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D'Vonne Lewis: It's About the Love


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On the Seattle jazz scene, no musician is more visible than drummer D’Vonne Lewis. Whether he is touring and playing with his band Industrial Revelation , leading his flexible and innovative combo, D'Vonne Lewis Limited Edition, or playing as a sideman on multiple projects around town, Lewis brings to the bandstand a remarkable versatility, and musical identity all his own. He began playing with top shelf players such as Hadley Caliman, and Larry Fuller when still a student at Seattle's storied Roosevelt High School, where under the direction of Scott Brown, he developed a style that while steeped in the jazz tradition, is positively and uniquely his. The grandson of legendary B-3 organist, Dave Lewis, the renowned "Godfather of Seattle Rock and Roll," D'Vonne represents the fourth generation of Lewis musicians on the scene in Seattle. His 3 year old son, Donovan, represents the fifth, and yes, the young man can play! Lewis developed a relationship with Wynton Marsalis at the Essentially Ellington Jazz Festival, by winning the Outstanding Drum Soloist award three years running in 2000, 2001, and 2002, leading to engagements with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, pianist Marian McPartland, and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Other performance credits include Eddie Daniels, and out-sax titan, Charles Gayle. Lewis carries with him the ability to create sounds applicable to any style, and make it his own. His musical persona reflects a radiant positivity, that is infectious and real. I sat down for tea and conversation with D'Vonne in Seattle's Belltown after a live studio session at KNKX 88.5 radio.

All About Jazz: You are a third generation Seattle musician, the grandson of the great Dave Lewis. When did the drums become a part of your life?

D'Vonne Lewis: Well first, I'm fourth generation. Big Pop, we called him Big Pop, was Dave Lewis. He gave lessons, Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix would come by the house to take lessons with him. Then there was my grandfather Dave Lewis, who was the organist.

AAJ: And nobody called him Dave Jr., they call your Dad Dave Jr.

DL: Right, and then there's me and now Donovan.

AAJ: Your son Donovan is the fifth generation of Lewis musicians in Seattle.

DL: Yeah, so Big Pop is the one that really got it started, gave my grandfather lessons. His Mom actually played organ in churches, she was a first call organist, all the churches wanted her to play. He started playing piano and then he heard his mom, and would give him lessons, and he would switch over to organ later. As far as me playing drums, as far back as I can remember, two or three years old, just beating on pots and pans, toys, I never even knew my family was musical. My mom and my dad were never together, every once in awhile I would visit the family, but nobody talked about the musical heritage or anything. So I started out with percussion just beating around, making little toy drum sets, with hangers for cymbals, and finally playing drums. It wasn't until my grandfather's funeral, in the eighth grade, in '98, that I really found out about my family and music reading the obituary. My Dad used to tell me that my grandfather was an old, cold cat, around town, and did everything, but I didn't know the true story.

AAJ: So his impact on your musical identity really happened after he had passed.

DL: Yes

AAJ: What was your relationship like with him?

DL: I went over there on weekends, I remember between third and sixth grades, I was playing Little League baseball, and he would come to all my games, taking me out to breakfast, but he never talked about music, not even his wife at the time. I was just like, "Hey, my grandfather is cool!" He had a little keyboard, but he never played.

AAJ: Dave Lewis was a musical icon, regarded as the father of the "Seattle Sound, " and the godfather of rock and roll in the northwest. Did you have an awareness of his sociological impact on the desegregation of music in Seattle?

DL: No, none of that. Maybe they just didn't think about it, and they never talked about it. These were things I learned later, after I was already playing. Yeah, it's crazy!

AAJ: You were Resident Artist this year at the Earshot Jazz Festival, and played a show at your alma mater, Roosevelt High School, one of the top school jazz programs in the country. Talk about the impact of that program on your musical life.

DL: All the things about (band director) Scott Brown, I just saw that he was a hard worker, and was always dedicated. I used to think, "Does he have his own life?" He was always rehearsing this jazz band, that was awesome, and after school, or after a festival we had just won, or a week long engagement somewhere, he would then be getting the marching band ready. Mainly that, the work ethic, watching him work, and how he knew the different kinds of music. The things he taught us, that he taught me, just the little things like, be professional, make sure your tux is clean, that you show up on time. You got a certain kind of discipline from him that a lot of musicians don't get. When there was a discussion going on in the room, he made sure you were listening, I like that part of it, everyone who comes up in that program, has that kind of education. It was almost like a college level education. That is a big part of my playing, even today, just the attitude, and discipline.

AAJ: You are an acclaimed jazz drummer, and move freely into other musical forms, such as funk, rock, and hip hop. How does the musical genre you are engaged in impact your approach as a drummer?

DL: I try to be as authentic as I can, to the music first, but more so to myself. For example, I'll think, "I know this is funk, but maybe what I'm hearing right now, I'm going to play it." It feels like it will fit, some people might call it a jazz lick. I don't understand jazz lick, funk lick, I hear the difference, but to me, I don't think like that. I think if you feel it, you do it. You know the structure of a tune, of the groove, just play what will fit, what makes sense. People will say it's like a painting, it might be a landscape, you don't want to put a city in a beautiful landscape, but you could have a building, it doesn't have to be so over the top.

AAJ: I could sight two of your projects, that are notably different. Industrial Revelation , and D'Vonne Lewis Limited Edition are different spin offs of the jazz tradition, attract different audiences, and impact your playing style uniquely. Talk about what you see in each project that inspires you moving forward.

DL: With Industrial Revelation, I thought more in terms of jazz instruments, you have upright bass, trumpet, and piano, but how can we more be ourselves within the music. Not to feel we have to do a jazz album. Let's just be as authentic to ourselves as possible. That's really what Industrial is about. I was playing a lot of jazz, playing with different people, Hadley Caliman, Larry Fuller, and those are jazz heavyweights, which was great, but, I think they liked my playing because I did jazz, but I would do some things of my own. We thought with Industrial, that maybe we could start a band where we could have our own personalities in the music. Everybody is jazz rooted, but let's bring out our personalities more. With Limited Edition, that was more doing anything you want stylistically, you're the artist, now it's just playing music with cool people, with cool instrumentation. Some cool vibes with weird sounds. I really thought about who I wanted in the band, and I didn't really know how it would sound, but let's just try it out. Cliff Colón has that reckless, Breckerish solo style, just attack, and then Eric Verlinde can play any groove, anything you want, a great listener, like all those guys. I like that approach. Let's just expand on this. Also when Industrial Revelation got real popular, not all of us could play every gig offered to us, and I thought we were losing a lot of opportunity to play and a lot of money! So I would take the gig, and say that it would have a few sub players, a limited edition! I wanted it to be different, replaced the upright bass with electric. I love playing with Farko Dosumov.

AAJ: Evan Flory-Barnes is a long time friend and musical partner. Jazz history is replete with great partnerships between bassists and drummers. Right here in Seattle we have, for example, Jeff Johnson and John Bishop. What musical and social qualities create this great combination between you and Evan?

DL: I feel like we always knew what we wanted to hear out of each other's instruments. I know what I like to hear out of a bass, he knows what he likes to hear out of drums, he says sometimes he's playing bass but thinking in drums, sometimes I'm playing drums and thinking in bass. We just happen to understand what each other does. We can feel that. We can feel when something is not quite right. I don't know what happened, but we felt that when we first played together, in Port Townsend in '99.

AAJ: So it was organic, and in 1999, you were still in high school?

DL: Yes, I was a freshman,he's five years older. I went to the Jazz Port Townsend Festival for the first time, on a scholarship through Paul de Barros, and everyone was checking out Aaron Parks, because he was our age, and had all these gigs. So I went to this jam session, and me and Evan sat in. Aaron at one point just backed off and let Evan and I do sort of a duo thing. It was cool. That was our first meeting. I was 16, and agreed to keep in touch. I was still at Roosevelt, and he was out of school, he knew where I was. I would see him at certain gigs. I still never really played with him until Industrial Revelation . We were never on other gigs together with other players.

AAJ: You have been playing recently with sensational pianist, Marina Albero, who arrived here from Barcelona three years ago. The band features multi cultural percussionist Jeff Bush as well. The music is unique rhythmically, blending jazz, flamenco, and Cuban rhythms. What is your approach to playing with another percussionist, and wading through these cross cultural musical currents?

DL: I love playing with a percussion player because in a way, they keep you honest. If your time starts slipping, they look at you, you know. Jeff is awesome, I always like playing with a percussionist, with any music. I did this funk jam at the Baltic Room called "Jambalaya," and there would be a bunch of percussionists there, and that was my first experience with awesome percussion players. I saw and heard all the different sounds they get, and that helped my playing too. I learned, for example, that if a song is laid back and soft, you can play drums with your hands. The things I learned from them comes through the music. Marina's music is so percussive, all percussion based with piano, drums, hand percussion, bass, the horn player is playing percussive parts. You have to make it where each part can come out, which I love. I can say I'm just going to stay in this rhythm, and I know Jeff will add something, that maybe I don't need to add. That will happen with a percussion player, so patience, that's what playing with a percussionist needs. Jeff is awesome, we had him on the Industrial album, and he brought like twenty instruments. He would say things like, "Hey I can play one more thing, how about my key shaker?" (laughter)

AAJ: He traveled around the world, in both urban and rural areas, and learned about rhythm. What he does is authentic, not something you learn in school, but what you learn in life.

DL: Sometimes you can tell that he studied a particular rhythm, that he went to school, but he is authentic, and awesome.

AAJ: Let's talk set up. In moving between different projects, and different musical styles, do you adjust your kit set up to accommodate?

DL: I do. Even in jazz, people are doing awesome things with set ups, they're adding weird cymbals, and weird things on the heads, but for me it's mainly using a smaller bass drum, an 18 inch Gretsch, that I use in jazz. With all of my drums, I like a little more punch. So an 18 inch bass for jazz, a 12 inch rack tom, and a 14 floor. I'll use any cymbal, but I like using my rivet cymbal. I have this Ludwig kit, it's a little more funky with a 20 inch bass. Just a little bigger, it works great with Marina, a little more attack, and I'll use a 10 rack and a 14 floor. I recently got a Yamaha 22 inch bass drum, and that's just to have. For me it's more the tuning. If it's tuned good, and it feels good, it's fine.

AAJ: You are a versatile player, and a very active player. There is a lot of music in Seattle that can be called a form of jazz, that along with the more straight ahead jazz scene creates different audiences that should dig each other's music. There is a spirit here allowing one to explore one's musical identity freely, without being characterized as playing any one style. How do you envision the jazz community in Seattle?

DL: I think it's rich. There's all these different scenes that you can be a part of, there is so much going on.

AAJ: There seems to be a few different audience groups, a straight ahead jazz scene, a funk scene, a jam band genre, a thriving latin scene. You are playing throughout these musical spectrums, how do we get these different audiences to cross paths and dig ALL of this great music?

DL: One thing that might be cool, would be one day, at some park, an all day festival,one location, with different bands, all the groups from different scenes, all the musicians. Earshot is great, and the Ballard Jazz Festival, but maybe call it a big party, people get exposed to the music, get to hear all these different groups.

AAJ: Who are the drummers you like to listen to, both historically and currently?

DL: Well, when I first heard Elvin, I said, "I want to be that guy!" He had that fire in his playing. Elvin Jones, that's my guy. Being at Roosevelt opened me up to a lot of jazz, my buddy Scott Feruta, he gave me all his cassettes of different players. I love Sonny Payne's big band drumming, and Butch Miles, with the Basie Orchestra. I love Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, his spirit. Then currently, Brian Blade, I like his style, it's swingin,' but it's his own. I love Eric Harland, and just so many others that I love to listen to, like Tain.

AAJ: Who are the cats in Seattle that have been influential, as mentors?

DL: Really, the only drummer in Seattle that I've had a lot of one on one time with was Jon Wikan, when he lived here, we would always hang. He would come to Roosevelt twice a week, and just work with the rhythm section. I never had the chance with John Bishop, Matt Jorgensen was in New York then, when I was a little younger. I remember hearing Phil Parisot, he told me his teacher was John Bishop. I would try to get together with the drummers in town, Tarik Abouzied, some of the gospel players in town, get a hang together, maybe get two drums together and try to be as musical as we possibly can, but it would just end up getting loud! It was fun.

AAJ:You are a self taught player. Do you think that some of the trends in jazz education are leading kids away from listening to records and having things under their belt to execute? Do you think jazz is moving away from that [listening] tradition and is there a way to move jazz forward without losing this tradition?

DL: I don't know if there's a solution at all, because it really has to be in your own heart, that you want to listen to and learn all those different styles. You have to know your roots and where the music is coming from. Know how to go back. Mr. Brown would tell us to go and listen to the records, he stressed listening a lot. I wanted to listen more, to know who Miles Davis was, who was John Coltrane? Now I hear their sound, it starts getting familiar, and now I listen to Brian Blade and hear Elvin in his playing. You have to hear that history. All the 80's funk drummers gravitated towards Tony Williams, doing all his licks, applying his stuff. If you didn't know the history, you would never know where it was coming from.

AAJ: What advice would you give a young drummer starting up in jazz today?

DL: If I was just moving into town, I would go listen to all the live music in town, try to sit in, go talk to the leader, don't be scared, enjoy yourself. Don't just sit there, drink your beer and be out, you need to talk to people, find out where the jam sessions are. People will know your face. Have good knowledge of the music so you can sit in, listening is the key. Learn all different styles. If I were to move out of Seattle, that's what I would do, look in the local music paper, find the gig and go, it doesn't matter where you start, just go, hang, and go from there. Young drummers are always saying they can't get gigs, it's because they're just not out there. There are musicians teaching and studying at places like Cornish that I never see out, they are too busy working and studying, they could be playing right now, but they don't get out there.

AAJ: When you do find time to practice, what are you working on?

DL: I always have to work on the rudiments, for me it's more about sounds, how can I create cool sounds to work with the drum set. It's still combination style, but just getting familiar with the entire set.

AAJ: More sounds than actual rhythmic patterns?

DL: Yeah, because sounds can go anywhere, in any style. And simple things, even if it's just getting to know how with the stick to hit both the rim and the snare, or getting interesting sounds from any of my cymbals. Not really chops, licks, or rudiments, but how can I apply a certain sound in any kind of music.

AAJ: How do you see the next five years of your musical life?

DL: I just want to be more open to opportunities, meet more people and create more opportunities, expand on them. It doesn't have to be huge, I just never want to stop! Forward, just keep moving forward. A lot of bands play for a few years and are gone, I don't know, maybe people get bored, or they just stop looking for the next opportunity.

AAJ: Industrial Revelation has been together for ten years now, seems like getting together with Evan Flory-Barnes, Ahamefule J. Oluo, and Josh Rawlings, is like a grounding experience for you.

DL: Yeah, for me if I'm really feeling something, I can't just stop. I can't say, "We're together ten years, have a few nice albums under our belt, good enough." I would more be saying we need to keep going!

AAJ: You play in so many different combinations, boredom is never part of the equation.

DL: Exactly. I might do a Brazilian duo in some sushi joint, then do a Tula's hit, then go play with Industrial Revelation late night. That keeps me going, allows me to switch gears, keeps me open, and even gives me ideas for Industrial Revelation. I might think of doing something in a nice Brazilian groove, try that out. I'm able to gather ideas, and keep it fresh.

Photo credit: Jim Levitt

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