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Willie Lewis


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With the popularity of jazz slipping and sliding in its native America, many players have over the years chosen to relocate in Europe.
Those who do are following in the footsteps of Willie Lewis. Born William T. Lewis, this historic jazz clarinetist and bandleader grew up in Dallas where he began his music career on the variety theater circuit. While some of his peers opted for on the job training on tour, Lewis chose the academic route and headed east to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. He had success in this period trying out for an open spot in the Will Marion Cook Orchestra and, as is sometimes the case with joining bands, there were unpredictable long-range consequences. Bandleader Sam Wooding wound up hijacking the entire Cook band, honing its sound through a long New York City nightclub engagement before taking the group on tour in Europe.
While every tour has at least some residual impact on a player, the effect of the collaboration with the wide-ranging vagabond Wooding cannot be overemphasized. From 1925 he took Wooding's Symphonic Syncopators where no jazzmen had gone before, including tours of North Africa and South America as well as working throughout Europe. In 1931, Wooding canned the band and Lewis promptly formed Willie Lewis & His Entertainers, holding over some of the members of the old group and staying put in Europe. The activities of this group established Lewis as the first important black expatriate jazz bandleader in Europe. He expanded his capabilities as a performer from this perch, doubling on alto and baritone saxophone and even bursting into song when the spirit moved him.
Important players such as pianist Herman Chittison, alto saxophonist Benny Carter, and trumpeter Bill Coleman all spent time in Lewis' groups, recording for the French Disques Swing label. The group prospered for about a decade, disbanding in 1941 with Lewis returning to New York. Over the next two decades his musical activities diminished greatly, and while he did branch out into acting, his main occupation was unfortunately toiling as a waiter. In the '80s he began to be featured in the reissue market, sometimes on his own merits and sometimes in the context of memorializing players such as Coleman, who had worked for him. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi


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