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11

Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: It sounds like you instinctively went for the drums, like you knew they were for you.

VL: Yes. Sometimes I wonder if puberty had anything to do with it! I hit 11 years old, and all of a sudden it wasn't masculine enough for me to play classical piano, which I studied from when I was 7 until 11! So maybe it was a "man thing."

AAJ: Testosterone levels.

VL: So, on Christmas of my 13th birthday, they gave me a full drum set. Boy, talk about an excited kid! On the advice of my teacher, they bought me a fantastic set of year-old Gretsch drums with cases. So, boom, here they are. But then I realized that I'd never set up a drum set before! So I spent all of Christmas day trying to figure out how to put this drum set together!

The Territory Bands

AAJ: For some, the instrument becomes almost a part of the musician. But it takes time for that to happen! To change the subject, I wanted to ask you about your exposure to the "territory bands," the groups that travelled around the west and midwest in the 1930s and 40s. How did those bands influence your musical development?

VL: They were a major influence. My father was a part of the midwest territory big bands. He was from Birmingham, Alabama, and the band he belonged to moved around and he ended up in Omaha like some of the other musicians, settling down, getting married, getting a day job. And so, one of my first gigs was with this band called the "Savoy Seven." The name didn't make any sense because there were eleven cats in the band! [Laughter.] We'd play small big band charts at dances. We had some Basie charts, Duke charts. That was my first experience as a working musician, playing with these guys from the territory bands.

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