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Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: My first real exposure to your work was when I reviewed J.J. Johnson's recording The Brass Orchestra (Verve, 1997) for his own website. Around that same time I also heard you live at the Blue Note with J.J.'s group that included saxophonist Dan Faulk, pianist Renee Rosnes, and bassist Rufus Reid, one of the greatest jazz groups ever, in my opinion.

VL: J.J. was a perfectionist about performances. I used to call him "Mr. Mission Impossible." At one point, he moved back to his home town of Indianapolis, and he'd mail me these little packages in preparation for an upcoming record gig and so on, Usually it was an audio tape with a lecture by him. So I called him "Mr. Mission Impossible," you know, "Should you decide to take on this mission." [Laughter.]

AAJ: He was a brilliant man, and probably had more to say than one would like to hear sometimes!

VL: Yes, he was a genius, and a consummate gentleman too. He was a good guy, a "standup" guy!

AAJ: I know that he went to court to help some of the musicians who couldn't get cabaret cards because of racial issues.

VL: He stood up for me at times. The powers-that-be on that Brass Orchestra record didn't want me on it. And J.J. said, this is my recording, and Victor is who I want.

AAJ: Who was the most stingy?

VL: [Chuckles.] Stan Getz! Without mentioning names, and to protect the innocent, a bassist whom we all know and love was on a stint with me and Stan, and he would say to me, "OK. I can understand a leader making three times as much as his side men, but no leader is worth a hundred times more money than his sidemen!" In comparison with other groups, working with Stan was good money. But in terms of what he was making himself, it was a small piece of the pie.

AAJ: OK, so who was the most brilliant and insightful player?

VL: There are many. But I would say maybe Dexter Gordon.

AAJ: Which would you say was most able to express his personality and emotions in the music?

VL: Oh, definitely Chet Baker. I did a tour with Stan Getz and Chet, and Chet came across as one of the most vulnerable players. He wreaked emotion. A melancholy and vulnerable cat, I guess you could say.

AAJ: Some critics really put him down, but I think he was one of the greats for exactly the reason that you're stating.

VL: I agree. But there was a certain sadness in his story. On one of the first gigs I did with him, we're finishing the head of the first tune, and Chet says to Stan, "Can you take the first solo—I have to go and glue my teeth back in." This man's playing trumpet with dentures! [Chet Baker had a heroin addiction which can lead to physical maladies such as loss of teeth.—Eds.]

The Experience, Technique, and Spirit of the Drums

AAJ: Thanks for your candor about your cohorts. Now let's move on to your work as a drummer. First of all, in recording studios they often isolate the drummer in a separate room so they can mix the sound in any way they like. I've always felt badly for the drummer, in a little room with a window and a headset. How do you feel about that?

VL: It varies. Some rooms don't make you feel so isolated. And some rooms make you feel that you're in another building in another time and place from the group. Sometimes, I couldn't even see the band. It's worse when they try to isolate the drummer in a studio that wasn't built that way. One time, I was placed in a hallway and couldn't see anybody! They segregate the musicians for mixing purposes, but a lot of the great jazz records were done without so much isolation or even with as many microphones as they use now. The problem with using many mikes is that they dis-assemble the sound, and unless the engineer is really good at putting it back together again, the result is disappointing, not the best sound. For my money, the engineers from the '60s and '70s were better than after that. When digital recording came in, it's very cold-blooded, and it will only seek what you program it to look for, as opposed to analog, which picks up more of the nuances, including the ambience of the room. What can compare to Rudy Van Gelder's recordings from the 1960s?

AAJ: Simplicity and spontaneity is so much a part of jazz. You don't want the recording to lose the feeling and atmosphere of the session.

VL: Exactly. I totally agree.

AAJ: Let's talk about your style of playing the drums. Jim Miller, an outstanding drummer in Philadelphia, remarked to me that what he appreciates about your drum technique is that it's especially "musical." I would say that it "sings" and "flows."

VL: It's been my goal for some time to not be just a drummer but to be a total musician and to participate in the musical dialogue and also to bring up the right texture.

AAJ: "Texture" is a good word for that special quality you exemplify.

VL: I think I was influenced in that regard when in college I majored in classical percussion. From that experience, I don't think of driving a drum set. I think of being a percussionist in an orchestra, where you embrace the sounds.

AAJ: Did you play the timpani, where you have to adjust the pitch? I'm very struck by how well your playing flows, resonates. It's a very beautiful sound, which you can't say for all drummers.

VL: I like to have what I do be transparent and organic at the same time.

AAJ: Somewhat related to what you said about "channeling" the music, do you ever have a sense of "floating above time" rather than punctuating it?

VL: On a good day, time isn't in increments. It's flowing.

AAJ: It's as if you're above time, watching it?

VL: Right! I like the way you put that! I like to think that on a good day, it's almost like you can sit back and watch yourself play.

AAJ: I'm interested in world music, and I wonder if you have any sense that your drumming goes back to African trance music, which was imported to the U.S. through the Carribean and New Orleans at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. There are early recordings of African trance drummers, and the rhythm is remarkably similar to jazz.

VL: Oh yeah. For sure. It's the dialogue. You've got the guy who's "talking," so to speak, on his drums, and then you've got the other guys who are "responding" on their instruments. In my opinion, the rhythms from Africa are the basis of all rhythms that exist. You mentioned Third World music. I see that as the future of music. I tell my students, "The future of music is going to be the synthesis of everything you guys like." For example, Dizzy Gillespie started checking out the Latin bands, and he ended up doing that stuff with Chano Poso and absorbed that influence into his music. So I'm really into the fusion of diverse music from around the world. When American jazz musicians discovered Brazilian music, it had a big impact on the jazz perspective. I really see the future of music being a combination of elements from different countries.

AAJ: Which particular musical cultures do you personally relate to the most?

VL: The Brazilian. No question about it. It's funny, because I never actually went to Brazil with Stan Getz. He played in Brazil a lot, but by the time I was working with him, I think he had had enough of the bossa nova days. By that time, he had only one medley of bossa nova tunes in a set to please the crowd. For him, the bossa nova days were over.

AAJ: In the later years, Getz returned to bebop and hard bop as his main fare. It's interesting you are attracted to Brazilian music, yet you don't often perform it.

VL: I don't play it a lot, but I listen to it a lot and keep up with the concepts. It's not only the rhythm that I like but the sense of romantic harmony. The Brazilians are a romantic people, and I think I'm a hopeless romantic!

AAJ: The classical composer Villa Lobos comes to mind.

VL: I love Villa Lobos, I love Dorrival and Nana Caymmi, Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins. I have buddies in Brazil, and when I go down there, we hang out and exchange ideas. It's like a two-way street. Jazz has had as profound an effect on Brazilian music and Brazil has had on jazz.

AAJ: Antonio Carlos Jobim was a good friend of Gerry Mulligan and said that West Coast cool jazz had a big influence on him. Getting back to the drums, in some of your interviews you emphasize the importance of the "ride cymbal." You mention Papa Joe Jones as one of your influences.

VL: I use the concept "ride lead." When musicians listen to the drummer, they're focusing mostly on the ride cymbal, which gives them the sense of time. The ride cymbal tethers everything that's going on around it. As a term of endearment, some players call me their "ride."

AAJ: The ride cymbal carries the group forward. I wonder if different drummers make different use of the ride cymbal.

VL: Some drummers like their voice to be more on the whole drum "kit," the composite rhythm, which I also do, but for me everything bounces off the ride cymbal. Fusion drummers may not see the ride cymbal as so important, but with swing, the ride cymbal is the focal point.

AAJ: I thought the ride cymbal emphasis came out of Kansas City rather than swing as such.

VL: Right, OK. But the later swing bands seemed to absorb that influence and the ride cymbal came to be focused upon, as opposed to maybe the back beat on the snare drum.

AAJ: I would say the ride cymbal had a lot to do with the evolution to modern jazz and bop.

VL: Yes. And for me, the ride cymbal seems to make the time more elastic.

Composing as Catharsis

AAJ: Let's talk about your composing, which is fairly prolific.

VL: I've been a composer since high school. I would transcribe Horace Silver tunes or whatever, and sometimes, when we needed something to play at a jam session, I'd make a little ditty for that purpose. Gradually, composing became a passion of mine. It's a sort of therapy for me. I always joke that "composing is cheaper than going to a shrink." The other joke is that "divorce should be good for at least one good ballad." [Laughter.] Composing has been a great outlet for emotional expression for me.

AAJ: Do you ever compose more extended pieces?

VL: I did a recording called A Family Portrait (AudioQuest Music, 1992) which is like a series of tunes related to my family. For example, "A Mis Padres," "To My Parents," and then a tune for my little sister, so you could say it's a musical suite dedicated to my family. I recorded it after my parents were deceased, and it was an acknowledgment of how much they helped and supported me with my music.
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