Sonny Lewis is a legendary tenor-saxophonist who has been a fixture in the San Francisco Bay area jazz scene for many years. A tenor with a big tone and an adventurous style, he was always a flexible player who could fit comfortably into many different settings, uplifting each group with whom he appeared.
Sonny, who was born and grew up in Boston, remembers early on being impressed by the recordings of Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker. He started on clarinet when he was 13, switching permanently to tenor the following year. “I knew within a year or so that I wanted to be a professional musician. Our house was near the black Musician’s Union and we used to go to the parking lot and listen to the musicians practice and jam.” Soon he was gigging, playing for weddings (including Greek and Italian), dances, and clubs. “In those days, I often played r&b and early rock and roll depending on the band that I was in.”
A year after high school, Sonny Lewis attended the Berklee School of Music for two years, where he developed his skills as an arranger and orchestrator. During this period he played concerts at other colleges in the Boston area, and would go down to the New York clubs to see the horn men, including Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, and Charlie Rouse. After two years at Berklee, an opportunity came up in 1960 to go to Europe with a group of slightly younger college musicians. “I played at clubs in Paris, appeared on French TV, and performed in Germany including at some GI clubs. After the summer ended, when the other musicians went back to college in Boston, I decided to stay in Europe for a time.”
In 1961, Sonny sat in at the Blue Note with pianist Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Pierre Michelot, worked with pianist Kenny Drew, had the remarkable experience of two gigs with the poet William S. Burroughs, and gigged for two months in Tripoli, Libya. He also met Terry Riley, an innovative classical composer who was influenced by his love of jazz. “We performed in a band at an officer’s club at an Army base in France, playing dance music. Terry was one of the ones who told me that I should someday play in San Francisco.” Sonny is on the original recording of Terry Riley’s “In C,” an influential piece in the world of minimalism.
Sonny Lewis took the advice of Terry Riley and others, moving to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-1960s. He knew that he was right at home after he saw John Coltrane performing at the Jazz Workshop. During this period, Sonny played at countless sessions and events, including SF’s Muhammed Ali Festival in 1967. At the time, Tom Harrell was his trumpeter. “Tom Harrell had just gotten out of Stanford and he blew everybody away. Eventually everybody had heard about him, and before I knew it, Tom was gone, out on the road.” Other sidemen included trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Eddie Moore. “My band was often a training base for others. John Handy took Eddie Moore for his own group.”
Since that time, he has appeared in a countless number of bands and played all over the world. Sonny spent a year working with Barry White. “I left right before he really made it big. We were on the road most of the time, playing Madison Square Garden two or three times.” He then joined R&B group The Whispers a year later, touring venues across the country including Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with Johnny “Guitar” Watson as the headliner. While with the Whispers, Sonny recorded on their gold album “Love Is Where You Find It” featuring such crossover hits as “It’s a Love Thing,” “And The Beat Goes On” and “Olivia (Lost And Turned Out).”
Sonny spent a weekend in 1976 working with the great drummer Art Blakey. “The regular people in the Jazz Messengers had to go back to New York because of another commitment so I got to perform with Art Blakey’s pickup band in Tucson, Arizona. That was a great experience since I had grown up listening to his music. His drum roll scared the hell out of me. I knew that I had to play something or he would hit me with one of his sticks!”
“I also worked with Merle Saunders a few times. Merle was also playing with Jerry Garcia, and a friend of mine, Martin Fierro was also in that group. The cool thing about the way that worked out was because of the way that Jerry Garcia handled the money, both of those cats walked away from that band with houses. Without him, that never would have happened.”
That group was great because, instead of one person copping all of the money, Jerry Garcia handled it differently than most of the other bandleaders. Because of his fairness, a lot of his musicians were able to buy houses.”
Sonny Lewis can be heard on a pair of recordings by drummer Smiley Winters that included altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald, It’ll Be All Right by trumpeter David Hardiman’s big band in 1978, and the 2009 CD Portrait Of David Hardiman which features Sonny with a combo on tenor, flute and soprano. Sonny can also be seen on You Tube in clips from 1992 with his quartet of the time, performing stirring versions of “A Night In Tunisia” and “Jeannine.” His adventurous and passionate playing mixes together aspects of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, stretching the boundaries of hard bop in his own personal sound.
Sonny Lewis has been semi-retired in recent years but he can look back on a lifetime of rewarding experiences. Never-before-released recordings from his group with the young Tom Harrell will be coming out in the near future, reminding listeners just how vital a musician Sonny Lewis has been throughout his colorful career.
- Biography written by Scott Yanow