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George Lewis in New Orleans, 1950. Photograph by Stanley Kubrick, published in Look magazine, 6 June, 1950.

George Lewis (13 July 1900 – 31 December 1968[1]) was an American jazz clarinetist who achieved his greatest fame and influence in the later decades of his life.

Born Joseph Louis Francois Zenon, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, Lewis was playing clarinet professionally by 1917, at the age of seventeen, working with Buddy Petit and Chris Kelly regularly as well as the now-legendary trombonist Kid Ory and other leaders. At this time, he seldom traveled far from the greater New Orleans area.

During the Great Depression he took a job as a stevedore, continuing to take as many music jobs after hours as he could find, a schedule that often meant he got very little sleep.

In 1942 a group of New Orleans jazz enthusiasts, including jazz historian Bill Russell, went to New Orleans to record the legendary older trumpeter Bunk Johnson. Johnson chose Lewis for the recording band. Previously almost unknown outside of New Orleans, Lewis impressed many participating in the project and the listeners at the sessions, and he soon made his first recordings under his own name for American Music Records, a label created by Russell to document the music of Johnson and other surviving older jazz musicians and bands in New Orleans.

Although purists, such as folklorist/musicologist Alan Lomax and others, touted Lewis as an exemplar of what jazz had been before it became overly commercialized by the popular swing bands of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lewis was no "dinosaur," in Gary Giddins' words. When Lomax brought Lewis on a Rudi Blesh's radio show in 1942, he played the solo from clarinetist Woody Herman's then-recent hit, "Woodchopper's Ball", but his hosts had no idea that Lewis was applying his distinctive style to one of the latest hot tunes.[2]

In 1944 Lewis was injured seriously while working on the docks. A heavy container nearly crushed his chest, and for a time it was feared he would never play again. Against all odds, however, Lewis began practicing while convalescing in bed at his Burgundy Street home in the French Quarter. His friends, banjo player Lawrence Marrero and string bass player Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau, brought their instruments to Lewis's bedside. Bill Russell brought his portable recorder, and they recorded, among other things, an improvised blues that was to become Lewis' signature piece, christened "Burgundy Street Blues" by Russell. Russell also retitled some of Lewis' interpretations of pop tunes—for example, "New Orleans Hula" for "Hula Lou". These changes may sometimes have been made for copyright reasons, but occasionally it was simply because the musicians reported the titles inaccurately to Russell.

Lewis interpolated various blues melodies, many of which may be heard on recordings by Louis Armstrong, specifically the recording with his Hot Five of Kid Ory's composition "Savoy Blues." Some of this melodic material was probably "in the air" as Lewis grew up in New Orleans, but he was in fact an ardent admirer of Armstrong, as were most New Orleans musicians of his generation.

Lewis stayed with Bunk Johnson's newly popular band through 1946. This included a trip to New York City, where they played for dancing at the Stuyvesant Casino on Second Avenue. At this time, the band members included Johnson, Lewis, Marrero, Pavageau, trombonist Jim Robinson, pianist Alton Purnell, and drummer Baby Dodds. While in New York, they recorded for both the Decca and Victor labels.

After Bunk's retirement, Lewis took over leadership of the band, usually featuring Robinson, Pavageau, Marrero, Purnell, drummer Joe Watkins, and a succession of New Orleans trumpet players—including Elmer Talbert, Avery "Kid" Howard, and Percy Humphrey.

Starting in 1949 Lewis was a regular at the French Quarter's Bourbon Street entertainment clubs and had regular broadcasts over radio station WDSU. The Lewis band was featured in the June 6, 1950 issue of Look magazine, which was circulated internationally. The article was accompanied by photographs taken of the band by Stanley Kubrick.

National touring soon followed, and Lewis became a symbol of the New Orleans jazz tradition. Traveling ever more widely, he often told his audiences that his touring band was "the last of the real New Orleans jazz bands."

In 1952 Lewis took his band to San Francisco for a residency at the Hangover Club. That was followed by a tour around the United States. In the 1960s he repeatedly toured Europe and Japan and many young clarinetists around the world modeled their playing closely on his technique. While in New Orleans, he played regularly at Preservation Hall from its opening in 1961 until shortly before his death late in 1968. Paintings of him performing were painted by New Orleans artists and sitting portraits sold to collectors. A recording of his band was made at the Hall in 1962.

George Lewis is name-checked in the Bob Dylan song "High Water" from the album "Love and Theft".

Jazz author and critic Gary Giddins has described Lewis as "an affecting musician with a fat-boned sound but limited technique".[2]

Discography

  • 1962: Jazz at Preservation Hall 4: The George Lewis Band of New Orleans - The George Lewis Band of New Orleans, with George Lewis (cl) Isaac "Snookum" Russell (p) Papa John Joseph (b) Joe Watkins (d) (Atlantic LP 1411)[3]

References

  1. ^ Some sources give 1969 as the year of his death, but see Lewis' obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, cited by Tom Bethell, George Lewis: A Jazzman from New Orleans, University of California Press, 1977, p. 277.
  2. ^ a b Gary Giddins, "How Come Jazz Isn't Dead", p. 39–55 in Eric Weisbard, ed., This is Pop, Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01321-2 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-01344-1 (paper). p. 43.
  3. ^ Atlantic Records discography







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