At a certain stage of a European tour by the Count Basie Orchestra in the spring of 1976, the band’s newest member, trombonist George Lewis, hired on a recommendation from his parents’ South Side Chicago neighbor, trumpeter Sonny Cohn, decided to inject some Dadaistic levity into his nightly feature, a three-chorus solo on a fast blues called “Hittin’ Twelve.”
“My solo was silent, like John Cage, just gestures,” Lewis, 63, recalled in his office at Columbia University, where he was hired in 2004 as the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music. “Now, you have to be somehow in your own reality to think that would go through and that you wouldn’t be fired the next day-which I was not. Soon after, while we were waiting for a train, the Chief walked up to me. I noticed that people were gathering around because they wanted to hear what he’d say.
“The band had given me a nickname, ‘New Boy.’ He said, ‘Well, New Boy, I like all that experimenting you’re doing. I think more people around here should be doing that kind of experimenting.’ Then he left. Upon reflection, it became obvious that these people were coming out of a tradition of experimental music. So I can do what I want and call it whatever I want. I was told right upfront, from the horse’s mouth, that this is our legacy as African-American musicians. That was a very empowering moment.”
After 40 years as a “composer, electronic performer, installation artist and trombone player,” Lewis continues to push boundaries at the intersection of creative expression and technological innovation. He is equally adamant about fulfilling his more prosaic academic and scholarly obligations.
He touched on the matter in remarks about A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, his exhaustive history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which he joined in 1971, on hiatus from Yale, where he earned a BA in philosophy in 1974. “I sent a book proposal to the anonymous scholars who evaluate academic books,” Lewis recalled. “One report said it was great, that it didn’t matter what’s being said-it’s the fact that George Lewis is saying it. But somebody’s artistic authority can’t be the basis for judgment; if the book doesn’t pass scholarly muster, it won’t work. You’ve got to follow the terms as they’re laid out. I am making historical musicology, and I’ve been doing that for a while. A lot of people who study with me don’t know or care that I have this artistic life. You have to be able to advise a dissertation, which is odd for me, because I didn’t have a doctorate.”
Not until last year, that is, when the University of Edinburgh granted Lewis an honoris causa Doctor of Music. The recent publication of Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, a two-volume tome that Lewis coedited with his former doctoral student Benjamin Piekut, further burnishes his résumé. Lewis has mirrored these academic accomplishments with further artistic development, as evidenced by the October 2015 Chicago premiere of his opera, Afterword. It’s an atonal, serial work constructed around a spare libretto, distilled from the 90-plus interviews and painstakingly researched source material that bedrocked A Power Stronger Than Itself, searingly conveyed by three protagonists named “Soprano,” “Contralto” and “Tenor,” who function as avatars for various AACM personae, as do three signifying dancers. The timeline traces the AACM’s evolution in Chicago from its inception until 1976-78, when many members, Lewis among them, moved to New York City.
Between 1976 and 1980, Lewis earned wide respect among New York’s multiple (and sometimes overlapping) creative music communities. He presented extraordinary trombone chops and vivid imagination, not only with Sam Rivers, his Yale classmate Anthony Davis and Anthony Braxton-the association that would establish him internationally-but also with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Gil Evans. In Evans’ Live at the Public Theater (New York 1980), he uncorks notey, timbrally extravagant solos on “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” that remain signposts of trombone expression, blending the technical accuracy and range of Curtis Fuller and Frank Rosolino with a sonic flexibility evocative of, say, Tricky Sam Nanton and Dicky Wells. “The music of florid saxophone players like Johnny Griffin and John Coltrane is what I studied and tried to emulate as a means of developing,” Lewis said. “Trombone players on records were always playing half-time at the fastest tempos. I didn’t want to be that person. But that improvisational style only works in certain musical situations. If you want to work more with sounds, or delicacy, or certain extremes of range, or to really improvise as distinct from developing a personal style, then you have to question everything, confront new ways of making music that are the complete opposite of how you thought about playing.”
In September of 1980, Lewis was hired as music director of the Kitchen, then in its ninth year as a Downtown hub for cross-disciplinary experimental cultural production. Drawing on that two-year experience, he culled from the Kitchen’s archives six improvisationally oriented performances for a 2015 CD titled The Kitchen Improvises: 1976-1983 (Orange Mountain). To celebrate that release, he curated a celebratory concert in February featuring nine improvisers, including Oliver Lake (alto saxophone), Earl Howard (alto saxophone, electronics), Michael Lytle (clarinets), Thomas Buckner (voice) and himself-all represented on the disc. The music that night leaned toward the kind of spontaneous, non-linear sound investigation that Derek Bailey and Evan Parker codified on their Company recordings of the 1970s. He configured the musicians first into four separate scratch-improvised duos and trios, and then three larger groupings. Lewis played laptop and trombone in an electro-acoustic conversation with Ikue Mori on laptop. In a quartet with Howard, Lake and accordionist Lucie Vítková, he played only trombone, projecting an urbane, elliptical voice.
Lewis met Parker at the 1979 Moers Festival, where he performed his electro-acoustic composition “Homage to Charles Parker” with AACM partners Douglas Ewart and LaRoy Wallace McMillan on winds, pianist Davis and synthesist Richard Teitelbaum. A year later, in London, Lewis recorded a duo concert with Parker (
After the Kitchen, Lewis moved to Paris for two years of research on artificial intelligence at IRCAM, the historic institution for music science. By 1984 he had refined his conception of “creating situations where software-driven musical systems are in improvised interaction with human improvisers,” and he performed three concerts in which three microcomputers controlled three Yamaha synthesizers through a real-time conversation with Bailey, Ewart on bass clarinet, Joëlle Léandre on bass and Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone. A subsequent two-year residence in Amsterdam at STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) generated architecture capable of controlling eight separate voices, as demonstrated at a 1987 concert where 10 networked computers generated an 80-voice virtual orchestra. By the mid-’90s Lewis had evolved his Voyager software, simulating a 64-voice orchestra that embodied his aesthetics in solo performance and in dialogue with collaborators like Bailey, Roscoe Mitchell and Miya Masaoka.
He considers the guidelines of computer networking an apt metaphor for his European experience-and, by extension, his ongoing musical journey. “Once you listen and agree not to insist you know it all, you can learn a lot,” Lewis said. “Anything is possible. Older artists like Derek, Evan and Alexander von Schlippenbach nurtured me in ways similar to people in the AACM. I didn’t feel those networks were so separate.”
The George Lewis Solo Trombone Record (Sackville, 1977)
Gil Evans Live at the Public Theater (New York 1980) (Trio, 1981)
Anthony Braxton Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (hatART, 1991)
Wadada Leo Smith/George Lewis/John Zorn Sonic Rivers (Tzadik, 2014)
The Kitchen Improvises: 1976-1983 (Orange Mountain, 2015)