Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
For several decades, Victor Lewis has been one of the most in-demand drummers of the post-bop era and beyond. He has performed with Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Chet Baker, George Cables, Woody Shaw, Kenny Barron, Bobby Watson, and others of similar stature. On account of his exceptional ability to push the envelope of musical grace in a variety of contexts, he often becomes their drummer of choice for extended tours and engagements. Other drummers consider him a role model. He is also known for his own original compositions and tunes.

In this interview, Lewis tells us about his coming up as an aspiring musician in the midwest, as well as the musicians and groups he's worked with over the years. To the mix of recollections and reflections, he adds some fascinating ideas about jazz rhythm and drums, emphasizing their roots in African tribal music, human life, and, above all, what he calls the "spirit," the source of all music and rhythm that exists beyond the ego, a source to which he listens and which provides his inspiration.

AAJ: Let's start out with the notorious desert island question. If you were going to that desert island, and only had access to a few recordings, which would you take with you?

VL: I'd definitely take Miles Davis' Four and More (Columbia, 1966). Another would be John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965). Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). For some variety, I'd take Nat "King" Cole's The Magic of Christmas (Capitol, 1960), Dakota Staton's The Late Late Show (Capitol, 1957), and organist Larry Young's Unity (Blue Note, 1965). Larry is part of the "Newark contingent" that includes Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, and Sarah Vaughan. He was a very fine organ player who passed away very young. The album Unity is a must. It's got Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, and Elvin Jones on it.

AAJ: What is it that appeals to you about Miles' album Four and More?

VL: I'll tell you a story about that. Growing up in Nebraska, one of my best buddies was also a drummer. His father was a trumpet player who idolized Miles Davis, and he'd always get Miles' records as soon as they came out. So me and my buddy were about 12 or 13 years old, and we had already heard most of the big band drummers that had come through our home town of Omaha. We saw and heard Sonny Payne with the Count Basie band, Buddy Rich. and Sam Woodyard with Duke Ellington. So we'd been into the big band drummers. It was mid-winter, and I was looking out my parents' window, and I see my buddy runnin' down the street in the snow. I opened the door, and said "What's up, man?" And he said, "My father just got the new Miles Davis record, and there's this incredible drummer on there!" So I said, "How good is he, is he as good as Buddy Rich?" And he said, "Oh, no, man, it's different." So we went back to his house, and his father put it on for us. The drummer was Tony Williams, and the way he played on that record opened up my imagination in terms of the dialogue that could take place between the drummer and the band. So that was a monumental awareness for me.

AAJ: Since we're on the subject, I was going to ask you which drummers you especially prefer and/or who influenced you the most.

VL: When I was a kid, my teacher took me to see Count Basie several times, and the first time was with Sonny Payne on drums. It knocked my socks off, his dynamics and his showmanship. It made me aware of how visual the drummer is. All of that physical energy and movement!

So, Sonny Payne. Then, of course, Tony Williams. All of the masters: Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Grady Tate, Roy Haynes, Art Taylor, and Billy Hart. Billy was a big influence and mentor. Those are the bebop and post-bop drummers. Then there are there those other guys like Roberto Silva, the Brazilian drummer who worked with singer Milton Nascimento and was also on Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer (Columbia, 1974 recording with Nascimento. Brazilian music has had a big influence on me.

AAJ: I'm surprised that you didn't mention Billy Higgins or Kenny Clarke.

VL: What an oversight! Billy influenced me a lot in terms of touch, that a drummer's signature is not only what he plays but his touch, the texture, the way he hits everything, the sound. Kenny Clarke was for me one of the "point of departure" guys. Maybe the pivotal guy.

AAJ: Nor did you mention Max Roach.

VL: Max, of course. Max's playing was very intelligent and deliberate. He had a very strong musicality in terms of how he wanted to shape the tune. And he would put something into the music that was out of the ordinary. Then, of course, there are the funk drummers, like Clyde Stubblefield who worked with James Brown; Bernard Purdy, Harvey Mason, and Steve Gadd.

I should mention a few other important influences and experiences that affected my playing a lot. When Miles Davis came to play in Omaha in August of '69, his drummer at the time, Jack DeJohnette, had a very profound impact on me visually in terms of the movement of his execution on the drums. Seeing him play opened up a realm of possibilities for me that I could only imagine from recordings. I was still young, and DeJohnette confirmed and transcended what I thought the rules of expression entailed. Jack was a major influence.

Before Jazz became an art form with performance standards similar to classical music—with the rhythm, tone, and so on somewhat standardized and teachable, each musician had no choice but to define his own style. During my first year in New York, to the best of my recollection it was Clifford Jordanwho came to me and said: "I can hear who you've been listening to, you need to cut them loose and find your own shit." Up until that time I used to have a ritual of listening to my favorites while getting ready for a gig. I stopped doing it for a while and showed up to the gig by myself but with the spirit of what I got from that ritual. When I look back that was the beginning of my own style. Wayne Shorter summed it up when he said that you have to study everything, the legacy of your instrument, rudiments, scales, harmony, other cultures, and then forget it.

I also absolutely must mention drummer Ed Blackwell in the list of influences. And very important too have been the hand drummers I rubbed shoulders with, such as Potato, Don Alias, Jerry Gonzales, Ray Mantilla, Neil Clarke, Abdou M'Boup, Jumma Santos, Sammy Figueroa, Manolo Badrena. I kid about myself as having an Omaha, Nebraska clave, which is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms! As an Afro-American drummer, these hand drummers were my tether to Africa.

I also want to mention that many of the "underdogs" taught me a great deal. These are the special guys in New York and around the world who are insufficiently acknowledged in the press but who are playing their ass off. They keep me humble, and I'm forever learning from them.

Coming of Age in Omaha, Nebraska

AAJ: Let's go back to your childhood and work our way back up timewise. So, you grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1950s-60s?

VL: Yes. My father played a lot of instruments, mainly tenor saxophone. My mother was a classical and jazz pianist, and a fine singer as well. She had a music degree. I grew up listening to everything from Stravinsky and Debussy to Ben Webster, Duke Ellington, and vocalists Dinah Washington, Dakota Staton, and Nancy Wilson. My father made all of us play an instrument of our choice. It was his way of tricking us into discovering the concept of effort and reward. He would say, like, "OK. Did ya hear anything you like on the radio?" My brother would answer, "Yeah, I liked that horn, what was that?" And they figured out it was an alto sax, and my father would get him an alto saxophone, drop it on him, and step off. A few days went by, and my brother said, "Dad, there's something wrong with the horn. It doesn't play!" My father would pick it up, play it, and say, "No, there's nothin' wrong with the horn. You might wanna take some lessons." [Laughter.] And my brother would say, "OK." So he got lessons, and got better and then tried to emulate what he heard on the radio.

But my father didn't want any of us to have a career in music. He himself had two day jobs and did his music gigs at night. He wanted us to do something different. He said, "All black people play sports and music." As a result, my siblings did something different, except for me, being the baby brother, the musical calling was just too strong.

AAJ: Your father sounds like a very intelligent guy who really knew how to relate well to his sons!

VL: He really was! I'm 63 years old now, and even now things he said fifty years ago kick in. I have to admit I had two of the most fantastic parents of all time. I was very lucky.

AAJ: OK, so your dad cajoled you into taking up a musical instrument. But I'm always somewhat puzzled as to why anyone plays drums, since you can't really play a tune on them. Yet some guys have a passion for drums, even as kids. Mickey Roker told me he wanted to play drums when he heard the street drummers in the marching bands, and he would follow them down the street.

VL: Yes, it was the same with me! I started the drums at 11, but before that, I had spent a year learning the cello around age 6, and then took up classical piano from ages 7 to 11. Before the cello, I had gravitated towards the upright bass but was too small to play it! So they bought me a small size cello, and I did OK until the teacher pulled out a bow and made me play "arco" (with the bow), and I wanted to pluck pizzicato like the jazz bass players. Who knows, if I'd been big enough for the bass, I might be playing it today!

So fast forward from age 6 to 11. It was the fourth of July, and there was a parade on the near north side of Omaha, and they had a drum corps. And I really dug it. The director of the best drum corps in Omaha happened to be a good friend of my father. I got excited. On my nights to do the dishes, it took me a long time because I started using the knives like drumsticks on the counter! I was giving my folks big hints, lobbying, but because I kept changing instruments, including French horn in junior high, they didn't trust me. So my father rented a snare drum, bought me a pair of sticks, and sent me to take lessons with Luigi Waits , who became my first teacher and my mentor until I left Nebraska. Luigi was a major figure on the music scene. He took me to see Count Basie, Buddy Rich, and Duke Ellington. He told me about Max Roach and all the great drummers. He let me join the contemporary jazz scene.



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles