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Q & A with Trumpeter Bobby Lewis


Bobby Lewis's tasteful trumpet and flugelhorn playing has made him a favorite among vocalists and earned him a spot as first trumpet with Tony Bennett for Chicago appearances for fifteen years, and conductor, musical director and featured soloist with Peggy Lee. The singers Lewis has accompanied provide enough grist for several resumes and, in addition to Bennett and Lee, include Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Williams, Lena Horne, Mel Torme, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte, Rosemary Clooney, Al Jarreau and even a gig with ‘Ol Blue Eyes. Instrumentalist luminaries with whom Lewis has shared the bandstand will again turn a young or even seasoned jazz player green with envy: Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Jack Teagarden, Al Hirt, Joe Morello, Tex Beneke, Benny Carter, Doc Severinsen, Ramsey Lewis, Roy Eldridge, Jaco Pastorius, Marian McPartland, Barrett Deems, Henry Mancini, Ira Sullivan, Buddy Morrow and the list goes on. Even if you're not a jazz fan, you’ve heard the dulcet tones of Lewis’s horn playing, as he is a first-call recording studio musician, having performed on more than 7500 sessions, including commercial spots for Old Style Beer ("God's Country" theme), Kemper (as the Kemper Bugler), State Farm Insurance ("Like a Good Neighbor"), and even one as the Pillsbury Doughboy. Having made his way from Wisconsin to Chicago via the Army, Lewis is creator and leader of The Forefront, a contemporary trumpet ensemble consisting of four trumpets (also playing flugelhorn, cornet, piccolo trumpet, alto trumpet, and bass trumpet) with bass and drums. This group performed at the First International Brass Congress in Montreux, Switzerland; brass and trumpet conferences in New York City, Denver, and Chicago; and the National Association of Jazz Educators convention in Dallas. He is also creator and co-leader of EARS (Jazz of All Eras) a spontaneous creative jazz ensemble of seven that performed Tuesday evenings for seventeen years in Chicago (six at Orphan’s Pub and eleven at Andy's Jazz Club) dating back to its origin in 1975. This group has also performed in Osaka, Japan; Rotterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands (the North Sea Jazz Festival); and many special functions in Chicago, including the Chicago Jazz Festival. We caught up with him ahead of his performances at the Jazz Showcase Feb 5th-8th, 2015 to talk about the upcoming gig, the band he will have with him and much more... CJM: February 5th-8th you are bringing your Quintet to the Jazz Showcase, who is going to be joining you on stage that weekend and can you tell us about your relationship with the musicians? Lewis The quintet for this engagement will be Jim Ryan on piano, Pat Mallinger on saxophones, Jeff Stitely on drums, Larry Gray on bass (Thursday and Friday) and Stewart Miller on bass (Saturday and Sunday). These world class musicians are not only great to play music with, they are great friends, as well. We have played and recorded together for a many years. Jim was the pianist with my group Ears - Jazz of All Eras when the septet "disbanded" in 1992 after playing 17 years of consecutive Tuesday nights in Chicago (Orphan's Pub and Andy's Jazz Club). He's on all nine of my cd recordings dating back to 1992 and is one of my closest friends. Jim formed a quintet to play at Andy's in 1993 that included Pat Mallinger, the late Thomas Kini and Paul Wertico. Pat and I hit it off from note one. His solos, musicianship and com"pat"ability are truly amazing. He is one of the most unique souls I have ever met, always a joy to be around and play music with. Jeff Stitely is another extremely gifted musician...a drummer who's solos are works of art. Larry Gray is an exceptional bassist that has played with many of the great jazz artists that have appeared at the Showcase throughout the years and I'm always happy to have him on the band. Stewart Miller appears on my latest cd. Mellifluous Tones and will join us on Saturday and Sunday. He is also a very exceptional musician. I call him the Rock of Gibraltar. So, you can see I'm in some pretty heavy company. What a kick to be a part of this assemblage of musicians. CJM: You haven’t played in Chicago for awhile now, what can people expect to hear next weekend and the jazz showcase? Will you be performing music from the CD that came out last year? Lewis The material I select for appearances (concerts, clubs etc.), comes from my CD recordings (over 100 tracks) and songs I've learned over the years. We all have favorites and often I have to choose which to play and which to omit. Some of my signature pieces are 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most', 'Land of Make Believe' , 'Just For A Thrill', 'Emily' and, and.... We will be playing some of the material from my latest CD 'Mellifluous Tones' released last March. In addition to my quintet performing this weekend it also features Michael Raynor on drums on several tracks, Paulinho Garcia on several tracks (both vocals and guitar), the wonderful vocalist and former Chicagoan JoBelle Yonely on a couple of tunes (she also penned a tune Bobalew for the album), with Alejo Poveda on percussion and the guitarist Curtis Robinson on one track. We also play standards, Latin, Blues, Bebop, originals (Pat's and mine) - I like to present a varied program each night. CJM: You are just coming back from major back surgery, how are you feeling? Lewis Yes as many of my friends know, I did have back surgery last March thus limiting my ability to perform much of 2014, but I am "back", healthy and gig-worthy! I'm looking forward to a very productive year and quite possibly a new recording project. Also, I'm back to playing golf again! CJM: You have played at the Jazz Showcase for many years. I would imagine you have probably performed at many of the different locations it has been in, is there one or two stories you can share about a memorable experience at one of the gigs? Maybe someone who sat in, someone you played with etc? Lewis I've known Joe Segal for a long time and have performed at many of his venues, including a jazz cruise in 2005 to Alaska. Although I didn't participate in some of the earlier venues (I came to Chicago in 1961) I recall the New Gate Of Horn, North Park Hotel, basement of the Happy Medium, Blackstone Hotel, Grand Ave. and the current location at the Dearborn Street Station. For the past 5 years I've performed with my quintet at the present location, in the early part of the year. Also, I held the release of my 2003 CD 'Another Time' at the Showcase when they were on Grand Ave. I recall playing with Art Hodes, and Franz Jackson, subbing for Jabbo Smith, sitting in with Clark Terry, playing with Eddie Higgins and sitting in with Claudio Roditi numerous times. CJM: I am sure you had opportunities to move out of the Chicago area in the past but you decided to keep your home base here. What is it about the Chicago music scene that kept you in Chicago? Lewis As previously mentioned, I came to Chicago in 1061, oops I mean 1961! I liked the players, the spirit and was able to establish a reputation. Some of the trumpet players who welcomed me into their fraternity were/are Johnny Howell, Warren Kime, Art Hoyle, George Bean (who just passed away on January 19th) among others. I did have the opportunity to move to either coasts. In 1964 I was part of a 3 month tour, A Salute To Glenn Miller, with Tex Beneke, the Modernaires and Ray Eberle. At that time I could have gone to LA with the Modernaires as a vocalist, but felt that Chicago was where I wanted to be. I started doing recording sessions both as an instrumentalist and a vocalist in 1964. From that point on there was no reason to move anywhere else. Chicago was a happening city, work was abundant and musicians were able to make a living doing what they loved. CJM: Who are some of the trumpet players that influenced your playing as you learned the instrument? Lewis As a youngster growing up in Oshkosh, Wisc.,I admired lyrical players including Bobby Hackett, Chet Baker and Don Fagerquist (of Les Brown's Band Of Renown). Then I became aware of Louis Armstrong, wanted to play like him and even tried to imitate him vocally. As I grew, so did my appreciation for other trumpet greats. Maynard Ferguson was phenomenal, although I didn't want to play that way. I recall hearing recordings of Clifford Brown and couldn't believe my ears. All in al,l my style and approach stem from many influences. CJM: Any current trumpet players you like to listen too? Any other instruments or groups currently performing that you really like? Lewis Two of my favorite trumpet players of recent vintage are Claudio Roditi and Tom Harrell. Tom's recent CD 'Colors Of A Dream' is outstanding. I must confess I'm not an ardent listener to new groups and players, so I have no opinion on this matter. CJM: Do you have any recordings or gigs coming up in the next few months that people should be ready to checkout? Lewis There are some performances pending in the future. Probably the best places for your readers to check upcoming appearances are my website BobbyLewis.com your publication Chicago Jazz Magazine, WDCB and Howard Reich's articles in the Chicago Tribune.

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