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11

Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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

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