In the annals of New Orleans jazz, clarinetist George Lewis is one of the greats. "Lewis had a beautiful tone. His expression was very lyrical and communicative. His high notes were penetrating. He could make the clarinet swing and speak, and he knew how to swing a band," says Dr. Michael White, who has organized a special tribute to Lewis at Jazz Fest.
'[Lewis] is the central figure in the New Orleans revival and, aside from Louis Armstrong, the most imitated traditional jazz musician coming out of New Orleans," White says. "European bands are based on his bands, and clarinet players are influenced by — or are downright imitators of — George Lewis all over the world."
Lewis grew up in the French Quarter and started playing by 1917. While many well-known musicians left the city in the "20s, he stayed in New Orleans and played at parades, picnics, dance halls and social aid and pleasure club functions. He didn't become well known until the revival of New Orleans music in the 1940s when he was part of trumpeter Bunk Johnson's band. After that, he recorded for Decca and RCA Victor with other great musicians such as bassist Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau and trombonist Jim Robinson, and, while home, he played the music clubs from Bourbon Street to the "Back of Town." Lewis died in 1968.
The tribute features White and two other traditional New Orleans-style clarinetists. Tom Sancton is a musician, former Paris correspondent for Time magazine and author of Song For My Fathers, which details his apprenticeship with the great New Orleans traditional jazz players of the 1950s and 1960s. The other is Sammy Rimington, one of Europe's best known players in the George Lewis style. Rimington has just released two records on the Arhoolie label recorded with a variety of Louisiana musicians such as the Treme Brass Band, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and Michael Doucet. The trio of clarinetists will play some of Lewis' best known pieces including "St. Philip Street Breakdown" and "Burgundy Street Blues."
White himself is an acolyte of Lewis and dedicated his first record on the Basin Street label to him. But it goes deeper than that. "I heard my first George Lewis record in 1978, and it was a spiritual experience that changed my life," White says. "It's hard to explain. There is something special in the music. It was like a light came on in what was darkness, even though I didn't know it was darkness. I found his music sounded like he was playing the story of his life, my life and everybody in New Orleans' life. It was very powerful and beautiful. It made me want to know more about my ancestors and the history of New Orleans and New Orleans music. I've been different ever since."