Each year, in our March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who have passed in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.
Simply put, Lew was one of my dearest friends for close to 50 years. I first heard him play at the home of Barry Miles, then a precocious drummer and pianist, in the summer of 1966. Barry had heard me play at Ramblerny, a jazz camp run by Phil Woods in New Hope, Pa. After returning from a four-month State Department tour with the Indiana University Jazz Ensemble, I was visiting and sitting in with my younger brother, Mike, who was attending the camp and playing in Phil’s student big band.
Anyway, eventually Barry invited me over to his home and was playing tapes of his concerts for me. All of a sudden, I heard some amazingly strong and creative trumpet playing. I asked Barry who it was, and he said, “That’s Lew Soloff!” I froze, thinking, “Uh oh! I’m going to have to compete with this when I move to New York City in a couple of months?”
Not too long after that I met Lew, who had just gotten out of the Army Reserve, at the old Half Note club downtown. By then I was playing with the Duke Pearson Big Band. Duke needed a sub, and Lew was hired. He blew us all away, and it was not only his soloing but also his expertise in reading the parts, playing lead trumpet and his overall musicality. Being close in age, we became fast friends. We would trade lessons and just hang out a lot. He loved to talk trumpet and more trumpet. It was an entirely accurate statement that Wynton made, upon hearing of his death, that “Lew Soloff probably loved the trumpet more than any person on earth.”
Lew became the world’s greatest jazz piccolo trumpet player, and he tasted great fame and fortune when he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears. I had to beg him to do that gig. I was leaving the band to join Horace Silver, and found myself sitting next to Lew at a Joe Henderson Big Band rehearsal the day after I quit. Lew didn’t want to do the gig because it was a “rock band” and he wanted to play jazz, but I was in a spot, so as a friend he said, OK, he’d try it for a while. Needless to say the album they were about to record sold millions of copies, and Lew’s salary went from $200 a week to $5,000 a week! So he was there to stay. We were taking lessons together with Ed Treutel in New Jersey, usually taking a bus to get there, and Lew started picking me up in a stretch limo, laughing the whole time!
He was such a character, with a great sense of self-deprecating humor. He was everyone’s close friend. When Jon Faddis moved to NYC Lew took him in, and they lived together for a long while. If only I could have been a fly on the wall there, to hear what they were discussing trumpet-wise! He also was the perfect unwitting straight man for our “fearless leader,” the late and also sadly missed Alan “Mr. Fabulous” Rubin-Blues Brother, Saturday Night Live Band trumpeter and owner of a witty, dark sense of humor.
Here’s a typical exchange:
Lew, with wide-eyed enthusiasm talking about an upcoming trip with his then-new wife, Emily Mitchell: “Alan! Alan! I’m going to Ireland with Emily to meet her relatives!”
Alan, with a mockingly bored face and perfect Irish brogue: “Ah, Lew, I can hear them now. ‘Top of the morning to ya … ya lit-tle Jew!'”
Lew, a couple weeks later: “Alan! Alan! I’m going to Aspen with Emily and her family for the weekend!”
Alan: “Oh yeah? That’s great, Lew. If you see any Jews, ring a bell!”
George Young, another close friend of ours, wrote a beautiful tune in memory of Lew called “The Prankster,” and a prankster he was. One example: We played for years in Faddis’ Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. One concert, Lew’s stool came flying off our riser, bouncing loudly onto the stage. Lew got an earful from Jon that night for being so clumsy.
The next concert was a big one. Carnegie Hall, sold out. Gloria Estefan out front. The great Dave Grusin conducting his wonderful arrangement of West Side Story, with a full string section and a bunch of cats brought in from L.A. to do the gig. The anticipation, the first famous six notes and a grand pause: Bu daaah bop! Dude-ee-op. Then, not one but two stools came crashing down from our riser to the floor. Lew had this sheepish look on his face, but he had outdone himself! We tried to play and not laugh, but laughing slowly won out, and the piece kind of evaporated for a minute or two. We came back after the break and Faddis had removed all the stools from the riser!
There are many more stories but space does not permit me to recount them, so that will have to do for now. But jeez, I miss him. He is missed by so many on the NYC jazz scene. He was just always around and wanting to play.
As I said at his memorial concert, “How ironic that a heart attack felled Lew, since he was absolutely all heart.”
Guitarist Bob Mann said it best. Upon hearing the news, he texted, “Sadly, Cirque du Soloff has ended.” Lew’s memory, his love and his music will live on, and thinking of him will always bring a smile.