Photo by Jack Mellott.
Graduating from U.Va. with a degree in music was just the beginning of Rob Levit’s journey. His subsequent departure from Charlottesville took him to Annapolis, Md., where he continues to pursue his love for music and the arts. The last few years have been a period of growth for him — an effort to find himself as both a bandleader and complete artist beyond his ability to play a guitar.
Annapolis has proved to be a perfect place for this creative and personal cultivation. The city’s humble jazz community has embraced his ensemble, The Rob Levit Trio — enough that he is able to use his current home as a springboard to launch his professional music career and involve himself as a spiritual and cultural activist in the community. It is apparent after one conversation with Levit that music is more than just notes learned and played; it is a gateway to the soul. Somewhere down the line in his life music reached out and touched him deeply. Since that moment he has committed himself to being a vessel for bringing about that feeling in others.
It was a cool, breezy Friday afternoon on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. In less than four hours The Rob Levit Trio would be performing in the Tuttle Lounge on Grounds. The performance would be a homecoming of sorts for Levit (Music ’88), who had not returned to his alma mater since being invited back as an artist-in-residence in early 1996. In the interim he has made time to discuss his life and career with me over a drink at Miller’s, a long-time home for jazz in Charlottesville. Trumpeter and U.Va. prof John D’earth has held a residency at the venue for nearly a decade, providing a forum every Thursday night for improvisation and musical conversation. When we were deciding on a place to chat, this particular spot was a no-brainer.
Rob Levit arrived looking as charismatic and confident as his polished press photos. Taking a seat next to me underneath a tree on the far corner of the patio, he ordered a drink from the waitress. “I’ll take what that guy over there is drinking,” he says, pointing to an amber beer sitting on the table to the left. He turns and looks at me with a smile. “I don’t know what he’s drinking, but who cares. I’m into trying something new.”
Such a subtle exchange could be passed off as trivial, but the manner in which Levit ordered his drink could be a metaphor for his life: a laissez-faire attitude that has kept him from being pigeonholed as a person or artist. Levit will be the first to proclaim that he is not a jazz artist; rather, he is a guitarist. “Not everyone loves jazz, but everyone seems to love the guitar. Every culture has some kind of plucked instrument in it,” he says, leaning in to punctuate the statement.
Although he may vehemently deny his role as strictly a jazz artist, his list of accomplishments and honors has come from the jazz community — a world built to embrace his eclecticism. He received both the Julius Hemphill/Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Award and the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Artistic Excellence in 1998, was nominated for best Jazz Artist in 1995 by Boston Phoenix magazine and won an ASCAP Special Award two years running. He also has released four nationally aired albums of original jazz compositions as an artist signed to Brownstone Recordings and Whirlybird Records — as well as played multiple jazz festivals in the U.S. and Canada to round out his rap sheet. Through his accomplishments Levit has proved he is quite the jazz musician, even if his heart lies beyond its boundaries.
Listening to Rob Levit play jazz one gets the impression that he is not just a “jazz musician.” Never hesitating to take a song far beyond its original foundation, Levit will add distortion to a pristinely composed jazz standard or turn a rock song into a psychedelic saucepan of delay effects and loops. He notes rock guitarists such as Hendrix and Zappa in the same breath as Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery as the roots of his style — the proof ringing forth in every unique composition. His untamed imagination has not always sat well with many of the traditional jazz musicians with whom he has played. Thus through trial and error he has found his true love for composition and playing in his current trio, where he is free to express himself with bassist Amy Shook and drummer Frank Russo in any way he sees fit.
Beyond being a bandleader and guitarist, Levit has found another medium for expression: painting. It began a few years back after watching “Pollock,” the film about contemporary artist Jackson Pollock. “When I saw the movie, I went right out and bought paints and started painting,” he remembers. “There was a scene in the movie where he locked himself in the room and his wife was sliding him food under the door — I wanted to be in that place.” Since he first let the brush touch the canvas his passion has not subsided. His painting is a refuge these days as his music takes on the shape of a means for making a living.
It doesn’t stop there. Levit is also an avid poet and essayist who feels compelled to record his thoughts on a regular basis. Although not as published in verse and words as he is in sound, you can find a bulk of his writings on his Web site, www.roblevit.com, where you can also find lists of his favorite albums and books. He uses his painting and poetry to reach another audience, one too young to understand the roots of jazz. He is very active in the youth community in Maryland as a fundraiser and artist-in-residence for the Bywater Boys and Girls Club and Maryland Hall youth programs. There he connects with youth and brings them knowledge and wisdom in both the arts and life. He believes the two are in symbiosis and cannot thrive without each other.
Levit has been an educator since 1985, beginning first with music and moving on to other things tangible and intangible. He stresses spiritual and personal growth as well as creative growth, “A good teacher stresses the organic nature of music. As a teacher I won’t teach [my students] note for note a song. I teach them how to improvise. I teach them how to teach themselves. The highest form of flattery is not imitation; it is emulation.”
By now it is officially evening, and the sun isn’t warming the Miller’s patio any longer. A cool breeze has picked up, and there is a stiff chill in the air. As our conversation wraps up, Levit reflects on what he has done. All in all he feels no regrets. His dedication to his craft and his willingness to explore new outlets have done nothing but open more doors for him and provide him with the means to continue on his quest. “I just want to get what I need. Nothing more, nothing less,” he says, finishing up his beer, “I am not getting rich off this. I just want people to hear my music. It is a blessing to do what I do.”
Later on the Rob Levit Trio will perform at the same institution that inspired him to pursue music as a career. It is only fitting that now, as an accomplished bandleader, Levit comes back to share all that he has learned. “The greatest leaders of the world died for their cause. I’m not saying I am one of the greatest leaders, but I live and die for what I create. I want to make people’s lives better through music.” As we prepare to depart the windy mall he leaves me with one last thought: “It doesn’t matter what you do, whether music or art, if it’s authentic and it’s from your soul, it is not going to be crap.”
By the end of his Tuttle performance there was a great round of applause from the group of young college students who sat in jaw-dropping awe for the duration of the show. By the energy in the building I could tell he did more than play music that night; he was an ambassador for growth. If that is all Rob Levit wants…well, I say, “Mission: Accomplished.”
To listen to original music from Rob Levit’s latest CD, Uncertain Path, click on the track names below.