Jam Tales: Carroll Lewis
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Some time in the late nineties Carroll Lewis showed up at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harling's Upstairs.
I assumed he was there to check out our Hammond B3 organist, Rich VanSant. We played in the round and he took a table directly behind the organ.
Dr Lewis had been the jazz band director (and the orchestra director) at Raytown South, the high school from which I graduated in 1974 (Raytown is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri).
He was a highly respected and very successful music educator. A 54-year member of the Music Educators National Conference, Carroll received Hall of Fame Awards from the Missouri Association of Jazz Educators, the Missouri Bandmasters Association and the Missouri Music Educators Association. He was recognized by Missouri State University as an Outstanding Alumnus.
He was also a working jazz pianist around Kansas City, both solo as well as different small groups and big bands, from 1954 until his death in 2009.
And on top of all that, he was the Vice President of the Kansas City chapter of the Musicians Union for 20 years.
Fortunately, he didn't remember me, nor our last conversation that had occurred in May of 1974.
To understand why it was fortunate that he didn't remember me, backstory is required:
Dr Lewis' high school jazz bands consistently won state. I once asked him what he was doing here, teaching in a suburban high school. He had a PHD; he could be anywhere at a university conservatory level. He responded by saying "money!" He said Raytown South paid him big bucks to ensure that the jazz band took state every year. And it did.
“Irrefutably, the local high school jazz band that set the bar for everyone was Raytown South's. Under the direction of Carroll Lewis, the band earned the respect of professional players and the jealousy of high school jazz lovers all over the metropolitan area. Besides routinely winning state jazz band contests, Carroll Lewis's bands had a guaranteed spot on the yearly Kansas City Jazz Festival.”— Beneath Missouri Skies: Pat Metheny in Kansas City, 1964-1972 p. 23.
It may surprise you to find out that I was not in Carroll Lewis' jazz band. There were several reasons, the primary one being that I hated high school and did the least amount possible to get by. I didn't want to spend any more time in that building than the absolute minimum that was necessary.
Secondly, I was already performing in bands. I didn't want to play in another band and not get paid. I now know that I didn’t appreciate the value of what playing in Dr Lewis’ jazz band could have meant for my guitar playing.
Thirdly, I was not yet exposed to nor interested in jazz.
My senior year, however, I took an elective. It was a music theory class, taught by Dr Lewis in the band room and taking place the first hour every morning.
I had never experienced a teaching style like his!
He was caustic, cutting and sarcastic. He seemed to be in a chronically bad mood. He had derogatory nicknames for everybody that he used as a put-down when you didn't measure up. The guy was pretty brutal and half the class dropped the first week. It would probably be characterized as abuse in today's climate.
But for those of us who toughened up and took what he dished out, by the end of the year we were writing original pieces in the 4-part Bach Chorale style.
I have memories of him yelling like a drill sergeant,
“Resolve! Resolve! Resolve!”
Our final grade was based on selecting a poem and setting it to music in the Bach style. I used a poem by William Cowper originally called, "Light Shining Out of Darkness" which later became the Christian hymn, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way."
We would bring in our manuscripts, Dr Lewis would sit at the piano, sight read the piece and critique it in front of the class. I got an A.
Looking back on it, it was quite amazing; a bunch of high school kids writing original music as 4-part Bach chorales.
The main thing that had an effect on my guitar playing from that theory class was learning to spell triads and figuring out for myself how to play scale-tone triads on the guitar. That was very valuable knowledge that has stood me in good stead ever since, plus the knowledge I gained from that class allowed me to coast through 3 years of theory classes in college.
Anyway, during the last week of my senior year, there were electives occurring the last hour of the school day. Things like mountain climbing, film classes, photography and so on. I chose the jam sessions in the band room, overseen by Dr Lewis. The rhythm section was the jazz band guys.
I sat in and played a couple of tunes.
Dr Lewis exploded!
"You mean to tell me you can play guitar like that and chose not to be in MY jazz band?!!” He yelled (at least it felt like he was yelling).
He continued, "You've been sitting in MY theory class every day getting stuff from this school and not giving anything back!"
I didn’t want to tell him I hated school or that I had a band and gigs outside of school, so I played the responsibility card,
"But" I said, "I have a car and an after-school job to pay for it."
"YOU CAN ALWAYS HAVE A JOB AND A CAR BUT YOU CAN'T ALWAYS BE IN MY JAZZ BAND!!!!"
"Holy crap!” I thought to myself, "I am so glad this is the last week of school because he would have made that theory class a living hell for me."
That was the last conversation we had until the afternoon at Harlings some 20+ years later.
In 1981 I was touring with the band I was in at the time and rooming with the drummer, Mike Harvey.
We got to talking about influences and education and I mentioned that I had taken a theory class from Dr Lewis in high school.
“Do you mean Carroll Lewis?” Mike asked.
“Yes.” I said.
“Oh man!” Mike said. “I played every night in a trio for months with that guy down at the Kansas City Club. He was a weird dude. He had a routine. Every night he’d come into the club, put his briefcase up on the piano, take out his music and arrange it just so. And there was always a fifth of bourbon in that briefcase!”
That. Explained. Everything.
Forget the bourbon for a moment. He was teaching the Bach 4-Part Chorale rules to a bunch of high school kids at 8:00 in the morning after gigging til 1:00AM the night before. Add to that the likelihood of being hungover and, well, no wonder he was always in a bad mood!
When he came into Harling’s that day, he looked good. By this time he had long since retired from teaching (he retired from the school district in 1983) and was just gigging around town. He was slim, tan and had a very attractive older woman on his arm who I assume was his wife.
According to his obituary his marriage lasted from the late forties until his death in 2009.
I respect any professional musician who stays married to one woman his whole life. Especially a musician who works nightclubs. Never home at night, working holidays and weekends, plus the day job at the school.
I respect the wife even more for putting up with all of it.
“Well” I thought, “He appears to have sobered up!”
Since there was no indication that he remembered me, I decided to sit with him on break and tell him how much that theory class meant to me and how it had prepared me in many ways for what I was doing now.
So I sat sat down and introduced myself. Still no glimmer of recognition. Good!
I told him I had taken a theory class from him in high school and that I really appreciated what I had learned there; it had set me up for subsequent learning and becoming a pro musician.
“What year did you graduate?” he asked.
“Hmmm…did you play in my jazz band?”
“Oh oh” I thought, “here it comes!”
This time I told him the truth:
”No sir, I hated high school and didn’t want to spend any more time there than I had to.”
I steeled myself for the flash of recognition. Nothing.
“Well, Jay, thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you got something worthwhile out of my theory class.”
Whew! He didn’t remember me! I felt very good that our previous exchange in 1974 was resolved, at least for me.
Later on during the next set, he and his wife got up to leave. Because of the room and the location of the stage, he had to walk right by me to get to the exit.
As he passed by me (the band was in the middle of a song) he leaned over and said,
“You are a really good guitar player; I’m proud you went to South!” - and then he was gone.
My reaction was surprising to me; I had a surge of anger. I thought,
“I don’t give a shit about Raytown South! Did he not hear me when I said I hated high school?”
Since then I’ve had another thought:
Maybe he did hear me. And maybe he did remember me, and that was his response!
I guess I’ll never know.
Aaaand there goes my feeling of resolution!
“Resolve! Resolve! Resolve!”
Sign up as a Master Guitar School site member - it's free! - and get access to dozens of free site-based lessons, a monthly newsletter that contains a brand-new free lesson, and DEEP discounts on lesson series downloads - plus more!
For more information on site membership see Why Become A Site Member?