It tells him people like what he is doing because they spend their money on it. It is affirming. In terms of his life goals, he is grateful to be supporting his family with music and not having to work in the coal mines. Once the music is made and out there, he gets to sit at home, spending time with his kids, or whatever he wants and still has money coming in.
Mike made a wise choice to focus on bass rather than guitar or piano. It is great for making a living because there is more of a demand for bass players. Mike is busy with gigs. He works, in general, 3 to 4 nights a week although this week he has 5 gigs. He may do 2 or 3 gigs a year playing piano/keyboard.
Mike has been grateful his whole life that he is able to make a living playing music. He has had a few other jobs but the worst gig was better than his best day as a PowerPoint specialist making graphs for real estate investments. There have been times in his life that he had to take every gig offered, no matter how far away, how late it was, or how much it paid. If it was four hours in Sierra Vista for $50, he had to take it because he needed the $50. Now he doesn’t have to do that anymore. He can be more selective about what he takes. He still ends up in situations that aren’t fun but he reminds himself that he is playing music and people are paying money for it. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Some situations are a lot of fun. Don Rickles, the sharp-tongued comedian who is the master of insults, came to town with his music director. The MD hired a band of local musicians that included Mike. During the rehearsal, the MD said “Don is going to introduce each of you by name and he is going to make a joke about you. If you have a hard time with that, don’t come back for the show.” Don picked up on Mike’s beard. He introduced Mike as “Here’s Mike on the bass. Saddam Hussein’s brother over here on the bass.” That was pretty light compared to other guys in the band but off stage, he was a super nice guy. Mike also backed up Joan Rivers, another foul-mouthed standup comedienne. This 78 year old lady was 50 times raunchier and more offensive than Don Rickles would ever dream of being. The band had to be on stage. It played a song before she came on and a song when she left but for the rest of the show, the musicians sat on stage watching. A couple of jokes involved the band. “We just had to sit there but we were allowed to laugh.”
Mike now owns a professional project studio – 11:11 Studios. There is trivial significance to this unusual name. Whenever his brother and he were looking at the clock and it was 11:11, they would say, “It is 11:11.” It became the name of an early band. Apparently there are 11:11 cults but Mike was totally unaware of them.
Mike first experimented with recording music when he was 11 years old. (This pushed his desire to play other instruments. He learned guitar so he could add guitar to the music he was recording.) He accomplished this feat with two cassette recorders. He played his guitar and recorded it on the first cassette. Then he played piano while playing the first cassette back and recorded it on the second cassette. He would continue this process until he had multiple tracks on the tapes. Now his studio utilizes sophisticated microphones, has a large selection of vintage and modern instruments, and much sought after analog recording equipment.
Mike approaches production musically. Many producers and engineers are strictly producers and engineers. They know only about the technical side and want to push their technical vision on the artists. They don’t know how to relate to artists on a musical level. As a professional musician and a writer/composer, Mike is in a good position to help produce artists. He is very good at understanding the desires of the band and communicating and developing the ideas of the artists. He knows how to coax a better performance out of the artist. He speaks their language and helps them do what they want to do rather than what he wants them to do. As a producer, Mike can put everything together. It may be hiring musicians as backup or playing everything himself.
For the last few years, Mike has produced and recorded all the CDs for Vince Redhouse, the Grammy award nominated flutist and saxophone player. Vince is a member of the talented Native-American Redhouse family based in Tucson. Recently, Mike composed the film score for the DVD accompanying a kid’s book written by Vince’s wife. Mike has also just finished a new CD which is his first featuring himself solely on the upright bass. He is very proud of it.
Mike is content with his life in music. In 5 years, he would be happy being right where he is now. He is comfortable being the sideman or behind the scenes as a producer, as well as being in the spotlight. Tucson has been a blessing for him. He can support his family doing what he loves. He has a good balance between gigging and production. When he is not gigging, he misses it. If he goes through a phase where he is playing too much, he wants to be home more. He teaches some private lessons and enjoys the dedicated students. Mike would accept being famous but he doesn’t want to be a touring musician on a bus. He enjoys traveling to play music in very small doses. Occasionally, he is called to fly to a nice hotel to spend two or three nights doing a show. That is great.
His ambitions are more personal than professional. He has two small children. His highest ambition is to be the best husband and the best dad he can be.
Learn more about Mike Levy at 11:11Studios.