Webster Lewis was a whirlwind on the Boston music scene in the 1970s. Fueled by seemingly inexhaustible energy, Lewis was all things at once: musician and bandleader, composer and arranger, teacher and administrator. He was a jazz man at heart, but his wide-angle view extended beyond jazz to incorporate all genres of Black music. It was all part of his musical conception.
Lewis, a Baltimore native, was already working as a pianist and organist while attending Morgan State College there. He played the popular Black music of the day in tenor saxophonist Harold Adams’s band—Harold Adams & the Soul Brothers. While still a student, in 1965, Lewis got his first taste of a recording studio, on sessions at Scepter Records in New York. He impressed Scepter’s resident producer-genius, Luther Dixon, who encouraged his growing interest in composing and arranging. For Lewis, the experience was revelatory.
The Adams band went on the road in 1966, touring as Judd & the Soulfuls, with Lewis on the Hammond B-3, and Judd Watkins, a powerful baritone singer, out front. Their Boston stop was at Estelle’s, on Tremont Street. Lewis probably liked what he saw, because after a year back in Baltimore, he enrolled at the New England Conservatory. He probably arrived in fall 1968. He studied piano with Jaki Byard, and composing and conducting with Gunther Schuller. George Russell joined the faculty in 1969, and became Lewis’s mentor.
Writer Ernie Santosuosso once noted that Lewis attacked projects with the aggressiveness of a bulldozer. So it was with his studies. He pursued two advanced degrees simultaneously—in Music Composition at the Conservatory, and in Social Psychology at Boston College. (He completed both in 1970.) That left him with too much spare time, so he formed a quintet in early 1969. Watkins had also moved to Boston, and the two continued to play with various combinations of drummers and horns well into the 1970s. With the quintet’s mix of jazz and R&B, they were favorites at Estelle’s, and at a new club in Cambridge, the Western Front, that opened in 1970.
The Webster Lewis Quintet in Norway
In 1971, the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in Norway commissioned a new work from George Russell, and he asked Lewis’s group to join him there. The quintet at that time included Watkins; alto saxophonist Bobby Greene; saxophonist/flutist Stan Strickland, formerly with the sextet Brute Force; and drummer Jimmy Hopps, a veteran of the Roland Kirk and Charles Tolliver groups. This quintet also played a festival set of their own, and after fifty years, that music was made available on a limited-edition LP in 2021, Live at Kongsberg Jazz 1971 (Jazz Aggression JALP728).
Shortly after the festival, the quintet played six nights at Oslo’s Club 7, then considered the cutting edge on the Norwegian scene. The intrepid Arne Bendiksen of Sonet Records recorded them there before an appreciative audience, wth Lewis playing a borrowed Hammond B-3. The result was the album Live at Club 7 (Sonet SLP 1417), now much prized by collectors. I’ve seen the music described as “spacey funky soul-jazz fusion.” Tells you everything you need to know, right? But everything Lewis knew about music up to that point is in there, from gospel to Baltimore R&B to progressive rock to Jimmy Smith to the compositions of Russell and Schuller. And he was always on a first-name basis with the popular music of the day.
This, Lewis would say, was one part of his concept. The band’s name on this recording implies its expansiveness: The Post-Pop Space-Rock Be-Bop Gospel Tabernacle Orchestra and Chorus. The inspiration for that unwieldy name remains a mystery, but Lewis would use it for the next five years.
The Club 7 recordings aptly demonstrate the two sides of the Webster Lewis Quintet in 1971. The instrumental tracks are flowing post-bop improvisations with plenty of space for the organ and the two horns. The mood shifts from a churchy organ to straightahead blowing to an excursion into free jazz. On the other hand, the vocal tracks featuring Watkins are all about R&B and gospel. The group goes full Judd & The Soulfuls on tunes like the Isley’s “It’s Your Thing.” The vocal high point, though, is the trance-inducing “Do You Believe,” clocking in at 21 minutes.
The Club 7 album suffered the fate of many indie recordings: at first hard to find, and then out of print. A 2007 reissue included the entire 1972 album, plus six unissued tracks and two alternate takes (Webster Lewis in Norway: The Club 7 Live Tapes, Plastic Strip Press PSPCD 701). It’s currently available on some of the streaming services.
Directing the Community Services Department
More doors opened for Lewis in 1972. He made a second Norwegian trip, to the Molde Jazz Festival. He replaced Larry Young in Tony Williams’s Lifetime; he’s on the album The Old Bum’s Rush. He played organ on George Russell’s Living Time sessions. And he joined Stanley Cowell’s Piano Choir, an ensemble of seven first-call pianists. That group appeared twice in concert at Jordan Hall, in 1972 and 1973. Lewis knew that venue well, and he had grand plans for it.
The New England Conservatory became Lewis’s base of operations in 1972 when he became director of the Community Services Department. (At the time of his death, Gunther Schuller noted that for a time, Lewis was “his right-hand man.”) NEC created it in the late 1960s as its vehicle for outreach into Boston’s neighborhoods, and its activities were diverse. Its staff ran music programs in prisons. They taught classes and gave lessons to city kids as young as seven. In its Inner City Concert Series, Lewis traveled around town with a CSD student band and his own quintet, playing a mix of post-bop jazz and Motown. “Nothing too complicated,” he noted. From October 1973 through March 1974, for example, CSD logged 37 such concerts.
Meanwhile, Lewis’s musical conception continued to expand, and in 1974, he brought that vision to life. He wanted an orchestra to play the best contemporary Black music in a concert hall, to thus put it on the same footing as the Boston Pops. That April, Lewis produced “A Tribute to Marvin Gaye,” conducting a 50-piece orchestra of Community Services students bolstered by his own band. He called it, of course, the Post-Pop Space-Rock Be-Bop Gospel Tabernacle Orchestra. The 1975 concert was an even bigger “Salute to the Black Recording Companies of America,” with a 60-piece Post-Pop orchestra performing the music of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and others. Lewis said then that if he could get funding, he’d go even bigger: he envisioned Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae at Symphony Hall, backed by an orchestra and chorus of 100. But the funding never materialized. It was just too much even for Lewis’s most stalwart supporters at the NEC. And that’s when I think Lewis started looking beyond Boston for a bigger stage.
Going Out On the Town
In June 1974, Webster Lewis played at a wedding reception, and it changed the course of his career. Sly Stone wed Kathy Silva in a much-publicized ceremony at Madison Square Garden, and Lewis supplied the music afterward at the Waldorf. The group impressed the executives from Epic Records in attendance. They signed Lewis to a contract.
At about this same time, Lewis worked with the studio wizard Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson on the soundtrack for the 1974 film, The Education of Sonny Carson. Perkinson, widely known as a composer and conductor of orchestral works, brought that orchestral approach to jazz and pop, and Lewis especially admired his work on Marvin Gaye’s album I Want You. He hired Perkinson to write arrangements for his first album for Epic, On the Town. Released in late 1976, Epic promoted On the Town as “the biggest disco record of the year.” It carried Webster Lewis into the commercial mainstream.
It wasn’t all disco beats yet, though. Lewis still found time for gigs at the Western Front, and James Isaacs interviewed him there for the Phoenix in January 1977. Isaacs didn’t much like the glossy On the Town, especially when compared to the “galvanic body music” Lewis played at the club. Said Lewis, “What you heard upstairs was one part of my concept. The record is another part, and we can reach more people with it. So-called jazz musicians have not, for the most part, really mined the wider audience.” And there would be more to come: “I don’t see the record as the epitome of my career; it’s just one more thing that has been added.” Lewis continued to mine that wider audience, but doing so pulled him away from both jazz and Boston. Lewis finally broke up his band, and left the NEC, in mid-1978. By September he was touring Asia with Herbie Hancock’s funk band, playing organ and synthesizer.
Lewis released three more albums on Epic, all blending the flavors of soul, funk, and disco with splashes of jazz. He made a good living at it, but it never fulfilled his concert hall ambitions for great Black music. By 1981, he was the Los Angeles studio wizard. He spent the decade writing film scores and producing other artists, including pop faves Gwen McCrae and Michael Wycoff.
Lewis eventually tired of Los Angeles and moved back east in 1995 to teach at Howard University. By the millennium, though, health and personal issues weighed him down. He died in November 2002 at age 59, his whirlwind of creative energy finally stilled.
To the music. First, the instrumental “Mr Knots,” with three minutes of Lewis’s organ to start things out.
Next, it’s “Do You Believe,” with the Watkins vocal, and the organ, and the unison horns, coming at you in waves.