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Victor Lewis: The Drummer's Spirit

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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.



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