|Profile: Art Lewis
By Richard Baron
Posted on November 30, 2003
Art Lewis was born in Houston in 1936 and first remembers listening to music in church. "It had so much power behind it, you couldn't sit down. You'd have to hold onto your
seat and if you don't watch it you'd start hollering 'Hallelujah,' and 'Thank-you-Jesus'."
Lewis studied a few years at Texas Southern but credits his real education to the hours he passed on the porch with his grandfather. "He was a storyteller and everyone went to
sit on his front porch to be entertained. He could tell a lie into the truth, and most of my knowledge of life came from him. He taught me to let your mind be the strongest thing
about you, and that words can save you or destroy you. He taught me how not to be afraid. It's invisible how he taught knowledge to come to me. It's a form of relaxation that is
the same way with music. I relax myself and it comes. I play things that I've never heard. Sometimes when I play a lick on my horn, it's just that time to play it -- I can't force it and I
can't delay it.
"I started playing in clubs when I was still a teenager. We were playing blues but we were mostly into entertaining. I was standing on the corner one day and Amos Milburn's
brother who was a piano player came by and asked me if I wanted to work tonight and I said, 'Work?' because I just got the horn about three months before and I didn't know
anything about working but he said, 'Come on, we'll jam,' so I said, 'Okay.' He had a cousin who played drums and could keep a beat, and that's why the beat is so important in
music. The piano player didn't know anything about the piano and I didn't know anything about the saxophone. We only knew about three or four notes but we knew how to
entertain, like jumping off the bar and the tables and going out into the streets. Our main goal was to get the customer to drink because the more the listener drinks, the better
the band sound. If you don't get people to react, it don't matter how good the music you do. You have to entertain; you have to get that lady out on the dance floor.
"I would hear the local bands around Houston in the Fifties, and I knew a lot of guys who are famous today - guitar players like Muddy Waters or Guitar Slim - and people ask me
how it feel playing with people like Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. At the time, the only thing you're worried about is getting to the job on time, how much does it pay and will the
others get there sober.
"I got with Bobby Blue Bland for a while in 1954 and '55 because his bass player called and asked if I want to play with them in Florida, and we came up the East Coast to New
York and over to Chicago and St. Luis. Then I went to Louisiana with Clifton Chenier and we played more white clubs than black. The blacks and whites were listening to the you
break it down, both of them were in a state of slavery.
"I went back to Houston when I got called to the army, but the war was over and I had quit a gig just to find out that I didn't need to. That's what brought me to El Paso. I was on
my way to Mexico and just as I was coming into El Paso, I stopped at a gas station and a guy stepped up to the car and said 'Can I help you, Sir.' These were small words but
they were powerful words and I had never heard anything like that before. Those words, 'Can I help you, Sir?', were part of my decision to stay here, and I have found more
democracy in El Paso than any other place I have gone.
"When I got here there was a lot of action over on Alameda but I played in bars all over town. You could start in the Circus Room, where the Central is now, and go past the bus
station, and back down to the bridge on El Paso Street, and all you had was entertainment and bands. On Saturday afternoon you could have 500 people at the Hollywood Cafe.
It was nothing for me to play four or five gigs a day. We just played all the time, at the Whoo's Club, the Alley Cat. You crossed over the Bridge and you had live music all the way
down to the La Fiesta.
"I sat in with Long John at The Lobby and I played with him at the King's X for ten years, but when he left is when I became what I call an earth citizen, and that's how my
band The Earthmen came about. I started out as a Negro and then a colored man and then a black man, but I evolved into a citizen of earth, because the only way I'm going
to let other people take one inch of the earth is if someone holds a gun on me and says this is my land and I say, 'Okay, this is your land,' and then he puts the gun down
and it's my land again.
"I don't ever remember packing a knife or a gun. Everyplace I've ever been, the only instrument I ever used was my saxophone. As long as you're on the bandstand you're safe,
unless you're messing with someone's old lady out there. There are very few musicians that got wiped out on the bandstand.
"When you're making jazz and blues it's better to have a little of everything than a whole lot of one thing. Music is a powerful force. It can make you laugh and dance and it can
make you fight and raise hell, but I never chose to do the negative end of it. I know the power of music, and what I play is something to make you feel good.
"The blues does not affect the white man the same as it affects the black man. When a white man listens to the blues, it's for entertainment, but when a black man listens to it,
it's for revenge. He's already mad and the blues is just making him madder.
"The minute I walk in a club, I'm thinking, "How are the people out there at those tables feeling?" I can sum up how they are listening by the movements of their bodies and the
way their mouths are going, and that's what I play to."
"All music has the same notes. Symphony has the same notes, rap has the same notes, blues has the same notes, religious has the same notes, every style of music you can
name has the same notes. C is C. It's all either four beats or three beats or two beats. If you could tap the moon, you'd find that it's the same note that you can tap on Earth."