In 1982, four bearded men hit a stage in Los Angeles. They were not just any men. And the stage was not just any stage. It was located at the Tonight Show’s studio. The gifted musicians show host Johnny Carson had invited were the drummer Ralph Humphrey, bass hero Jimmy Lancefield, and flutist Jim Walker.
Another gentleman was sitting behind the Fender Rhodes keyboard. He was the leader of this band called Free Flight, and he had a name some Americans could hardly pronounce: Milcho Leviev. He and his fellow band members delivered Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk” to the millions of television viewers that night. And they did not just play the tune, but they made it stick. They nailed it. Their performance was of the highest musical quality imaginable.
The late Johnny Carson was stunned. He even did something he had never done before, with any band, during the 20 years he had hosted his show by then: Carson asked Free Flight to be back on his show the next evening.
But this story started 45 years earlier, halfway around the world. To be precise: Milcho Leviev was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, on December 19, 1937, to a Jewish father and an Orthodox Christian mother. It was two years before WWII started, six years before the Bulgarian Jews would be saved, and seven years before Bulgaria would be “liberated” by the Soviets.
In the Bulgaria of 1960, the communist regime was controlling all aspects of life for the citizens. It told them where (not) to travel, what to think and say, and to spy on their families and neighbours. Whoever was branded enemy of the state, for whatever reason, by the notorious state security service, would disappear and be brought into labour camps.
That year, in the middle of the Cold War, Milcho Leviev graduated from Sofia’s excellent State Academy of Music, where he had been majoring in Composition and Piano under the Professors Pancho Vladigerov and Andrey Stoyanov. Leviev, now 23 years old, was about to start a stunning career.
Not only did the young and gifted composer and pianist, who was almost drowned in prizes, become conductor of the Bulgarian National Radio Big Band, but also conductor and guest soloist of both the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra. Back then music equalled Milcho Leviev. And Milcho Leviev equalled music. That still applies today, decades later.
In 1965, Leviev founded Focus 65, a Jazz quartet he would take to the newly founded Montreux Jazz Festival soon, where it won the Critic’s Prize. From that moment onward, Focus 65 would be touring Europe as if there were no tomorrow.
The year 1970 was a fateful one for Milcho Leviev. Communist Bulgaria had given the musical genius an excellent education, but also a headache. During those years, the regime had told him how to name his compositions, and which music genres he should (not) play. Well, they came to the wrong person.
“I was banned from the Union of Bulgarian Composers, for hooliganism. And I resigned from the National Radio Big Band because they could not stand Bossa Nova and told me what to play. The communists said: “What is this? You can not resign.” So, I asked them: “Where in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria does it say so? So, a citizen of this republic can not resign?” They said I had a “very big mouth” and told me to “watch out”.
He was also “invited” to join the Communist Party. When he refused, he was warned. They came up to him three times. After the third time, it was time. “I knew I had to get the hell out of Bulgaria”, Leviev says. Because he had a child, the decision to defect was not easy for him at all.
He took all risks and defected. On that train which left Sofia one evening in 1970, he could have been caught and then punished, as an enemy of the state. But he made it to Germany, then to America.
For almost forty years, from 1970 to 2010, Milcho Leviev lived in Los Angeles. At first, he was given food stamps, while he started playing with fellow Jazz greats, such as Don Ellis. “Don gave me a loan, since I needed a car. So, I bought an old Ford Falcon for 400 Dollars”, Milcho Leviev said. “It took a year, and I was in the studio. After three years, I bought a house in North Hollywood, with a swimming pool and everything.”
Not only did he perform and record with absolutely everyone in the Jazz world, including Billy Cobham, Art Pepper, Dave Holland, Al Jarreau and Airto Moreira. He also became Musical Director for Lainie Kazan and founded Free Flight, that formation which did not only stun Johnny Carson and his viewers, when four bearded men nailed it on stage, but also hundreds of thousands of fans, who purchased their records.
In 2010, at the age of 72, Milcho Leviev thought it was time to move back to his home continent. “After almost 40 years, I could not stay in America anymore. I was there from 1970 to 2010 and I saw the country go down. I knew it was not good in Bulgaria either, which is why I would not live there anymore.”
But the genius composer, who now lives in Greece, comes to Bulgaria on a regular basis, in order to do his Summer School at New Bulgarian University, and for performances. Last year, he came more often, since his 80th birthday was celebrated several times.
Milcho Leviev does not seem 80, but more like 60. “That’s the problem with me. I thought when I get old, I would cool off and be very careful. How much time is left? Will I live two more years or 10 years? Time is short. My wife, Vicky, she is my saviour.”