Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: I take it they were mature musicians, while you were a kid at the time breaking in with them.

VL: I started playing with the Savoy Seven when I was fourteen. They were as old or older than my father.

AAJ: So in fact your introduction to playing professionally was with a territory band.

VL: We stayed within the Omaha area. We'd load up the bus and go an hour or two down the road. Here's a funny story. One time my mother did a gig with us as a vocalist, and we played a New Years Eve gig a couple of hours away. And so, coming back, we're all lit up, and everybody's giving New Years hugs, and I had to pull the trumpet player off my mother! [Laughter.] He was a bit too zestful, as I recall.

AAJ: So far, the way you describe your youth in Omaha, it was almost magical, ideal, idyllic. But when you gave a short talk at the Dexter Gordon 90th Birthday event (February, 2013) at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, you were very frank about the nightmare of racism, and how the black musicians like Dexter courageously stood up to it. Did you yourself encounter any of that hostility towards blacks?

VL: It's something that I don't talk about much, but yes, I did encounter some of that disillusionment and disappointment. During my freshman year in college, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I got a call from a guy I had played with asking me to do a big band gig at the Elks Club. I got really excited because the band had all the "big boys" in the area. So I painted my initials on my bass drum, and was really turned on. But the guy called me a couple of days before the gig and said, "Victor, I don't know how to tell you this, but you can't do the gig. The Elks Club won't allow any blacks in the club." That was a huge disappointment, and I really didn't anticipate it.

Also, my father had encountered racism, and the way he dealt with it showed me what a man he was. He was on a gig with my teacher, Luigi Waits, who told me the whole story. During the break, a guy walks over to my father and says, "Hey, man, you sound good. You sound real good. But you know you're just a nigger, right?" My father just smiled, and walked away. So the other guys said to my dad, "Hey, you got a right to punch this cat out. Why don't you just punch him out?" And my father calmly said, "I have responsibilities. I can't afford to get into any riff raff." I thought that was pretty deep—he was thinking about us, his kids and family.

AAJ: A rare individual, who was thinking about others' well being rather than himself.

VL: He was thinking about the big picture. So the point I was trying to make at the Dexter Gordon event at Dizzy's was that we don't realize what hurts Dexter and many others went through in the course of a day. It's impressive how they could remain noble about the music and not be bitter about what happened to them on a daily basis. After encountering one slight or another, they'd come to the gig, embrace everyone, be positive, and stay in the moment. Every day, they were excluded from this or that restaurant, had to go to a segregated men's room, couldn't stay in many hotels, and so on. Nobody talks about the grace with which these men handled themselves in those situations.

AAJ: We know about the facts, but not all of us know how it felt. We don't realize how devastating it was to be demeaned and excluded day after day, year after year.

VL: And sometimes it would just come out of nowhere. The unique thing is that among the musicians themselves, there were very few color lines. So the blacks and whites would get cozy on the road, and then the black guys couldn't go in the restaurant! It worked the other way too. At some black restaurants, whites weren't allowed! My college roommate, Don Gorder, who now teaches the business aspect of music at Berklee Colllege of Music, would hide in the car while I went in and got us some barbequed ribs!

AAJ: Music often breaks down barriers, but then the barriers remain in the society-at-large.

VL: For sure.

AAJ: We know that Dexter Gordon experienced some very heavy racism in the armed forces.

VL: He went through a lot of shit, yet he remained very positive.

Impressions of Some Iconic Musicians

AAJ: I'd now like to fast forward, and I'd like us to try to give our readers a sense of what it's like working with these top musicians on a day to day basis. So I'm going to state a personality trait you might encounter with a co-musician or leader, and you tell me who immediately comes to your mind as a prime example of that trait. No thinking- just whatever comes out of your head! You've played with legions of musicians, many among the tops in the business. So, among them, who was the most demanding to work with?

VL: I would say Woody Shaw. But in a positive way. Woody helped me get over my fears, and he pushed me to play like my life was at stake. I'll tell you a little story. I had broken up with my first girlfriend in New York, and Woody got us a gig in Knoxville, Tennessee. So I show up at the club, down in the mud, depressed, pouting. We play the first set, and then during the intermission, Woody comes up to me and says, "Can I speak to you for a moment?" So he takes me way away out of earshot from the guys in the band, and he shouts, "Mother fucker, what the fuck is wrong with you?" [Laughter.] I told him I just broke up with my girlfriend, and he says, "Fuck a girlfriend!" And he continued to machete whatever I could muster out of my mouth as an excuse for why I wasn't givin' it up. And then he stepped off and left me there in a tither. My eyes start to water, I got that lump in my throat, my adrenalin starts to go up, and I'm gettin' mad at myself. And then I came out to play the second set. I surprised everyone and myself, and I really went for it. And he turned to me, and said "That's what I mean: play for your life!"

AAJ: So it wasn't just his temper. He had a strategy—he was trying to teach you something.

VL: Right, right. He helped me overcome my fears. Another time, I was playing in a lackluster way, and Woody comes to me and says, "Don't just beat time! Start something! Instigate something!" But what really scared me was when I started taking those risks, how amazingly he responded musically to it. It made me realize that in a small jazz group, there's really no hierarchy. Everyone is needed musically. Everyone has to arch up and be aggressive and have conviction and be part of passing the ball around, like in basketball when you have the ball, you've got to have the conviction to take that shot. You've got to step up. It creates a ripple effect in the band and affects the direction of the music.

AAJ: The analogy to a sports team is very relevant. Teamwork is crucial to the outcome.

VL: Yeah, an NBA basketball team is a lot like a jazz quintet! Five players, the ball gets passed around, making plays, and everybody bounces off what the others do.

AAJ: So, who is the most inspiring musician you worked with?

VL: I would say maybe saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He is almost metaphysical, into things you cannot see. Pharaoh used to transcend the horn and music. Pharaoh would just call the spirits and give you a ride! The set would just fly by.

AAJ: He's a guru!

VL: Exactly. He was really inspirational. I felt like a set with him was an event! I've played with a lot of great musicians, but with Pharaoh it was different. You didn't have to rehearse much- you just had to pay attention, and things would just materialize. You just had to follow Sanders, and play from your heart, play the vibe.

AAJ: I've heard from a number of musicians that during the moments when they're playing at their best, they have no idea where the ideas are coming from.

VL: That's right. It becomes like a "channeling" experience. I often feel that when I'm playing my best, it's not just me that's playing.

AAJ: Which musician would you say was the most personally caring and compassionate?

VL: I would say trombonist J.J. Johnson. I would often talk to J.J. about personal things like marriage and how to keep the ol' lady cool. J.J. told me his own experience where a film score project took up all his time, and he'd have to neglect his wife, Vivian. So when he finished it, he would book her into one of those spa hotels, and he'd take care of the kids and tell her to just step off and have good time. J.J. was over all a good human being.
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