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Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: You really use composing to express your feelings and emotions, like a catharsis.

VL: It's a lot cheaper than seeing a shrink. [Laughter.]

AAJ: Did you ever have to write a tune on the spot at a gig?

VL: I never had to do it myself, but I've witnessed it. I did an album with Bobby Hutcherson called Cruisin' the Bird (Landmark, 1988). We thought we finished the date, but the producer said, "Hey, Bobby, we need one more tune." And boom! Boom! He came up with the tune! And it's my favorite tune on the record.

Personal Life and the Understanding of the Spirit

AAJ: I'd like to ask you a bit about your personal life. Are you single, attached, any kids?

VL: I've been married and divorced three times. I have a daughter and a stepdaughter from my second wife. My stepdaughter just made me a grandfather a couple of weeks ago. Artist manager and publisher Joanne Klein has been my partner for thirteen years. Her mother is going to be 89 years old and still spry and active. Joanne's father had suddenly died of a heart attack in his fifties, and her mother never remarried. I guess it was hard for her to be intimate with anyone else.

AAJ: John Coltrane said, "Music is my spirit." Do you make any connection between the spiritual life and the music?

VL: For me, it's a must. I tell my students that the thing that makes me play my best is the spirit. Each tune has a spirit to it, and I try to find the spirit in each tune. I want to find the right spirit and call it up. It helps bring the tune to life. It helps you to find what's not on the paper. It helps you to develop your artistic life. What made jazz so great has been the things the musicians would add to it that weren't on the paper, the magic. And what triggers that is the spirit of the moment.

AAJ: Can you give a vivid example of that spiritual magic?

VL: Pharaoh Sanders does a tune called "You Gotta Have Freedom." It's a tune that raises your vibrations. I'm a real believer in the chakras and your vibrations being altered. There are receptors of things you cannot see. Every time I play, I have to call up the spiritual in myself. I had an experience with Woody Shaw where something really upset me before the rehearsal that day. I came to the rehearsal really distracted and out of it, and Woody stops the band and looks at me and says, "Don't come up in this motherfucker all detached and shit!" I learned from that never to play detached, always to make it an emotional experience for me.

AAJ: Woody Shaw notwithstanding, you're describing a meditative state. When you're at your best, you're immersed in the here-and-now. Do you practice meditation? Do you practice religion?

VL: Religion? Not any longer. I've studied many different things. I grew up in an Episcopalian family. I was an altar boy. At the end of Communion, we kids would try to get the priest drunk on the wine. [Laughter.] So I started believin.' I've been doing transcendental meditation since I was 21. I believe in aliens. Once, my friend and I saw what we really believe was a UFO. It was 1976, and I was in Florida doing a record with David Sanborn. My friend and I were driving over to a restaurant to get something to eat, and we see these blinking lights to the far right of the horizon, with no sound or movement. Then it started moving from the far right to the far left of the horizon in a few seconds. There's nothing known to man that could cover that distance that fast, and so silently. So we were positive it was a UFO.

AAJ: That wasn't a UFO. That was my ex-girlfriend. [Laughter.] She lived down there and she could do things like that. [Laughter.] There is life out there somewhere, we're pretty sure of that. Sounds like you're an explorer.

New Gigs

AAJ: So, what are you workin' on right now, and what's comin' up?

VL: I recently played at Dizzy's with Bobby Watson and the Horizon band. We're celebrating our thirtieth anniversary of Horizon. Bobby and I go way back, and we're like best friends. His wife Pam is a fantastic singer and composer. I also did a live recording at Smoke with Cyrus Chestnut and Curtis Lundy. I've been working a lot with George Cables in the past few years, and we have a new trio record entitled George Cables: Icons & Influences (High Note, 2014). And we're working on George's "Songbook" project which includes vocals.

I'm in my eleventh year teaching at Rutgers in New Brunswick. A couple of years ago, we lost a great trumpet professor, Bill Fielder, who fathered a whole series of great trumpet players, from Terence Blanchard to Wynton Marsalis to Terell Stafford to Sean Jones. Teaching helps me keep in mind the concepts and ideas I've accumulated over the years.

AAJ: Any thoughts about the business end of jazz?

VL: I am interested in how we're going to be affected by the change from CDs and record stores to digital downloads. Quincy Jones recently said in an interview that in 10 to 20 years, there will no longer be any record companies. Recently, one of my students had an on-line CD release party! Everything is going to be done on the internet, on computers. I wonder how all that will affect musicians' attitudes, their relationship to the audience, the music itself.

AAJ: A lot of the technology makes things more efficient but harder for people to connect on a visceral, gut level.

VL: You're probably like me. You like to browse the record stores. I used to love to shop and read the liner notes and look at the covers. I miss that. But ultimately, the music will prevail. I'm enthused about the younger generation of musicians. I believe the continuation of the music is guaranteed. The conditions—how you get air play, selling your trade, collection of royalties—all that's going to change. I'm a dinosaur when it comes to technology. But I'm very excited about where the music is going and how well the younger guys are stepping up.

Photo Credit: Susan Gatschet-Reese
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