George Lewis

One of the heroes of New Orleans jazz of the 1950s and ’60s, clarinetist George Lewis (1900-1968) was a very popular figure who for many best represented the Crescent City’s music.

George Lewis was in obscurity for decades. He was self-taught on clarinet and chose to stay in his native New Orleans rather than head North in the 1920s. He worked with the Black Eagle Band, Buddy Petit, the Eureka Brass Band, Chris Kelly, Kid Rena, and many other local groups. During the Depression he only played music on a part-time basis. In 1942 when trumpeter Bunk Johnson was discovered, Lewis was tapped to join his band and he worked on and off with Johnson during the next three years, visiting New York and leading a few record dates of his own. However, Bunk was difficult to get along with and since Lewis was homesick anyway, he returned to New Orleans in 1946, content to work locally with his own band. In 1950, Lewis received his biggest break, being featured in an article for Look magazine. Soon he was recording regularly and traveling the world.

George Lewis of New Orleans features Lewis with the Original Zenith Brass Band and the Eclipse Alley Five in 1946. One can hear the beginnings of Lewis’s later band in these primitive but charming performances which include future band members trumpeter Kid Howard and trombonist Jim Robinson. That same front line appears on such albums for Good Time Jazz and Riverside from 1953-1954 as The Beverly Caverns Sessions, The Beverly Caverns Sessions, vol. 2, and Jazz at Vespers while the slightly earlier Jazz in the Classic New Orleans Tradition is just as worthy. But the George Lewis CD to begin with, due to its pure exuberance and constant excitement, is Doctor Jazz, which has very exciting versions of “The Saints” and “Ice Cream.”

George Lewis performed his happy brand of ensemble-oriented New Orleans jazz around the world up until the time of his 1968 death.