It was easy for me to pick my first hero. A clarinetist who’s driving, soulful sound had one foot in the rhythm section, one foot in the front line. I aspire to the kind of playing that one moment chases the trumpet and the next joins the back line to punch the pulse of the song. That can hold a band together with arpeggiating one moment, and remind the listener of the melody the next. George Lewis was just such a clarinetist.
Joseph Lewis Francis Zeno was born July 13th, 1900 in New Orleans. He was called George, however, from his first moments. Unlike many New Orleans-born musicians, he was not born into a family of music makers. His mother, Alice Zeno, would say that she didn’t know where her son “got that music from,” but he was apparently in possession of a musician’s heart from the beginning. A strong argument can be made that his was a case of environment succeeding over genetics. From an early age he was surrounded by music in his Treme neighborhood. Hopes Hall, a New Orleans dance hall, was across from where young George lived. Hopes Hall, other nearby halls, parades, and musician neighbors ensured that he would hear the music every day.
Around the age of ten, George used a dime from his mother to purchase a fife from a local five and dime. “Ten cents,” Alice said, “that’s all I ever spent for his music.” She was initially driven to distraction by his constant practice, “but I wanted him to play because he wanted to be a musicianer.” Before long he was playing all manner of tunes and improvisations. Children who set their sights on becoming a “musicianer” would often form what was known as a field band, or what George called “kid parades” and try to imitate the professional brass bands of the day. George would play his fife in such ensembles.
Although accounts vary by as much as eight years, it seems likely that around the age of 16 or 17 his fife-playing attracted enough attention that he was encouraged to get himself a clarinet. Within a year he was playing professionally with the Black Eagle Band. Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s he stayed in New Orleans or the surrounding area while many of his fellow musicians would head north to Chicago and other cities to ply their trade. George was happy to stay with his family in New Orleans and during those two decades ended up playing in nearly every band in the city at one time or another.
George worked hard. To support his family he not only put in long hours playing his clarinet, but would also work as a laborer during the day. From 1934-36, for instance, he played at a place on Decatur and Ursuline called the Kingfish seven hours a night and worked with WPA projects by day. A dollar per night plus tips at the Kingfish, $28 per month with the WPA.
It may be that George would have played away in obscurity for his whole life but for the efforts to resuscitate the musical career of cornetist Bunk Johnson, one of the pioneers of jazz. George was one of the musicians assembled for Bunk’s comeback band. Beginning in 1942, recordings and a subsequent 1945 tour taking the band to New York’s Stuyvesant Casino brought attention to George’s clarinet. During the forties he recorded under Bunk’s name and his own.
Despite his career moving upward along with Bunk Johnson’s return to the limelight, George continued day laboring on the docks of New Orleans. It was there in July of 1944 that he suffered an injury to his chest that sent him home to recuperate and actually threatened to cut his career as a clarinetist short. On the 27th of that month, however, what is considered one of his most famous pieces was put on record for the first time. During George’s recuperation, noted jazz historian Bill Russell brought recording equipment into his home, where they were met by musicians Lawrence Marrero on banjo, and Slow Drag Pavageau on bass. While playing in George’s bedroom, the extraordinary “Burgundy Street Blues” was captured forever. His career was far from over.
Burgundy Street Blues
His association with Bunk would end in 1946, but would be the springboard for a career that, in the fifties and sixties, had him traveling around the country and eventually around the world, on the way to becoming one of the most popular figures in traditional jazz history.
George Lewis died on New Years Eve, 1968, just one month shy of my second birthday. I wouldn’t even learn of his existence until thirty years later, when my mentors from the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band spoke of him and his importance to the music we play. I missed something in not meeting him, and not only on account of his playing. To a one, the men in the Bill Evans band and the fans who met him when he came up to Minnesota to perform speak of what a sweet man he was, how it was a genuine pleasure to know him.
I have those remembrances, his music, and his biographies. In the fall of 2008 I began the long process of learning “Burgundy Street Blues” in order to perform it around New Years Eve as a surprise to those here in Minnesota who knew him. Submerging myself in those notes taught me much about George’s playing. He infused himself into every phrase, and that song will always be his and his alone. I’ve been playing it for all these months now, and even recorded it recently, and I know I’ll always feel like I’m learning more about jazz every time I have the temerity to venture into those astounding three minutes of music. I play another of George’s compositions, “St. Phillip Street Breakdown,” as well. The Southside Aces recorded that piece, as well as “Gettysburg March,” which we were inspired to play because of a Lewis recording. Both are on our Bucktown Bounce CD from 2006.
Another of George’s recordings that is one of my favorites represents the more traditional line-up of a full New Orleans band. With a rhythm section of drums, bass, piano and banjo; and front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, this is the type of sound you’ll hear sitting in front of the Bill Evans New Orleans Jazz Band or the Southside Aces. “Mahogany Hall Stomp” was first recorded by Louis Armstrong, showing off his unbelievable talent. But I love the George Lewis version just as well, both for it’s obvious nod to the Armstrong recording and for it’s headlong, careening charge from start to finish:
George Lewis-Mahogany Hall Stomp
George Lewis A Jazzman from New Orleans, by Tom Bethell 1977 University of California Press