Vic Lewis, a British bandleader whose intensive admiration for Stan Kenton and other West Coast jazz artists led him to form one of Britain's most admired American-sounding jazz orchestras of the late 1940s and 1950s, died on Monday in the U.K. He was 89.
Most American jazz fans are unfamiliar with Lewis, primarily because the bandleader toured the U.S. only intermittently during his seven-decade career and recorded almost exclusively in England. Like Ted Heath, another British bandleader who made commercial inroads in the U.S., Lewis favored an uplifting, punchy sound that always built toward a brassy wallop. But Lewis also was a zealous advocate for West Coast arrangers and musicians.
Lewis first traveled to the U.S. in 1938, and with the help of Leonard Feather, recorded on cornet and guitar with trumpeter Bobby Hackett, clarinetist Joe Marsala, guitarist Eddie Condon and drummer Zutty Singleton. In some ways, Feather owed Lewis, having plucked pianist George Shearing out of Lewis' ensemble in London to record in smaller group settings.
During World War II, Lewis served in the RAF and played guitar with Sam Donahue, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Mince and other American musicians who toured or were stationed in England.
Immediately after the war, Lewis became a staunch advocate of Stan Kenton's forceful concert-band approach. Lewis viewed the Kenton band's ever-building arrangements as the perfect expression of post-war optimism and energy. During this period, Lewis and Kenton became close friends, with the bandleaders even exchanging scores. In 1950, Lewis toured the U.K. with a 20-piece band playing Kenton's Innovations in Modern Music" arrangements. Later that year, Lewis was invited to New York to conduct Kenton's orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
During the early 1950s, Lewis' band presented British audiences with perfectly executed American-sounding orchestrations, becoming one of West Coast jazz's strongest allies in the U.K. Lewis' efforts stimulated British interest in the linear jazz approach and raised the profiles of West Coast jazz artists there. In the years before American records were widely distributed in Britain, and U.K. union restrictions prevented American bands from touring, Lewis was among the most passionate English interpreters of the progressive big-band sound.
A tireless leader, Lewis and his band recorded live throughout England and in the London studios for major British labels. Perhaps his best-known album during this period was Mulligan's Music, recorded in 1954. For the Decca date, Kenton loaned Lewis three Mulligan arrangements from his book, and Lewis had Johnny Keating, his lead arranger, score five more Mulligan originals.
In the latter half of the decade, Lewis' highly skilled band showcased the complex arrangements of West Coast jazz artists. It wasn't unusual, for example, for a single Lewis album to feature the arrangements of Shorty Rogers, Bill Russo, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman, Gene Roland, Ray Wetzel and Pete Rugolo. Lewis toured with his band in the U.S. in 1956 and 1957 and again in 1958 and 1959.
In 1962, Lewis' band recorded four Basie-inspired compositions, two of which were written by Nelson Riddle. All four charts were arranged by Riddle, who traveled to London to conduct the session. Rosemary Acerra, Nelson Riddle's daughter, told me last evening that the charts originally were intended for a Capitol Records' Count Basie tribute album that was never finished.
The following year Lewis recorded a stunning bossa nova album in Los Angeles. The bright date featured a West Coast dream band that included Shorty Rogers, Jack Sheldon, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Victor Feldman, Laurindo Almeida, Don Bagley and Shelly Manne.
Over the next four decades, Lewis recorded dozens of big band albums in London featuring jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards. In 1989, Lewis recorded Vic Lewis and the West Coast All Stars Play the Compositions and Arrangements of Bill Holman in Los Angeles. His last album, also recorded in L.A., was With Love to Gerry (2000).
Yesterday, there was this post at the Jazz West Coast" online forum from Adrian Korsner in London:
Vic had been unable to lift himself above the cloud of sadness at the loss of his wife Jill, a few short months ago and his physical condition had made it difficult to get out and about. He was taken into hospital on Saturday morning, feeling 'not very well' and refused any efforts to treat him. Seems he felt he had had enough. He died at 6:35 am, U.K. time on Monday. With sadness but in celebration of a great life."
JazzWax tracks: The English Dutton Labs label has remastered and paired Mulligan's Music with Progressive Jazz, both recorded in 1954. You'll find the CD here for about $15. In addition to sterling charts of Mulligan tunes, there are bouncy arrangements of Shorty Rogers' Coop de Graas and an oddly addictive Intermission Rock, a courageous reworking of Intermission Riff with an early rock beat.
If you can find a copy of Bossa Nova at Home and Away, grab it. The album is out of print and extremely rare. At one point, the album along with the four Nelson Riddle tracks appeared on a now out-of-print CD called Vic Lewis: Best of the EMI Years.
At iTunes, you'll find a handful of Vic Lewis issues, including the album of Bill Holman's compositions and arrangements.