By MARILYN LESTER**** When the music comes up at the Iridium this Wednesday night, December 6, 2017, the occasion will essentially mark the launch of The Barry Levitt Foundation – just the way the Maestro would have wanted it, full of music and song. The kickoff is appropriately star-studded, featuring cabaret and jazz luminaries Marilyn Maye, John Demarco, Dawn Derow, Cleve Douglass, Natalie Douglas, Kat Gang, Terese Genecco, Helena Grenot, Janice Hall, Jeff Harnar, Jerome Jennings, Gabrielle Lee, Karen Saunders, Cynthia Scott, Marlene VerPlanck, Sal Viviano and Lennie Watts. Music director and pianist, Russ Kassoff, with Boots Maleson on bass and Brian Brake on drums, will back this gala roster of greats. The $30 cover for Swingin’ for the Maestro: A Barry Levitt Foundation Cabaret goes directly to the Foundation, headed by Levitt’s wife, Brenda Levitt, which is moving forward with a mission to provide scholarships and mentoring for young people, particularly the underserved.
Barry Levitt, well known as “the Maestro”, was a music director, conductor, arranger, composer, pianist, producer, educator and songwriter who worked on Broadway, in musical theatre, television and cabaret, and led jazz and big bands. He served as president of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) and was artistic director of the Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y. Levitt passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in September, instantly spurring a desire among many in the cabaret community to perpetuate the legacy of a man who loved teaching and coaching as much as he did playing piano. According to Brenda Levitt, seeing the result of his teaching with the singers he worked with was very special to him. “It made him very joyful to see improvements, especially with singers who didn’t have much experience,” she says.
The kernel of the Foundation was actually an idea that the Maestro and Brenda had discussed over the last several years. Levitt had grown up in reduced circumstances in Newark, NJ, living in the cramped back quarters of the candy store owned by his parents. Although the family had a deep appreciation for music, and cantors were part of the family history, young Barry had to carve out his musical path from necessity. A piano, practice and support came in the form of a local Boys and Girls Club (long ago torn down for urban renewal).
Herein lay the seeds of the Levitt’s talks about philanthropy. It was Barry Levitt’s wish to give back. “He’d found success,” Brenda says, “and wanted to help give kids from his old neighborhood opportunities to succeed, too.” Barry was aware how much American music had given to the world and was distressed at the cutbacks in funding in the school system – not only in music education, but in the teaching of job skills and life skills. The Levitts had gone so far as to have discussions with the administration of NJPAC, but nothing concrete had yet developed.
As difficult as it’s been, Levitt’s passing also galvanized Brenda. With encouragement and support from friends, and with strong inner determination, she moved quickly to establish The Barry Levitt Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit. “Ultimately” she says, “I’d like to be a nonprofit that funds, supports and helps other nonprofits.” She aptly describes this goal as “music-centered social work.” Brenda Levitt’s trajectory has been fiercely determined. She’s cut a wide swath in a short time. Already in place is a partnership with The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music to establish a jazz piano scholarship in Barry Levitt’s name. And as if touched by the hand of providence, a tailor-made partner appeared in Newark, one whose reach of services encompasses Barry Levitt’s childhood neighborhood. The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Newark Ironbound (amazingly located on Providence Street) is a facility serving 200 children that welcomed Brenda’s program proposal of music workshops with open arms. Now her first task is the donation of a piano to the center (they’re currently using an old keyboard and music tracks) as well as donations of musical instruments. Volunteers to work with the kids are also part of the program, and for this Brenda is reaching out to Local 802 of the musician’s union as well as establishing an intern program with The New School.
Brenda Levitt acknowledges the potentials for the Foundation are vast and exciting. “There are so many underserved neighborhoods just waiting for people to show up,” she says. “There are innate gifts that may be going to waste for lack of opportunity.“ She wonders how many potential Louis Armstrongs there are out there, recounting how Louis, a poor ghetto child was given a cornet by someone who “showed up.” As The Barry Levitt Foundation grows, so do Brenda Levitt’s ideas for reaching out to kids. Plus, she’s committed to the idea of producing more cabaret in Barry’s name, perhaps a monthly series, not only to raise funds for the Foundation and to preserve his legacy, but to honor the community that Barry loved so much, and who loved him back in equal measure.
Swingin’ for the Maestro: A Barry Levitt Foundation Cabaret is at the Iridium (1650 Broadway) on Wednesday, December 6 at 8:30 PM. The $30 cover charge goes directly to help fund the Foundation. Reserve at 212- 582-2121 or