[Dixielandjazz] THINKING BIG

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Wed Jan 26 06:43:43 PST 2005

Woody Allen once said; "90 percent of life is just showing up." And that may
be what most of us do. Just show up. However, there are some among us who
escape the mundane by THINKING BIG. Like the Jazz Musician in this article.

His bottom line? "I want to be compensated in a way that matches what I'm
worth." Yep, money may not motivate, but it does keep score.

Perhaps the trouble with most starving artist Dixieland musicians is that
they just show up, while the higher paid few, THINK BIG?


Steve Barbone

January 25, 2005 - NY TIME - By ANDREW JACOBS

Paying His Dues, Thinking Big
Jazz musicians are born to be broke.

It is an axiom many musicians have internalized over the years. Even some of
the biggest names in jazz, like the singer Cassandra Wilson, are thrilled if
their records sell 40,000 copies.

"No one enters into this believing they're going to get rich," Ms. Wilson
said in an interview. "As a kid, you don't think, 'I'm going to be a jazz
musician because they make lots of money.' "

It is a paradigm that Eric Lewis, a 31-year-old pianist and most recently a
member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, thinks he can change. He may
live in a single-room-occupancy hotel near Riverside Park with shared
bathrooms, and his bank account may be nearly barren, but Mr. Lewis has a
coterie of big-name boosters cheering for his success, among them Lee
Iacocca, Jamie Foxx and his former boss and mentor, Wynton Marsalis.

After nearly a decade as Lincoln Center's pianist, Mr. Lewis quit last
month, saying it was time to find a spotlight of his own. "Why should I be a
martyr?" he asked after playing his regular Monday night side gig at
Cleopatra's Needle, an Upper West Side restaurant that pays him barely
enough to cover his cellphone bill. "I want to be compensated in a way that
matches what I'm worth."

In recent months, he has been working on the soundtrack for a PBS
documentary, a self-financed fictionalized film about his life and the score
for a ballet commissioned by the Joffrey.

Mr. Lewis is counting in part on the newfound money and attention that have
accompanied the birth of Lincoln Center's $128 million jazz emporium at
Columbus Circle. His yearning for fame and fortune was only heightened by
the ballyhooed inauguration of the jazz center, which has been drawing New
York's cultural elite and gushing press attention since it opened in

It was through his association with Jazz at Lincoln Center that Mr. Lewis
earned the affections of people like James Curley, a benefactor of the jazz
program, and Patricia Kennedy, a prominent arts patron who is married to Mr.
Iacocca and who is on the Joffrey's board. Despite a steady salary and a
touring schedule that takes in a half-dozen countries and a score of
American cities each year, Mr. Lewis was not satisfied to be one of 15
musicians who play alongside Mr. Marsalis, the orchestra's artistic director
and one of jazz's biggest stars.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Lewis, a shy self-described chess addict
whose distinctively vigorous style is much admired in the business, can hit
the big time on his own. Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records,
one of the best-known jazz labels, said it was increasingly difficult to
sell instrumentalists. Times have gotten so tough, Mr. Lundvall said, partly
because of the spread of illegal downloading, that Blue Note has recently
asked some of its artists essentially to agree to pay cuts.

Still, he said he was interested in talking to Mr. Lewis about a record
deal, adding: "He's a wonderful player and a flamboyant one at that. I'm
very much a fan."

Mr. Lewis is a familiar presence on the New York jazz circuit. On most
nights he can be spotted playing downtown's string of basement venues or
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the plush lounge at Lincoln Center's new temple of
jazz. At places like Zinc Bar and Niagara, he often plays until dawn at jam
sessions, sweating away at the piano, bathed in the adulation of friends and

After a lifelong struggle with obesity, Mr. Lewis lost 40 pounds last summer
(he now weighs 228 pounds and hopes to lose more), an accomplishment he says
buoyed his decision to strike out on his own.

"There's a prejudice against fat people," he said. "Now that I lost all this
weight, I get more attention. I feel more confident."

It has been a long haul for Mr. Lewis, who has weathered bouts of
depression, stretches of poverty and tumultuous periods of self-doubt. He
comes from a long line of musicians and grew up in Camden, N.J., the only
child of Carol Lewis, a classically trained flutist who strained to make it
as a professional musician. His boyhood home, a century-old Victorian in a
neighborhood of sagging houses, is cluttered with five pianos and the framed
portraits of jazz luminaries whom his mother, with young son in tow, would
pursue after concerts.

"I was always dragging him backstage to meet these great musicians," said
Ms. Lewis, who works as a middle school band director. "He grew up listening
to the masters."

Socially awkward but strikingly self-confident in front of an audience, Mr.
Lewis has been tethered to the piano since age 21/2, when he first clambered
up a stool and started banging on the keys. As a teenager, he flirted with
the idea of becoming a classical pianist but his mother, drawing on her own
struggles, steered him toward jazz.

"As a black man, I don't know what kind of future he would have had in the
classical world," she said.

Mr. Lewis won a scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music, and after
graduation spent years apprenticing - with the drummer Elvin Jones, the
trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the singer Jon Hendricks and Ms. Wilson. At 13, he
caught the eye and ear of Mr. Marsalis, who had come to Camden for a
concert; more than a decade later, in 1996, Mr. Marsalis would take him into
his ensemble. 

"Even back then Eric was an original," Mr. Marsalis said, speaking by phone
from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's tour bus as it made its way through
California. "His playing was playful but also serious to point of being

The two have had a close relationship, and Mr. Lewis credits Mr. Marsalis
with helping him master the historical and stylistic range of jazz. "At
times, it's been adversarial, with him acting like a drill sergeant," Mr.
Lewis said. "In those early years, it felt like a hazing."

In 1998, the incessant touring and competitive pressures of sharing a stage
with two dozen other egos began to take its toll. During a tour stop in
Brazil, Mr. Lewis suffered what he describes as an emotional implosion and
abruptly left the band.

Months of panic attacks, depression and self-recrimination followed. The
turning point, Mr. Lewis says, coincided with Christmas of that year, when
he approached a police officer outside Tower Records near Lincoln Center and
asked for the nearest mental hospital. After a psychiatric exam at Bellevue,
Mr. Lewis was surprised to find that he was not seriously ill. "I went to
Barnes & Noble, found some books on panic attacks and depression and
realized I was not crazy," he said.

Three days later he spotted an advertisement in Down Beat magazine for the
Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, which he had entered, and
lost, as a 16-year-old. For the next three months, he spent every waking
moment preparing his entry tape.

"Those were very lean times," he said. "I was very alone, I owed people a
lot of money and I was surviving on 99-cent boxes of Ronzoni."

He won the competition but owed nearly all of the $10,000 prize, much of it
to a wily group of chess players, "hustlers" as he calls them, who spend
their days in Washington Square Park or in the chess shops on nearby
Thompson Street. 

Although he is short on cash these days, Mr. Lewis said he did not regret
his departure from Lincoln Center. In recent weeks, he has found a manager,
taken on more writing for film soundtracks and booked a series of gigs. He
may perform at a Los Angeles Oscar party with Jamie Foxx as host. This month
he put together a showcase for himself at a Los Angeles nightclub that drew
a smattering of music industry executives, jazz critics and Hollywood types.

He recognizes that straight jazz is a less-than-lucrative genre and, many of
his new compositions include vocals and danceable rhythms. He says he is fed
up with the jazz world's obsession with the esoteric, which he sees as
keeping many of his peers struggling to make ends meet.

"I just want to make sounds that people dig," Mr. Lewis said, "and make a
lot of money doing it."

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