William Sebastian Lewis was born in Middleburg, North Carolina, on November 1, 1914, and raised in Philadelphia. That’s where he took up the piano, playing rent parties and little jobs until his family moved to the Boston area in 1932. Sabby joined Tasker Crosson’s Statesmen in 1935, and formed his first band in 1936. The Sabby Lewis Orchestra played at Boston’s Savoy Cafe for the first time in 1940, and began his most vital decade in music.

Photo of Sabby Lewis

Sabby Lewis and Jerry Heffron, late 1930s

Lewis was a fine pianist from the Earl Hines school, but his playing didn’t make him important. Two other things did. First, he had a great band for a long time. Second, he did much to make Boston a credible place for jazz.

In November 1939, about the time that Lewis first worked at the Savoy, Eliot Freeman wrote in the Boston Chronicle: “One of the most amazing musical units heard in many a moon around these parts has as its leader the modest demon of the black and white, Sabby Lewis. These boys have some very fine arrangements and have worked hard to make theirs an outstanding outfit.”

Lewis hired the best musicians and arrangers in Boston for his six-to-eight-piece orchestra, and kept its core intact through the decade. The two trumpeters, Eugene Caines and Maceo Bryant (who doubled on trombone), joined Lewis before 1940, as did drummer Joe Booker. Veteran bassist/vocalist Al Morgan arrived in 1942, and critics at the time credited him with bringing the drive to the Lewis band. All were still with Lewis when the band broke up in December 1949. (Caines left the band for a time in 1943, and Cat Anderson replaced him. Booker left twice briefly, in 1943 when Osie Johnson  replaced him, and in 1946, when Eddie Feggan did the honors.)

There was a bit more movement in the sax section between 1940 and 1945, and given the bewildering amount of contradictory information available, some of these dates are best guesses. Tenors included Jerry Heffron (1936-44), Ricky Pratt (1940-43, 1945) and Big Nick Nicholas (1944-45). Altos included Walter Sisco (1940), Jackie Fields (1941-43), Benny Williams (1943) and Ray Perry (1944-45). Sonny Stitt played alto briefly in 1942. Heffron and Sisco also played clarinet, and Perry famously doubled on violin. Bill Dorsey played tenor and baritone in 1945.

Critics, and listeners, loved the Sabby Lewis Orchestra’s sound. It always sounded big, bigger than even an octet, and the arranger behind it was Heffron. The Boston Conservatory graduate was with Lewis from the first band in 1936 until he entered the army in 1944. George Frazier wrote in the Boston Herald in April 1942 that “The seven pieces—piano, bass, drums, two reeds, two brass—accomplish wonders. The voicings are so expert that there are moments when the seven men sound like 13 or 14. And by that I don’t mean they’re loud and blary, and strictly for the jazzers, but that they somehow manage to achieve the depth and resonance of a good small band.” Those voicings were Heffron’s work.

Sabby Lewis Orchestra at the Savoy

A good band, however, needs a good room, and Lewis didn’t have one until he arrived at the Savoy Cafe in 1940. Frank Stacy wrote in Down Beat: “The band was on a Basie kick with overtones of Erskine Hawkins and undertones of the Duke. They played all the Count’s things…That was probably what first attracted everyone to them. Their taste was in perfect harmony with most of the people who went to the Savoy. Besides the Count’s stuff, they played a lot of Duke and all the standards like “Moonglow,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Body and Soul.” Everybody coming through town—Benny Goodman, Sweets Edison, Trummy Young, Roy Eldridge—sat in at the Savoy.

So the Savoy showed that Boston would support a jazz-only venue. Had Lewis not helped build that audience, the Savoy could not have taken the next step—bringing Frankie Newton’s group from New York in January 1942. They stayed until mid-April, and followed with a long return engagement in the fall. Theirs was the first long residence of a New York band in Boston, and another sign that the jazz scene was growing.

Lewis next made a nationwide splash with his appearance on the nationally broadcast Fitch Bandwagon radio program in July 1942. The radio appearance had a positive impact on Sabby’s fortunes. Billy Austin, a New York booking agent, heard Lewis and liked him, and found the band work on 52nd Street, at Kelly’s Stables and the Famous Door. Lewis advertised as the Fitch Bandwagon Orchestra for several years thereafter. (He previously called his band the Savoy Sultans.) But because of the recording ban, which cost Lewis a contract with Decca, we’ll never get to hear his wartime band.

There was one more aspect to Sabby Lewis that shouldn’t be overlooked. He had the personality to both lead the band and promote it. He knew how to talk to press and public, be they black or white, and he built a loyal following. Lewis, and not one of the other Boston bandleaders like Joe Nevils or Preston Sandiford, landed the Savoy job, and was written up regularly in Down Beat.

The postwar Lewis band, with new soloists and arrangers, moved toward jump music. Later in the 1940s, when the Savoy turned to Dixieland, the Lewis band moved to the Hi-Hat, which they quickly established as the city’s new top jazz spot. The band broke up at the end of 1949.

And here is “Minor Mania,” the band’s theme, written and arranged by Highland Diggs. It was recorded on a Crystal-Tone 78 in 1947, but Lewis used it before that.