Professional drummer Ray Levier is a veritable Swiss Army Knife on the kit, facile at finessing jazz-fusion grooves, swinging a jazz combo, laying down rugged hip-hop beats and nasty funk, accompanying singer-songwriters with subtle grace, and bashing away at rock beats with panache and precision.
As a career musician, Ray is in an in-demand sideman who also divides his time with teaching, clinics, and speaking dates; and composing for film and TV. When he’s not hard at work in one or more of these outlets, Ray can be found woodshedding his chops, or composing for his solo career.
“You always have to be ready to adapt; sometimes on the spot, just like a chameleon,” Ray says. “You also have to be an intuitive person and get out of your way to really understand who the artist is as a person and what they want. You have to be well-versed in many styles, and you have to work really hard because there’s always someone behind you lined up ready waiting for your gig.”
The Nyack, New York-based artist has had the rare feat of being a sideman to urban folk and jazz artist KJ Denhert for 20 years. He’s the co-producer and co-founder of a successful music production company, composing TV tracks for such esteemed networks as TLC, Discovery, FOX Sports, CBS, NBC, History Channel, National Geographic, and the Oxygen Network. In this realm, Ray fields a diverse barrage of TV cues, and intuitively composes music that strongly translates in the audiovisual medium. He conducts this work, and live drum track sessions for other artists, at his state-of-the-art professional production recording studio 30 minutes from Manhattan. In addition, Ray has earned endorsements from Yamaha, Paiste, Vater and Evans.
Ray has also recorded with jazz fusion icons guitarists Mike Stern and John Abercrombie. Ray attended William Patterson College’s prestigious music program headed by legendary bassist Rufus Reid. He has studied with such heavyweights as Keith Crane, Sal LaRocca, Adam Nussbaum, Dom Famularo, John Riley, Jojo Meyer, Lenny White, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Horace Arnold, Kenny Washington, Tommy Campbell and Kim Plainfield.
Core to his success in the industry is an inspiring story of survival and perseverance. Ray was born into a family of musicians—his father is a pianist and his mother was formerly a vocalist. On his own, he discovered an old beater drum kit in his grandmother’s basement and began thumping away. At age 12, Ray was very badly burned during a camping accident in a chicken coup when a fallen candle set the area ablaze with flames 3 to 4 stories high. Ray was sleeping at the time, and was in a dreamy state slowly sensing danger and oppressive heat as he came conscious. The accident left Ray burned from his head to one inch above his navel, and his recovery involved 6 months of excruciating skin grafts and hospital treatments. Through the accident he lost most of his digits as his hands fused together like fists.
Depressed and fighting for his life in the wake of the fire, Ray received sage inspiration from his mother. “She told me to think healing thoughts, and asked me what makes me feel good,” Ray recalls. “What came to mind was playing drums. Once I decided on that, nothing could stop me.”
Ray’s biggest immediate obstacle was figuring out how to hold drum sticks basically without fingers. That was a journey in itself that showed his steely determination. He improvised this feat first with duct tape, then a special martial arts glove that he found, and, finally, during college, Ray had a surgery that granted him access and use of his thumb. “Throughout it all, there was no doubt in mind that I could do it. My attitude was that I didn’t die—I will do anything to become a professional drummer,” Ray shares.
Paralleling this quest, Ray practiced with unrelenting passion, cycling through aimless high school rock bands until he discovered jazz-fusion and committed his focus to mastering the highly technical playing of the jazz-fusion greats. Along the way, he polished his touch with rock, funk, Latin feels, blues, metal classic rock, and hip-hop. Ray’s brave story is the subject of documentary that’s currently being shopped, It’s Who You Know, he’s been interviewed on the musician web series Encore, and Drumhead magazine will run an extensive feature with Ray spring of 2018.
The lesson of Ray’s story is simple: If you want to do something, you put in the hard work and do it, no matter what. As a teacher and a clinician, Ray combines rigorous study and healthy and effective practice habits with insights and enlightenment from his experiences and his quest to defy odds. As a drum teacher, Ray embraces technology and works with students around the world using the Internet – including lessons via Skype. Currently, he is producing a series of video tutorials, and he teaches at clinics hosted by the equipment manufacturers whose products he endorses, including Yamaha, Paiste, Vater and Evans.
Ray has also been nurturing a low-key solo artist profile with pair of albums. 2009’s Ray’s Way assembled guitarists John Abercrombie and Mike Stern, vibraphonist Joe Locke, saxophonist Dave Binney and bassist Francois Moutin for a satisfying collection of jazz fusion, brimming with telepathic musical synergy and dazzling musicianship. The album features two originals written by Ray. In February 2018, he will issue the heartfelt rock album Lost And Found. The album puts Ray’s soulful vocals and poignant lyrics at the forefront within the context of sleek and sophisticated pop-rock that recalls a refreshingly eclectic array of artists and genres such as classic rock, 1980s new wave and pop, and alternative rock. He will return to his jazz-fusion sensibilities for his third album which he’s currently working on.
Reflecting on his accomplishments, and the profound struggles he has triumphed over, Ray is humble. “A lot what I’ve been able to do has been based on staying positive, and being stubborn,” Rays says with a good-natured laugh. “If you never give up, and you keep banging your head against that wall, you’ll break through.”