Lewis Keeps Us Listening For Nearly 50 Years
by Howard Reich
March 14, 2008
In an era when jazz trumpeters tend to make their names with the brilliance of their technique and the bravura of their approach, Chicagoan Bobby Lewis stands out.
A poet of the trumpet if ever there were one, Lewis for nearly 50 years has seduced Chicago audiences with the muted, silvery lyricism of his playing. And though he never has pursued a marquee career, his softly stated playing has earned him a measure of immortality on recordings by Ramsey Lewis, Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler, Jack Teagarden and Tex Beneke.
In concert, he has provided hauntingly melodic counterpoints to performances by icons of jazz singing, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan and just about everyone else.
Perhaps Lee summed up best what these vocalists, and others, valued about Lewis' work: "A sound like no other," Lee once said. "I like him best when he plays in pastels, but every note is beautiful ... is loving."
Not bad for a kid who grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., but who has been a leading figure in Chicago jazz since 1961.
"I started out listening to Harry James, because my dad had some old James 78s lying around the house," says Lewis, citing a trumpeter whose tonal radiance made him a bona fide pop star in the 1940s.
From James, Lewis, who plays a rare concert engagement Sunday at the Gorton Center in Lake Forest, eventually moved on to devouring recordings of Bobby Hackett, Chet Baker and, of course, the deity of them all, Louis Armstrong. Though no one was going to rival the great Satchmo's proficiency in blasting high notes into the atmosphere, there was a great deal to be learned from the sometimes crying, sometimes laughing melody lines that distinguished Armstrong's early-period work.
"Listen to those old Armstrong recordings, like 'Chimes Blues,'" says Lewis, 72. "The recording sounds scratchy and old, but then Armstrong takes his solo, and everything sounds so much clearer and louder and more beautiful, yet he was playing on the same microphone as everyone else. But his sound was so much better."
To his credit, Lewis never sought to mimic the inimitable Armstrong, instead forging a purling, exquisitely understated style of his own. He deepened his skills at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
For a while, he was torn as to whether he would become a classical or jazz player, but after a two-year stint in the Seventh Army Band, in Germany, in the late 1950s, he decided jazz mattered most and moved in 1961 to one of its world capitals, Chicago.
Yet for all the mainstream appeal of Lewis' work, listeners sometimes forget that early in his career he ventured into avant-garde playing, collaborating in the 1960s with such past Chicago revolutionaries as Joe Daley and Hal Russell.
In a way, Lewis has come to epitomize the anything-goes temperament of jazz in Chicago.
"I had chances to move to New York and to L.A., but I always loved the spirit of Chicago," says Lewis.
"And then there's all the new musicians coming up, like [trumpeter] Orbert Davis -- I saw him come up as a kid. Now he's a force of his own."
There was one more reason Lewis stayed here.
"Bud Herseth," he says, referring to the legendary artist who held the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's principal trumpet chair for an astonishing 53 years.
"When I heard him, I said, 'I want to be the Bud Herseth of jazz.'"
He's getting there.
BOBBY LEWIS SEXTET
Rare concert by a Chicago jazz legend
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Gorton Community Center, 400 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest
Price: $20-$25; 847-234-6060
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