Today we say goodbye to Milcho Leviev – an outstanding musician of unique charisma and invaluable musical legacy

Photo: Ani Petrova, BNR

The prominent jazz musician passed away in Thessaloniki on October 12, where he had been living with his wife, singer Vicky Almazidou, for the past few years. The memorial service will be held today (October 18th) in the Bulgaria Hall in central Sofia.

Milcho Leviev is the first Bulgarian jazz musician to gain popularity overseas as a pianist and composer. He was awarded the Stara Planina Order (1997) - the highest state decoration of the Republic of Bulgaria and he had two nominations for a Grammy Award. Born on December 19, 1937 in Plovdiv, he graduated from the National Academy of Music in Sofia where he was a student of Pancho Vladigerov. Between 1963 and 1968 he appeared as soloist and conductor of the Plovdiv and Sofia Philharmonic Orchestras. He was also the conductor of the BNR Big Band in this period. Milcho Leviev was the founder of Jazz Focus 65, the formation that received the Music Critics Award at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1967. He emigrated to Western Europe in 1970, a little later, at the invitation of Don Ellis, he left for the United States, where he was a performer and teacher for more than 20 years. He worked with Billy Cobham, Art Pepper, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Dave Holland and others.

The influence he exerted on Bulgarian musicians of different generations is enormous. He was doing this also in recent decades, when he regularly held master classes at New Bulgarian University.

“In 2005, with no job and no prospects, I gave my last money for a master class of Milcho Leviev and Vicky Almazidou. I had no idea of what jazz was but they liked me and we worked together. The final concert featured well-known jazz musicians with whom we are still performing on stage today. Vicky and Milcho teach people to "settle down" in music, to calm their soul, and to follow the logic of the piece. They offered me a exciting, complete picture of things and it gave me a new direction”, words of Militza Gladnishka, jazz singer and actress.”

“Milcho inspired me and showed me the way in two very important directions – how to get to know deeply the musical tradition in its entirety and how to stand up for your own personality,” says Mario Stanchev, a jazz pianist and composer who has lived in France for decades. “Among the musicians of his generation, Milcho was best acquainted with jazz, but at the same time had the courage to show his own face. I was 14 years old when I attended his lectures at a community centre. This type of music was almost banned back then, and we, just as the early Christians, were gathering to listen to it. I was allowed to attend the rehearsals of Jazz Focus 65. It was a big school for me - his way of playing music, of organizing the music material.”

“He was the hope that people like us, coming from a small country such as Bulgaria with no tradition in this music genre, can achieve a lot”, says Antoni Donchev, pianist, composer, conductor of the BNR Big Band. “The trombonist Georgi Borissov once brought a gift from Milcho to my father - Don Ellis' double album Tears of Joy, which featured Milcho Leviev's play Bulgarian Bulge.

My classmates and I have listened to it countless times, amazed at the number of irregular rhythms they perform there. In 1980, after a long absence, he came back to Bulgaria to attend the Jazz Meeting in Sofia. Then we started our collaboration. One of my first big concerts was a piano duo with him. The biggest hall of the National Palace of Culture was crowded, it was an extraordinary event. With the BNR Big Band, we have done a few shows with his plays only and will continue to do such programs. A composition created by musicians at his level immediately becomes a classic, stands right next to the music of great composers and is performed over the years, because every time you perform it you find something that provokes you in a new way.”

Hristo Yotsov - composer, arranger, percussionist, adds:

“We were lucky to directly inherit, through the flutist Simeon Shterev - Banana, the history of Jazz Focus 65. At the time, Milcho was an unattainable figure - a Bulgarian musician who played in the United States with the best. After we came back, we did a lot of concerts. To me, he became a very real person with whom we had a similar mind-set. I participated in many of his projects. In 2015, I organized and produced his anniversary show. He had told me that he would retire from active concert activity. We did the benefit show together with Acoustic Version band, we filmed the concert, and it remained a valuable recording. The National Assembly Committee on Culture and Media accepted the nomination of the Bulgarian Music Association, of which I am currently chairman, to bestow him with a state award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Bulgarian culture. This recognition is a fact. A token of recognition of a great musician with a charisma that has left a legacy for all generations after him.”

English Rossitsa Petcova

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