Chicago Jazz Mag Interview | Bobby Lewis

Chicago Jazz Mag Interview

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Bobby Lewis - music from the heart

January 08 2009

in his own words - Bobby Lewis

Bobby Lewis's tasteful trumpet and flugelhorn playing has made him a favorite among vocalists and earned him a spot as first trumpet with Tony Bennett for Chicago appearances for fifteen years, and conductor, musical director and featured soloist with Peggy Lee. The singers Lewis has accompanied provide enough grist for several resumes and, in addition to Bennett and Lee, include Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Williams, Lena Horne, Mel Torme, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte, Rosemary Clooney, Al Jarreau and even a gig with ‘Ol Blue Eyes.

Instrumentalist luminaries with whom Lewis has shared the bandstand will again turn a young or even seasoned jazz player green with envy: Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Jack Teagarden, Al Hirt, Joe Morello, Tex Beneke, Benny Carter, Doc Severinsen, Ramsey Lewis, Roy Eldridge, Jaco Pastorius, Marian McPartland, Barrett Deems, Henry Mancini, Ira Sullivan, Buddy Morrow and the list goes on.

Even if you're not a jazz fan, you’ve heard the dulcet tones of Lewis’s horn playing, as he is a first-call recording studio musician, having performed on more than 7500 sessions, including commercial spots for Old Style Beer ("God's Country" theme), Kemper (as the Kemper Bugler), State Farm Insurance ("Like a Good Neighbor"), and even one as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Having made his way from Wisconsin to Chicago via the Army, Lewis is creator and leader of The Forefront, a contemporary trumpet ensemble consisting of four trumpets (also playing flugelhorn, cornet, piccolo trumpet, alto trumpet, and bass trumpet) with bass and drums. This group performed at the First International Brass Congress in Montreux , Switzerland ; brass and trumpet conferences in New York City , Denver , and Chicago ; and the National Association of Jazz Educators convention in Dallas .

He is also creator and co-leader of EARS (Jazz of All Eras) a spontaneous creative jazz ensemble of seven that performed Tuesday evenings for seventeen years in Chicago (six at Orphan’s Pub and eleven at Andy's Jazz Club) dating back to its origin in 1975. This group has also performed inOsaka , Japan ; Rotterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands (the North Sea Jazz Festival); and many special functions in Chicago , including the Chicago Jazz Festival.

In early 2009 Lewis will enter the studio to record his tenth album with his ensemble, which includes long standing associates, pianist Jim Ryan, saxophonist Pat Mallinger and drummer Jeff Stitely. In this exclusive Chicago Jazz Magazine interview, Lewis has much to say about jazz music, how he has learned to best perform it, and the ways in which the scene in Chicago has changed over the years.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You are originally from Oshkosh , Wisconsin ?

Lewis: I was born Robert Alan Lewis and raised in Oshkosh . Everyone called me Bob. In college I decided I didn’t like Bob and wanted to be addressed as Bobby. Now I'm the artist formerly known as Bob! Actually, there are several Bobby Lewises in Chicago . Ramsey's son is named Bobby, and there’s a drummer named Bobby Lewis who plays at the Back Room. Many people ask if that's me. Quite obviously it isn't. The confusion remains…I’m the legendary "Bobby Lewis."

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You come from a musical family?

Lewis: My dad, Bart, was a trombone player. Through the Depression years, he basically was a salesman for the Canteen Company and played music on the side with dance bands as they were called. But he could play jazz, as well. He wanted to be a professional musician, but couldn't make enough money to support his family and would have to travel and be away from home. Ironically, I eventually became what he dreamed of being.

My uncle, Buck, was also a trombone player. My other uncle, Merrill, on the Lewis side of the family, was a music educator. He taught elementary school music and conducted the Honor Roll Band, consisting of musicians from all the Oshkosh grade schools, and became the high school band director when I entered high school. I was under his guidance for my first eight years as a trumpet player.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What kind of music was played around the Lewis household?

Lewis: In those years people were still buying and collecting 78s. Forty-fives and LPs were starting to catch on. My dad had a bunch of Harry James records––78s. I'd put those on, and memorize Harry's trumpet solos from beginning to end. I'll never forget, on the end of one particular recording, "James Session," he played a G above high C at the end. I played a G above the staff on my horn and realized, Wow! It's an octave higher than that! That was pretty amazing to me. Harry James is one of the great trumpet players of all time.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So Harry James was your first trumpet influence?

Lewis: He was the first. A bit later I heard Louis Armstrong and was awe stricken by his playing. I liked Bobby Hackett a lot and Don Fagerquist, a trumpet player who played with Les Brown’s band. Around that time there were a lot of traveling bands. Many of the big bands would come through the area and play at the dance halls. Bands like Les Brown, Harry James, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington. It was amazing to hear all these great bands. Of course, I would stand mesmerized right in front of the stage the whole evening listening to the band, especially the trumpet players.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you heard that kind of talent in a small town like Oshkosh ?

Lewis: Yes. These dance halls were nearby, and in the summer there would be open-air dances. Many of these bands were on the road and would like to fill in all the nights. I don't know how or how much they paid the bands, but obviously, around that time, payrolls weren't as big. The chance for us to hear those bands was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So how did you end up playing trumpet, when all your influences were on trombone?

Lewis: I started when I was nine years old and was small for my age. The trombone was bigger than me––I could hardly reach second position! My dad and uncle, Merrill, started my brother and I at the same time. They looked at my teeth formation, and thought a brass instrument would be best for me, and a clarinet for my brother, Don. I don’t know why. They gave me a trumpet, or maybe a cornet, I’m not sure. But as I recall, I must have been able to play it right away, because in about five months I was in the grade school band.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What kind of music was being played?

Lewis: Marches and overtures, basically, and music that school bands played at that time. In high school I was in the
 "Dance Band" that played stocks, as they were called––copies of big band arrangements from the libraries of Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Harry James, Woody, Kenton and on and on. It was fun trying to play the music I had heard these bands play. We also had a Dixieland band that I was a part of and an oom-pah German Band that would play polkas and such.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn't you also play with your father in some bands?

Lewis: Later, my dad started a dance band with my brother, Don, when I was fourteen years old. He called it "Bob Lewis's Band," when in reality it was his band. He just wanted to show me how to lead a band and what to do in that kind of situation. I played my first job with that band when I was fourteen. I don't really remember what it sounded like, or what we played, but only six people showed up for the dance. It was fun learning all the great tunes that were written in the twenties, thirties, forties and so on. Just a great experience.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn't your father also play in a VFW band?

Lewis: Yes. He and my uncle, Buck, were in the trombone section. The Veterans of Foreign Wars band marched in parades on holidays and played band concerts in the park on Sunday afternoon. Band concerts in the park were a big deal back then. The band rehearsed every Monday night, with about twenty-two musicians, all men. They played the marches and overtures. The conductor, Art Rothe, was my private trumpet teacher.

He played a large-bore Bach trumpet with a 3C mouthpiece, so I had a concept of a good big sound at an early age. At my lessons, we would play together. His beagle hound dog would hide under the couch and howl right along with us. [laughs] Mister Rothe didn’t want me leaning on him, rather he wanted me to hear how we sounded together, with or without the dog. He insisted that music was played together, and by listening to each other we could play ensemble.

As the conductor of the VFW band, he would allow me to play with the trumpet section at the Monday night rehearsals. So, here I was, twelve years old playing with adults. I kept my ears open and my mouth shut. Playing with these musicians was completely different than playing with the grade school band. How fortunate I was. I learned not only what it was like playing with guys that really could blow, I learned respect as well. I look on that as really a great experience and am thankful to those who have guided me along the road to becoming a professional musician.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So even though you’re a jazz player, your education was in classical music?

Lewis: I attended the University of Wisconsin from 1953 to 1958. I have a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master's degree in applied music––actually, the degree is in trumpet, arranging and conducting. I studied classical music, played in the orchestra, and played solo cornet in the symphonic band. The band played transcriptions of classical works. My graduate recital consisted of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata and the Martinu Sonatine for trumpet and piano, which are three demanding works. Each by itself is a load. I chose to do three of them! For the rest of the program I conducted the concert band in four of my band transcriptions. Because I was playing six nights a week at a jazz club, and I didn’t want to lose the fifteen bucks, I played the recital on my night off! It was great to be young and innocent, and maybe a bit stupid.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So beyond copying Harry James, at what point did you begin playing jazz?

Lewis: I’m fortunate to have a good ear. I recall listening to those Harry James records and trying to play what I was hearing. I would take a tune, learn what he was doing and then do a little of my own improvising. I was fourteen or fifteen then. A few years later I was playing around Oshkosh with a drummer who looked and played like Gene Krupa and a piano player who played everything in the key of C, except "C Jam Blues"…he played that in F! [laughs] I hated playing "Stardust" in the key
of C, because the piano player didn’t want to touch any of the black keys. Here I was with those two guys playing in taverns I wasn’t old enough to be in, but blowing my horn and just doing it. We’d pass the hat, and get a few bucks apiece. It was a musical experience.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: This would have been during or after the war?

Lewis: Which war? This probably would have been 1951 to 1953. I go back quite a few years, you know, around the time Moby Dick was a minnow! [laughs]

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So at what point along this whole learning process did you decide you wanted to do this full time?

Lewis: I think as I was attending music school at the University of Wisconsin Madison . I realized that playing music was one of my best attributes. Another is art. On the aptitude tests in grade school and high school, the scores for me in art and music were off the charts. This undoubtedly reflected my creativity. In college I would get average grades in History and English, but A's in Music Theory. That kind of pointed the way. The experiences playing with the territory bands inOshkosh when I was in high school turned me on.

I thought, I want to go on the road, play music and be a musician. Because I was able to play jazz, the writing was on the wall. I didn't really know if I wanted to teach, but having a college education on the advice of my dad and uncle offered security in case playing professionally didn’t work out.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever formally teach?

Lewis: No, I've always been a player. I was one of the fortunate ones who grew up in an era where there were many bands, where you could practically quit one band and join another the next gig. There were many jazz clubs in Chicago when I arrived in 1961. Rock and roll caused a lot of them to fold. Even so, there was a lot of work. In 1964 I began playing recording sessions––TV and radio commercials, record dates and films––and really didn’t have time to do any teaching after that.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let's talk about your migration from Oshkosh to Chicago .

Lewis: Well, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1957, and continued on for a master's degree in 1958. I joined Dave Remington’s band at the Wagon Wheel Lodge in Rockton ,Illinois for that summer. As I no longer had a deferment for the military draft––deferments were for continuing education, married with a family or having a dependent––I was draft eligible. I was classified One-A and by December got my "greetings" from Uncle Sam. Of the two-year requirement, I spent twenty-one months, three days and three hours in the Army. I got out three months early and went back to school in Madison for one semester. Boy, do I have the "war stories."

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where were you stationed?

Lewis: In Germany . At that time I was considering a symphonic career, because I was slated to go into the 7th Army Symphony Orchestra there. I passed two auditions, but because there was never an opening for me I was transferred to the 7th Army Band, which was stationed at the same headquarters base in Stuttgart , Germany . There just happened to be a tenor saxophone player who played like Coltrane, a jazz bass player, a piano player and a drummer. I mean, we had a group. We played pretty well too. We entered the All-Army Entertainment Contest, won second place in the finals and went on a three-month tour of Army bases in Europe with a road show we put together. Not bad duty, at all. After I got out I rejoined Dave Remington’s band. We came toChicago in 1961 and played at the Cafe Continental on Walton Street . I decided that I wanted to stay in Chicago .

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was your decision mostly facilitated by the fact that you had work right away?

Lewis: After Remington gig folded I was working quite a bit. I joined the band at Jazz Limited club on Grand Avenue just East of Michigan Avenue and living only a few blocks away. It was a Dixieland joint. Because I had signed a contract I had to give a four-week notice.

I gave my notice on the first night, because I didn’t really want to be there. Prior to my Army sojourn, I was supposed to trade places with Dick Oakley, the trumpet player with Jack Teagarden, he joining Remington at the Wagon Wheel Lodge and I joining Jack Teagarden’s Sextet. Uncle Sam interfered with that, however. After I got back, and was living in Chicago I called Jack and notified him that I was interested in joining the band. At that time Don Goldie was the trumpet player, but was about to leave, so I went on the Teagarden band in about 1962.

The band wasn't really working every week and I just couldn't afford to be off for two or three weeks with no money. So I gave my notice in July of the following year. Quite ironically Jack passed away six months later. He was frustrated and disillusioned that his wife, Addie, was running the band, so he decided to drink once again, which proved to be fatal. He was only fifty-eight years old when he passed in December, 1963.

I came back to Chicago and went out on a four-month tour with the Tex Beneke Band, the Modernaires and Ray Eberle––A Salute to Glenn Miller which included an appearance in Las Vegas and a record date in New York City . It was fun. The band was great––a Las Vegas , I was the only Chicago guy. At that time I was singing a lot, too.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about that. Was singing something you’d always done?

Lewis: Well, I'm actually of Welsh heritage, and many of the people in Wales can sing. My brother and I started our own barbershop quartet when we were in high school. I sang in the University ofWisconsin choir. When I came to Chicago, a fellow trumpeter Warren Kime, who was one of my mentors, had a vocal group called the Jingle Aires that sang jingle sessions, as they were called.

This group also included Dick and JoAnne Judson, Donna Kime and Loren Binford. One of the first recording sessions I did as a vocalist was for Budweiser beer. There were eight male singers. It was a twelve-hour recording session starting in the morning and went until ten that night. We did fifteen spots… the check was unbelievable. At that time there were very few musicians who would both sing and play on sessions. You kind of had to decide which you wanted to do. The singers made more money, but I decided I was a trumpet player first, so I didn't really sing that much in the recording studios. I guess, monetarily, I'm an idiot. Nonetheless, I feel I made the right decision.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you at all influenced by Chet Baker?

Lewis: Very much so. I loved the way he played. I think his musicality is directly related to my playing style, because I’ve always been more of a lyrical type of player.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Not to put too many labels on it, but Chet Baker was considered part of the West Coast sound. Did you have a particular attraction to that?

Lewis: Not really, I didn't really identify my particular likes with either coast. I did like the so called West Coast sound though, particularly Shorty Rogers. In fact, I liked most everything. One time Howard Reich did an interview with me, and he asked me who my favorite trumpet players were. I named off about fifteen and I said, "Actually I think I like most of them." And he said, "You wouldn't be a very good critic." Well, I guess not. But I always look for the best in musicians. Get the best and forget the rest.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who are some your other influences?

Lewis: Other than those I have previously mentioned, particularly Clark Terry. He's not only a great trumpet/flugelhorn player and scat singer ("Mumbles"), he is a brilliant technician, is extremely creative and has a beautiful soul. I love him. His duo recording with Oscar Peterson is a classic. Every musician should be aware of this gem. Others are Miles Davis, of course, and Clifford Brown, one of the greatest of all time. I could go on and on.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have a very inclusive attitude about music, don’t you?

Lewis: Well, I played in a polka band when I was sixteen, but didn't really dig it. The band was great, however. Actually, ten to twelve bucks a night was pretty good money at the time. The jazz I was playing at the time basically was Dixieland influenced, and when I was at the University ofWisconsin there was quite a trad jazz movement happening. I learned that whole repertoire. There was a jazz aficionado named John Phillips, who had an extensive record collection, a lot of old jazz 78s. Anytime you wanted to come over he would play records as long as you wanted to stay and listen. Particularly, Friday and Saturday nights we’d go over there and listen to jazz until four in the morning. What a great opportunity to get a basic understanding of that idiom. There was some great stuff there. There were other jazz influences at the time, too. I was expanding my repertoire, playing abilities, likes and dislikes, as well.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was it strictly practical that you became a jazz player or was it jazz that specifically brought you in?

Lewis: Probably my best attributes are a good ear, the ability to imitate and creativity. You listen, find your favorite players, copy them and form your own style. I never could play like Dizzy Gillespie, but I just appreciated who he was and the way he could play. That was probably the way I enjoyed most players. You know, I liked to listen to them, but I didn't necessarily want to, or couldn’t, play like them.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Does the fact that you like to sing in any way explain why you’ve worked with so many vocalists over the years?

Lewis: It could be. Peggy Lee was one of the great singers I had a chance to work with extensively. I had the opportunity to be her musical director and conductor. I would step out front and play my solo, usually on flugelhorn. She liked the way I played "in pastels" as she would say. Miss Lee told me that I was the only one other than her belated husband, Dave Barbour, that she liked to have play behind her. I thought, Wow, I don't know if I believe that, but what a compliment! When playing behind vocalists I would never play over their lines, I'd anticipate their phrasing and play in the open spaces. Peggy liked that.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is that the main difference between being a pure instrumentalist versus being an accompanist?

Lewis: Well, I think so. You should basically let the singer sing their song and you be the frosting on the cake. That makes you a better musician and helps you understand what vocals are about.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were you were with Peggy Lee when Larry Novak was playing with her?

Lewis: No. He preceded me. I was conductor/music director on two occasions, in St. Louis and inToronto . She always had a piano conductor and that is what she was used to. However, it worked out fine and was a thrilling experience for me. Two of my biggest influences are Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I played with Tony quite extensively in the sixties and seventies, got to know him quite well personally and understood his approach to music and life. Two of my favorite Frank Sinatra recordings are "Where Are You?" and "No One Cares"––Gordon Jenkins did the string arrangements. I think they were recorded in the early to mid-fifties, when Frank's voice was just astonishingly good. It was good his whole life, but these particular years it was excellent. His phrasing is so exceptional I figured instrumentalists, as well as vocalists ought to listen to this. I recommend everyone listen to these great recordings.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Usually it's the other way around––the singer listens to the instrumentalists to learn phrasing.

Lewis: One of the greatest, of course, was Ella Fitzgerald. She listened to and sang with many of the great jazz players, such as Roy Eldridge and Lester Young to mention a few. She had big ears herself, and the amazing ability to imitate them.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you work with Ella?

Lewis: I did at the College Inn in the Sherman Hotel. She did two weeks there, and Tommy Flanagan was the conductor. She was amazing, though she didn't really stretch out. Nonetheless she was great.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn’t you also work with Joe Williams?

Lewis: I played with Joe Williams in 1981 at the Kool Jazz Festival in New York City at Carnegie Hall. It was Chicago Jazz night and featured Barrett Deems, Eddie Johnson, John Young, Cy Touff and many others from or related to Chicago jazz history. Joe was the star of the show. I worked with him on several other occasions, as well. Some of the best concerts I recall were with Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan together at Ravinia.. Mel was the conductor of the band with a lot of his arrangements, and he did the first half and she did the second half. One of the great parts of that show was the transition. Mel started his last song, introduced Sarah and she came out and they sang the song together, he exited and she finished it. I mean, what a great segue. I'm sure it was Mel’s idea. The other great vocal concert was Lena Horne and Tony Bennett together, at Orchestra Hall in Chicago . Neither of them spoke a word, they just sang. It was all music and they were both astonishingly great. The trumpet section consisted of Art Hoyle, George Bean, Russ Iverson and myself.

Not to change the subject, but the four of us plus Jerry Coleman on drums and Rufus Reed on bass comprised a group I created called the Forefront that existed from 1972 to 1980. This ensemble performed at various jazz and brass conferences all over the world including the First International Brass Congress in Montreux , Switzerland in 1976. The Forefront was an amazing group. We recorded two LPs that I re-issued recently on a double CD album entitled In The Forefront, a must for all trumpet players to hear.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You've made several albums on which you sing.

Lewis: I've sung on four of them. On the CD Another Time I sing "You Stepped Out of a Dream," on Here I Go Again I sing "Just For a Thrill" and "What's New?," on Just Havin' Some Fun, Bonnie Herman, of Singers Unlimited fame and one of the most recorded female vocalists in the world, and I sing "Just Friends" with the clarinet section from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra arranged by Dick Boyell. "Thanks a Million" is on the CD Flugel Gourmet.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you work with Gene Puerling at all?

Lewis: I did know Gene very well. On one of the Singer’s Unlimited albums, The Four of Us, that was recorded in Chicago , I was fortunate to be called to be the trumpet/ flugelhorn player on that session. Gene, Don Shelton, Len Dresslar and Bonnie comprised the Singers Unlimited and Gene did all the writing. They were also on quite a few recording sessions individually and collectively. Their presence made Chicago an important commercial recording center.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Didn't Gene Puerling put together both the Singer's Unlimited and the Hi-Lo's? And speaking of the Hi-Lo's, as a singer yourself what did you think of their tenor, Clark Burroughs?

Lewis: Yes, Gene, who recently passed away, has left an unparalleled legacy of vocal writing with both the Hi-Lo's and the Singers Unlimited recordings. Clark Burroughs had/has an amazing range. He sang the top parts in the Hi-Lo’s. They were such a great vocal group. They didn't travel because of their recording schedules, so they didn’t really receive the acclaim the Four Freshman did. But, the Hi-Lo's were the superior group as far as I and many others are concerned. The arrangements were great and their recordings are the ultimate still to this day. Don Shelton also sang with the Hi-Lo's.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about the golden era of the jingle days.

Lewis: Well I came to Chicago in 1961 when jingle recording was still on the rise. There were quite a few sessions going on––not just jingles, but record dates, as well. Chicago is the R&B center of the world. Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Johnny Pate, James Mack and many others were based here and recorded in Chicago . I was on a lot of those sessions. So, with TV and radio commercial sessions, record dates, and film music sessions happening, you never had to market yourself or worry about being called. All you had to do was establish a reputation of what you could do, be on time and be prepared to play anything they put in front of you, which most of the time you never saw before, and do it on one or two takes and not make any mistakes. In those days they didn't punch in or overdub, it was a performance. You had to play a perfect take.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had to know your stuff.

Lewis: You had to know your stuff and be there with the right stuff.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What were some of the more memorable sessions you were on?

Lewis: There were so many, but there was one, where I had to play a spot for Pillsbury. The Dough Boy was playing the trumpet, so I had to make up this whole track, and I thought, What could they possibly want the Pillsbury Dough Boy to sound like? So I went in and asked the client, "Have any idea what you want?" And the client says, "Something between Wynton Marsalis and 'The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.'" So I said, "All right I know exactly what you want." And I went in and played like Harry James! [laughs] There was another one I had to do for Kellogg's. The film was an eight-year-old playing trumpet.

Now I had to sound like an eight-year-old, which is kind of like, Wait a minute. I've got a master's degree in trumpet. How am I gonna sound like an eight year old? So I played this music that was written and they said, "Well that's too good." So they're wondering, How are we going to do this? So I gradually moved the mouthpiece from the center of my mouth towards the right about halfway and I got pretty much a beginner's sound. They said, "That’s perfect!" [laughs] Actually, that came about years ago when I was playing both trumpet and flugelhorn on a gig. I played one in each hand the way Clark Terry does. I got to the point where I played both at the same time on each side of my mouth. The sound wasn’t very good. That’s how I knew to sound like an eight-year-old. Sometimes you have to know when to use your resources.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you end up adding flugelhorn to the repertoire?

Lewis: At the University of Wisconsin one day the concert band conductor, Raymond Dvorak said, "I want to perform this Russian piece that requires flugelhorns. There are some in the band office, and I want six cornet players to go and pick one out." I was the first one there and I found this one that had rotary valves––it was pretty good. Three days later I took it to a jazz gig and got a lot of compliments on the sound of it. So the rest of the time I was at the UW, I kept that horn. I had to give it up when I left. When I got out of the Army I went to the Leblanc Instrument Company in Kenoshaand bought a flugelhorn. That became an important part of the arsenal. Besides trumpet, a lot of my work has been on flugelhorn. I also play piccolo trumpet, C trumpet, E-flat soprano trumpet, alto trumpet in F and cornet. One time I had to play a garden hose on a session!

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Of all the variations, what is your favorite ensemble setup?

Lewis: Basically, a quartet with myself and a rhythm section or a quintet with saxophone added. I like to play with Jimmy Ryan on piano, Pat Mallinger on saxophone, and Jeff Stitely on drums, and lately Stewart Miller on bass, and many others too numerous to mention. On recordings I typically add Curtis Robinson on guitar and Alejo Povedo on percussion on the Latin tracks. Although each track will vary in instrumentation and content.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you like the smaller groups because everyone gets to open up?

Lewis: Right, I did spend a lot of time in big bands, but grew to like the smaller group format better and that is my choice. I put together a group of seven called Ears––Jazz of All Eras in 1975 to be a free-wheeling spontaneous creative ensemble that never rehearsed. In all of our seventeen years of being the Tuesday Night Band at Orphan's Pub and Andy's Jazz Club never once did we rehearse. It was a very popular and successful band. The opportunity of self-expression is greater in a smaller group. As of late, I've played a lot of duo concerts with Jim Ryan. That offers a lot of freedom. Duets are fun. We've played about five or six library concerts recently, and the Mayslake Peabody Estate with a trio including Stewart Miller on bass.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you think of the young players today?

Lewis: There is no doubt, that the abilities of some of the young players now are phenomenal. I feel bad that there are not as many opportunities for them to play as there used to be. With studio recording, a musician could make a good living doing that and playing jazz clubs or shows, which were quite numerous when I was coming up. The younger players now have a chance to study at conservatories with great accomplished jazz players who are now teachers, whereas players of my age never had that available to us––we learned on the streets and doing it by trial and error and listening to other musicians. I respect so many of the young players who sound so good. I just hope they are making enough money to keep on going. I don’t think live music will ever perish. Joe Segal and his Jazz Showcase keeps on keepin' on. Chicago is fortunate to have many jazz clubs. Thankfully these venues give young players the opportunity to perform. I know you can’t get rich playing in a jazz club, for sure, but it puts a few bucks in your pocket. We are also very fortunate to have radio station WDCB, and their dedication to jazz programming.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had opportunities to go to New York . Why did you stay in Chicago ?

Lewis: I stayed in Chicago because there were great musicians here. One of my mentors was Johnny Howell, a great trumpet player who played with Woody Herman’s Third Herd. He was one of the great lead trumpet players that I’ve ever played with. He and Warren Kime, another trumpet giant, welcomed me in to the fraternity of trumpet players and gave me work. It felt good to live here.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You felt a certain loyalty?

Lewis: I loved the spirit in Chicago and the musicians here. At one time I thought being in New Yorkwould be a great experience, but I was getting a lot of work here, there was no reason to relocate. Hal Dickinson, who was the creator and leader of the Modernaires, offered me a position singing with them in 1964 after the previously mentioned tour. The only stipulation would be that I would have to move to the West Coast. I thought that if I was going to relocate to the West Coast, I wouldn't want to move there as a singer, rather, as a trumpet player. I preferred to stay where I was establishing a reputation. One thing led to another, and I said, Live in Chicago and love it. I did.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: What projects do you have coming up?

Lewis: Well, I said that I was going to produce ten CDs, so my tenth is probably going to commence sometime this spring. However, two are re-issues––The Forefront and The Rhythmakers On Fire! (Live at Andy’s).

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have a theme yet?

Lewis: Just more of the same. I like to have musical surprises on my CDs. This last one, Instant Groove, there’s a track called "Grandpa’s Spells," a Jelly Roll Morton tune, where I used cornet, tuba and drums, and overdubbed an alto and trumpet part. That's pretty unusual instrumentation. But it works. It's a ragtime piece, and it's so different than anything else on the CD. Whoa, what’s this? you might ask. But, that's the way I want my albums to be. Being that I have such varied experiences in music I like to include early influences, like trad jazz. I love Latin jazz and love to play ballads, the simpler the better, because I like to pay respect to the composer. I heard Stan Getz one time at Ric'’s Cafe in Chicago play "Lush Life" with no embellishments, just the straight melody. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You mentioned earlier that you are a visual artist as well, not just a musical artist.

Lewis: Years ago I started collecting old no-longer-any-good reeds from the woodwind players to use in works of art. Everyone knows most reed players have at least a thousand or more in their basement. I'd make "pictures" with these reeds in the form of spinners or glue them in different patterns, like a fan and so on. There’s one that's a color wheel here on my wall. I like abstract art. It's something unusual I enjoy doing.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you keep up with it.

Lewis: Pretty much. I have several projects in the making. I’m in the process of creating one for Pat Mallinger at the present time.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: We were going to ask if your art has influenced your music or vice-versa, and obviously you’ve answered that.

Lewis: Actually, I think my artwork reflects my experience with Joe Daley and Hal Russell in the late sixties, when I played avant-garde music with those giants of that idiom. I learned to respect what that music is in the hands of the right players. So I think that freedom in that form of music tends to transcend to my artwork.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You've been involved with performing virtually every aspect of jazz. What is the unifying factor of all these types of music––bebop, Latin, avant-garde, Dixieland––that make it jazz?

Lewis: I think the unifying factor is creativity whatever the idiom. Music must come from the heart, from the soul and be intelligent. There is no room for ignorance. Experimentation and evolution are necessary, as well. But let's not forget tradition and the meaning of music: melody, harmony and rhythm. These qualities should be there in some form. However the way you want to bend that is up to you. But if you bend it and it has none of those factors, then what is it? John Cage did some outrageous compositions. On one of them he sat down at the piano for four minutes and didn’t play a note. I guess you can hear dust settling. What is that? I don't think playing a tune and playing jazz on the changes will ever be out of date or trite, that's personal self-expression. That will forever be a part of jazz. You can play "Autumn Leaves" and take it on out until it becomes "Autumn Left"!

© Robert A. Lewis 2014 -2024 (All rights reserved)