Don't assume anything. This isn't a story about some down-on-his-luck street musician who doesn't have what it takes to make it big. Levie Ball doesn't have to play in this tunnel if he doesn't want to. He doesn't rely on your spare change to make ends meet. And just because he plays here eight hours a day doesn't mean that he can't get a gig. He's played jazz with Bill McFarland. He's played reggae at the Wild Hare. He was a sideman with legendary R & B crooner Walter Jackson. He's rocked the crowds at CrossCurrents, the Quiet Knight, and Hidden Stages, playing in bands like Om and Inner Glimpse.
True, he hasn't made any compact discs, and few folks at jazz labels have heard his name. But Levie Ball is something of a legend. Lots of people stop in this pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive to hear him play. Some camp out in the grass for hours to listen to the sultry sounds of his instrument. Kids from the neighborhood talk soccer and saxophone with Ball. A culinary student shares new recipes and sheet music. Middle-aged jazz aficionados on expensive mountain bikes drum their gloved hands against the walls of the tunnel while he plays, thinking he's the coolest musician on the face of the earth. A quirky bald guy whom Levie calls "the Birdman" leaves a pack of birdseed every morning, and sometimes money too. Cops request tunes before clearing out the park at 11 PM. That's when Ball packs up his saxophone and heads home to the west side.
Levie Ball has been playing in this tunnel near the Belmont Rocks for almost 20 years. He's here every day, when the weather's right and he's finished his day job painting houses. If he doesn't have a paying gig, Ball's here blowing his saxophone, refining his craft, writing poems, philosophizing, learning new tunes, penning compositions, and performing for the Lakeview crowd, some of whom, like me, leave their windows open at night so they can hear him play.
Ball's saxophone echoes through the tunnel with a confidence and proficiency rare in your garden-variety street musician. When he eases into the plaintive cry of "Round Midnight," his instrument sounds as natural and soothing as the lake lapping against the rocks on the shore. And when he launches into an aggressive solo in the mysteriously avant-garde "Train You Exotic"--Ball's own tribute to one of his heroes, jazz master John Coltrane--you can tell you're in the presence of a rare musician who combines sheer virtuosity with a spiritual sense of calm and just a touch of showmanship. You can almost hear him smile as he plays his jazzed-up rendition of The Flintstones theme song for the kids in the neighborhood, who make him play it again and again. But Ball's sound seems most relaxed and commanding when he's by himself in the park at night and the whispers of his saxophone waft lazily through the tunnel and the trees, down the alley, up the brick walls, and through my window.
Levie Ball exudes cool. Everything about him says cool. It's not only the way he plays. It's the way he carries himself with that smooth, mellow, unpretentious confidence. It's his jokey, philosophical way of speaking--he can use words like "hip" and "hep" and "cat" without sounding the least bit corny. He designs his own clothing--brimless African caps and garments made out of loose-fitting cloth. On anyone else it would look like drapes, but on Ball it works. Even his slim paintbrush of a goatee is in character. Without ever hearing him play, you can tell that he carries the stamp of jazz.
Ball plays a tarnished Conn saxophone that he carries with him in a big army duffel bag filled with sheet music. He talks about his saxophone as if it were a magical object, and there's a certain aura of the Pied Piper about him.
"It's strange," Ball says, "but anybody can pick up my saxophone and play and sound good. I put so much life into it and it's so broken in that even if you don't play, you can pick it up and feel that vitality inside it."
A lot of people compare Ball to Sonny Rollins. Not because of their looks, but because their tonal quality and eccentric practice methods are the same. Ball tells me that Rollins stopped playing gigs for about ten years and spent the whole time practicing on the Brooklyn Bridge. This pedestrian tunnel is Ball's Brooklyn Bridge.
It's about 10 PM. A young couple walk past Ball and stop to listen. The man is wearing a white undershirt with a gold chain around his neck. His girlfriend, barefoot, wears an emerald green one-piece swimsuit. The man eyes Ball as if he had come upon a trained seal, something he can exploit to entertain his lady friend.
"I know this guy," the man tells her. "Let's have him play something."
"What do you want me to play?" Ball asks, stopping the tune he's playing. "Y'all want to hear something romantic?"
"It sounds like a church down here," the man says with a snicker. "Let's hear some church music."
"Well, I don't know if I can play any church music, but I can play something," Ball says.
"Well, play something real smooth."
"Something real smooth?"
Ball eases into "Round Midnight." The couple stand there, hand in hand, listening to him. He's about half finished when the man turns to leave. Ball stops playing.
"Don't go, man," he says. "I'm not through yet. You can't go in the middle of a song."
The couple stand uneasily while Ball plays his saxophone and gazes romantically at the woman. "This part's about your eyes," he tells her.
The woman laughs, and Ball resumes playing. The man leaves a buck in the saxophone case and tries to lead his girlfriend away.
"Come on," he says. "Let's go."
She continues to stare at Ball as he performs.
"Come on," the man says again, pulling her away.
As the couple walk out of the tunnel, drifting toward the lake, the woman turns to look back at Ball.
"This is my sanctuary down here," Ball says as he stands in the tunnel, his golden saxophone tied around his neck with an old shoelace. "For me, it's like a church. I come down here to find peace. This is my spot. I have been elsewhere, but I always come back here. It's peaceful. Nobody bothers you. They just jog through. When you practice at home, you can't play as loud as you want because you get people saying, 'Why don't he keep that down? Why don't he play something else?' You need your own little spot. I choose to come outside where I can play as loud as I want, as hard as I want. I'm conditioning my attitudes and my emotions so that when I walk onstage, I can have a command sound. But if I was practicing inside a house where you can't play loud, I'd have a little unsure sound. I'd have a closet sound. You stay in a building, you got people over you and under you. My sound might be beautiful, but people might not want to hear it that day: 'Hey man! Why don't you shut up?' You understand what I'm saying. Everybody's got their own way of how they get into music, and this is just my way."
Ball wasn't born playing saxophone. He didn't even touch the instrument until he was 21. Born in New York City, he grew up on the west side of Chicago, eventually becoming a star basketball player at Wells High School. He played drums in the Wells drill team, which he describes as sort of a "bebop marching band." He says it was his father's constant playing of jazz records that inspired him to be a musician.
"I used to go to sleep, and my dad would be downstairs playing jazz," he says. "I used to wake up on jazz. I'd go around whistling tunes all day."
Right after he graduated from high school and got married (the marriage didn't last long and is one of the few things that Ball doesn't discuss in detail), he picked up the clarinet and tried to teach himself to play.
"After I was done with basketball, I said, 'Man, I need another hobby,'" says Ball. "I tried the clarinet, but I wasn't really getting the kind of feeling I wanted, the kind of things I was hearing from Coltrane. I played it for a few years, but after a while I thought it was square. I didn't hear too many cats playing it. I wanted a more hip, contemporary sound."
Miles Davis was playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell by the time he was 19 years old. Ball may have just started playing jazz at that age, but he still dreamed of being a master saxophonist and set out to become one. He started playing every single day for eight hours a day. No exceptions. No vacations. Sometimes when he wasn't painting houses, he supported his vocation by working as a truck driver.
Ball works a full day and then plays a full night. And he's done it for nearly two decades, 20 years of solid playing, of letting things like making a good living go by the wayside. "I didn't start playing when I was nine years old like Branford Marsalis," says Ball. "I'm reaching his level now because I've worked so hard that I've cut the time in half. I wish I could have been one of those guys who could afford to take lessons and go to the best schools, but I wasn't one of those guys. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of those guys so I taught myself. I made a commitment to myself. I said, 'If I come out here every day and practice, after a while I'm going to be baaaad.'" The hours he didn't spend working or playing he spent in his sparse apartment, devouring books about jazz greats, studying their music philosophies, and listening to their albums.
"I used to read, read, read, read, read," says Ball. "I'd read about John Coltrane. Read about Miles Davis. Read about Stan Getz. I took all that information to try and make myself the best musician that I could be."
He also spent a lot of time making his presence known at local jazz clubs, where he'd position himself in the front row to watch such greats as McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey. He'd quiz them during breaks about how to make it in the jazz world.
"Art [Blakey] was cool, man," Ball says. "He used to talk about anything. He could talk to you about a dog or cat. He just made you feel good. He said, 'Whatever you do, just play.' He was right, man. He said, 'If you play anything long enough it's gonna sound good. I don't care what it is. It can be something out of key, but if you play it out of key long enough, you're gonna be one baaad out-of-key dude.'"
Even in the late 70s, before he knew how to read music, Ball was developing a distinctive sound. He was too shy and unsure of himself to play in the tunnel when the park was crowded, and spent many hours practicing behind a nearby tree. But in 1980 he caught the attention of Clovis Bordeaux, a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), who suggested that Ball was accomplished enough to work for R & B singer Walter Jackson.
"First I started playing on a tenor saxophone and then I got a soprano saxophone, and pretty soon people started to listen to me play," says Ball. "Clovis came down here and said, 'Man, what's a guy like you doing playing down here with that tone of yours?' I said, 'I just come out here to practice.' He said, 'Man, do you want to play with Walter Jackson?' I said, 'Aw, naw. I'm not ready to play with Walter Jackson. I can't even read, man.' He said, 'Well, I'll tell you what. You'll be out here tomorrow?' I said 'Yeah.' He said, 'I'll tell you what. We'll find a little spot to practice tomorrow, and I'll show you how to read and how to count.' I said, 'Cool. But what's the catch?' He said, 'I want you to play with Walter Jackson.' I said, 'You gotta be crazy!'"
Ball got a crash course in musical notation from Bordeaux in the tunnel by Belmont Harbor and in a secluded area near the Walt Disney Magnet School. In only 13 days, Ball says he learned 30 tunes and was ready to go out on the road. He toured with Walter Jackson through towns in Indiana and Illinois until he got tired of the grind and came back to Chicago.
"Levie's still in that tunnel?" Bordeaux says now. "Man, we used to woodshed together there 14 years ago. We were quite thick at that time, and all we used to do was play. He had a lot of raw talent even then. He was much younger than any of us who used to play there, but he had a voice of his own. Man, he's still in that tunnel, huh? I shoulda known that's where he'd be."
After touring with Jackson, Ball started forming his own bands in his spare time, while taking classes in jazz at Malcolm X and Roosevelt University. Like most part-time jazz crews, these were on-again, off-again groups with rotating memberships, which went through periods of dormancy depending on who happened to be in town at the time. Ball says he didn't like to stay with any group for too long because he'd grow bored with the routine.
He started up an avant-garde group called Om in 1981. For a couple of years they were the house band at Chances R in Hyde Park and at Casablanca on 16th and Pulaski. He also started Inner Glimpse, a diverse but more traditional grouping of jazz musicians, some of whom still play with Ball in the house band at Hidden Stages. Inner Glimpse played every Friday in the mid-80s at CrossCurrents. One member has gone on to play in Elvin Jones's band, and another is now playing with Ahmad Jamal. Around that time Ball played sax with a Latin-flavored jazz group called Tropico, with whom he gigged at a number of neighborhood festivals. He also played with a reggae band called Big Red and the Professionals, which played at the Wild Hare and the Cubby Bear. But no matter who he was playing with, Ball always returned to his special spot here by Belmont Harbor, his woodshed.
"There's this one chick I know who's played everywhere," Ball says. "She just came back from Paris and she stopped by to see me. She's been going from place to place to place, and she hasn't had time to find a woodshed to practice and elevate her musical energy to congeal her musical ideas. She told me, 'Levie, I'm coming back here to find a woodshed because now I understand what you've been doing all this time. You are taking the time to learn all the things you need to improvise and to learn everything you need.' She said that being out there in the limelight makes you feel like you're not accomplishing anything. You're just constantly playing the same tunes. And you might sound very good, but you get bored. You limit yourself because you don't have time. But I do have time. They didn't build Rome overnight. I'm in no hurry."
"Levie Ball is the best horn player I know," says George Armstrong, founder of Hidden Stages, a performance space on the near south side. Armstrong sang with Ball's band Inner Glimpse. "I've known him since the 70s, and he's the most serious musician I have ever met. You should hear the way he plays Coltrane's 'Naima.' Man, he gets it to perfection."
Armstrong first met Ball 20 years ago, when both played some little-known jazz haunts on the west side. They jammed at get-togethers in loft spaces, at Quasar on Lake and Laramie, and at Brenda's Texas Lady on 21st and Pulaski. Armstrong says the jam sessions would sometimes last for four days straight.
"He is a true artist," says Armstrong, "but as far as he's concerned he's nowhere, and I admire him for that. You know the funny thing about Levie is he'll disappear on you in a minute. You'll see him one week and then he'll be gone for a month. But when I don't see him, I always know exactly what he's doing. He's woodshedding, trying to get everything ready for when his time comes."
George Nutall, a keyboardist who also played with Inner Glimpse and studied jazz with Ball at Malcolm X College, says, "Levie's one of the more creative reed players around. He always had a natural feel for anything he did, and the way he approaches the instrument is almost fanatical. He would rank among the best I've seen. Really he would. . . . When I think of Levie, I think of Sonny Rollins, first and foremost. He still has a little way to go before he gets to that level, but it's just a matter of time. When you talk about Sonny, you're talking about the greats. But Levie's on his trail."
These days, Ball says, he could probably afford to take lessons or master classes, but he won't do it. He says he'd be too busy worrying about getting ripped off.
"I feel comfortable doing it at my pace as opposed to doing it at somebody else's pace while they're absorbing my money," he laughs. "I can't concentrate when somebody's absorbing my money."
So Ball is constantly practicing, repeating scale after scale after scale, drilling himself in the basics, and gradually expanding upon this base through improvisation. He has developed his own groovy set of acronyms to memorize the quirky chord progressions needed in jazz. Instead of "Every Good Boy Does Fine," Ball's sayings for memorizing sharps and flats include "Father Cooked Grits, Daddy Ate Every Bit" and "Could Every Apple Be Ever [so] Good," as well as one that he says isn't suitable for publication.
"I practice so much that it's gotten to the point where playing is just like drinking water," he says. It's gotten to the point where people are now coming up to Ball and asking him for instruction. One member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he claims, has even approached him, asking for jazz lessons.
"That freaks me out," Ball says. "When one of those CSO guys came up to me and asked me to teach them jazz, I said, 'You gotta be kidding me, man.' But when you really stop to think about it, it makes sense because I'm speaking a completely different musical language from them. Classical music is dealing with chop chop chop chop chop chop chop. Jazz is scooby dooby doo, scooby dooby doo bop. A lot of those cats up in the schools know how to read, but they don't know how to improvise. They can read, but what happens when you take the paper away from them? They can remember whole scores, but when it comes to improvising, they don't know where to start. Don't get me wrong. I love classical music. I love putting on some Schubert or some Bach. I'm into every kind of sound you can imagine. But jazz involves changes, chord changes that you don't get in classical music. Jazz is, in essence, the black classical music, but you don't do things in just one key. In classical you might just play one whole movement in D major. But in jazz you can start out in C major, then go to D minor, whatever. Jazz don't tie you up in one rigid key; it can make you feel free."
One impressive thing about Ball is his willingness to share musical ideas and talk about what he's learned. Kids with clarinets stop in for impromptu instruction. Jazz players ask him questions or talk shop, and they'll get an hour lecture on chord progressions or the styles of famous jazz performers.
"A lot of musicians don't want to share anything with you," says Ball. "I don't know why. A lot of them walk around like they think they're Elvis Presley or something. When I see that, I say to myself, 'Man, I gotta be better than that.' And to be better is to share what I've learned and to be able to educate anyone who really wants to learn this stuff. By doing this, good things will come back to me in return. It makes sense to me to be generous because jazz has to grow, and the people who don't share and keep everything to themselves, they're destroying themselves and they're destroying this art as far as I'm concerned. Their selfishness is going to destroy their own creativity."
One night I'm standing in the tunnel with Ball and he's playing a mellow tune he's just finished composing called "Shadow Wave." He's really getting into it, filling the tunnel with sounds that are understated yet aggressive and edgy. Suddenly a stocky man with a heavy beard comes loping along, dragging a mean-looking, disconsolate beige hound on a leash behind him. Ball nods at the man and continues playing. The man scowls back menacingly.
"Shuuuut uuuup!" he howls as he passes.
Ball blows a raspberry on the saxophone, goofily imitating the man's gait.
The next night Ball and I are talking in the tunnel, and the same man approaches, the same scowl on his face. He is walking the same uncooperative dog.
"Sorry I gave you a hard time last night," the man says.
"Oh that's OK," Ball responds.
"I had a fight with the old lady."
"That's all right." Ball smiles.
"Yep, had a fight with the old lady. Yes I did."
"Yeah, I understand, I understand," Ball says. "I felt kind of messed up last night too. I was in a really intense frame of mind, you know what I'm saying?"
"That's OK," the man says. He drops a $20 bill in Ball's case.
"Hey thanks a lot, man."
"I guess you remember me," the man says.
"You remember me from last night."
"Yeah I remember you," Ball says in a carefree manner. "But, you know, I don't take things like that very seriously because I know that people don't mean it. You all have a good night now."
Ball smiles as he watches the man walking his dog toward the lake.
"People have their bad days," Ball says when the man is out of sight. "You know, I've been doing this for years and I could tell last night that he had a problem. I generally don't have any problems here. People come out and they respect me. Most of the time it's romantic, people walking with their girl or their man or whatever, kissing and everything else. But sometimes a man has a bad day, and they have a right to feel that way too."
In 20-odd years of playing outside, you get to see your share of characters, and it's not just the famous ones who stick out. It's the peculiar folks, those neighborhood characters, those people like the Birdman with his packet of birdseed or the eccentric who accompanies Ball on the melodica.
"One lady came down here once and she freaked me totally out, man," Ball says. "I've been doing this for years, so everybody knows me. I was down here playing and I see this woman in white. Glowing. Coming toward me. And she had a nightgown on. I started packing my stuff up. And then she got close, and I see she has something in her hand. She got even closer and she said, 'No no no. Don't go.' I'm really packing my stuff up now. But she said, 'Hi.' And I'm like, 'How're you doing?' And she started talking to me and she told me she lived with some guy in some condo, and he's one of these guys who don't work--he's just rich. And he had told her about me I guess. And she came down with some wine and a glass and she just wanted me to play some tunes for her. She said, 'I open the windows up every night and listen to you, and the music sounds so beautiful. I just want to know who you are.' So she sat down in her nightgown, drinking her wine, and I just played for her."
And then Ball tells a similar story with a creepier ending.
"One lady came down here, she really scared me," he says with a shudder and a nervous laugh. "It was raining and it was misty out, and I was playing that tune 'Misty.' And this lady started walking towards me with this stick in her hands. So I started packing up my stuff, and she stopped me and she told me her name, and she said, 'Well, my husband just got custody of the kids, and I can't do anything about it and I'm going to go jump into the lake. What should I do about it?' And I said, 'Wait, don't go. Let me play something for you. You'll feel a little bit better.' And I started playing her some tunes, and she started looking happier. And then I started playing something slow that sounded a little sad and I turned around, man, and she was gone. And it freaked me. And I ran toward the lake thinking I would see her. But I didn't. I didn't see anything on the news though about any woman drowning in the lake, so I guess she was all right. I hope so anyway."
On one particularly cool night I'm standing in the tunnel with Ball around 11. Suddenly we're interrupted by two young women, both in their early 20s. One is a brash, hyper-talkative, stout figure in what appears to be a prom dress. The other is a slim, cerebral character with long blond hair. She wears tight black jeans and a dark, tight-fitting shirt.
"Leeeevieeeeee!" they both cry and run toward him like a pair of bobby-soxers getting a glimpse of Frank Sinatra. They say they've just watched a video of John Carpenter's peculiar antiestablishment horror satire They Live.
"Yeah, you wear the sunglasses and you can see the aliens," the loud one tells him.
"I've seen that flick," Ball says. "So what's up? You want to hear some music? Here, check this out."
He plays "Star Eyes" for them and they sway to the music.
"Who's that song by?" the talkative one asks.
"I don't know," Ball says. "I think maybe Johnny Mercer."
"What is that song?" she demands. "I think I heard it in a dentist's office once."
"Don't be saying my music sounds like something you'd hear in an elevator," Ball chides.
"Not in an elevator. In a dentist's office. You gotta play something hipper, something cooler."
She starts humming the theme song to the TV show Bewitched.
"I'm not playing Bewitched," Ball laughs.
"Play that Pink Panther tune," the talkative woman prods.
Levie launches into a gritty, soulful rendition of the familiar theme song, and the three of them dance raucously to the music. The young ladies prowl around the tunnel like cats as Ball sneaks up with a feline strut, using his saxophone to meow lasciviously at them. It's so corny that if you saw it in a movie, you wouldn't believe it was real.
"That is a deep tune," Ball says breathlessly once he's finished.
Another night I'm hanging out with Ball and the same two women show up. They have just come from a party, and now they're demanding that he play the theme to Gilligan's Island. But they get sidetracked trying to figure out what characters were having sex on the old TV show. "I think Gilligan was hitting it with the Skipper and Mary Ann, and the Professor and Ginger were hitting it in the house," says the talkative one. Ball laughs as the conversation turns surreal, veering off on tangents like 70s fashions, the movie Superfly, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and a mutual friend who has left Chicago to go on a hitchhiking adventure.
"She went up to Michigan with this guy, hitchhiked," the talkative one tells Ball. "She met a man in his 60s who had 25 years clean and she got a ride back with him to Portland, but he called her a cunt and a bitch and a whore, and so she ditched him and hooked up with a truck driver and made it to Portland and then she made it down to California. Now she's gonna be hitchhiking all through the south."
"She better be careful," Ball says. "I think she's walking a tightrope on that hitchhiking thing. There's a lot of kooks out there. I know. I've seen them."
The conversation turns from serial killers and the ill effects of rap music to the eternal debate about free will versus predestination. The talk stalls for a moment. The women ask Ball to play "Take the 'A' Train," but he doesn't know the tune, so they ask him to play the Pink Panther theme again. He's about to play it, but then suddenly he's distracted.
"Ooooh man, that is deeeep," Ball shouts and points at the huge, cantaloupe-orange disk of a moon hovering over the lake. "That is deep," he repeats. "Ain't that beautiful?"
"That must be a hunter's moon," says the quiet woman.
"Man," Ball says, "that must be the sun reflecting off the moon because the moon is not orange."
"The sun's over Asia right now," says the talkative one. Her friend starts dancing in the glow of the orange moon, gliding through the tunnel in silence.
"Aww, she's gonna dance to the moon," Ball laughs. "Look at that thing. It's rising. It's going up."
"Well where do you think it's gonna go?" asks the talkative woman. "Down?"
"Yeah, but it's doing it right in front of my face," says Ball.
"We were in one of them big fancy apartment buildings and saw this big orange thing rising," the garrulous woman continues. "We were debating whether it was a balloon or a blimp."
"You musta been blasted," Ball laughs.
"It was huuuuuuge though. It was three times bigger than it is now. It was just rising up from the lake."
They stand and watch the moon while the quiet woman continues to dance.
"I wish I had a camera," the talkative one says.
"It's fantastic, isn't it?"
Ball picks up his instrument and begins to serenade the women with "Light as a Feather" by Joe Henderson. A lone bicyclist rides by slowly, his eyes transfixed by the sight of three people dancing to jazz music in the tunnel by the light of the moon.
I'm sitting in my apartment one night, and the music from Ball's saxophone is coming through the window loud and crisp. It's an odd piece of music, full of staccato phrases, sudden stops, and screeching high notes interrupted by melodic passages. Clearly it's another one of Ball's originals. I walk down to the tunnel and he's there, scribbling into a battered old spiral notebook with a gnawed pencil.
"I'm just working on something," Ball says. "Doesn't have a name yet."
I look down in his saxophone case. It can't contain more than a dollar in assorted change. He shrugs it off.
"Money isn't that important to me right now," Ball says. "Surviving and living is important, and if you want to live and survive, you gotta have money. But it's not important right now. I know that eventually money will come my way, but when you concentrate on money you lose the whole element of exploration. You get into that whole quickie thing, trying to hurry up and make some money, and you distort your creativity. I know that my time is coming soon, and one day you'll come down to this tunnel and I won't be here.
"But another time, you'll come down here and you'll see me playing and you'll say, 'Levie, where've you been?' I'll tell you, 'Aw, I've just been playing a couple gigs.' You won't notice anything different than before, but then you'll look through the tunnel and you'll see my gold Rolls Royce parked right outside."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.