The Troy Street Observer

Sabby Lewis, Part 1: The War Years

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. He played at Boston’s Savoy Cafe for the first time in 1940, thus beginning 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, of course, he had a great band for a long time, and second, he did much to shape the Boston environment and make it a credible place for jazz.

Lewis hired the best musicians and arrangers in Boston for his orchestra (first a septet, then an octet), 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, in 1943, replaced by Osie Johnson, and 1946, replaced by Eddie Feggan.)

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 Lewis group’s sound. It always sounded big, bigger than a septet or octet, and the arranger behind it was Heffron, a Boston Conservatory graduate  who 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.

A good band, however, needs a good room, and Lewis didn’t have one until he arrived at the Savoy in 1940. Frank Stacy, writing in Down Beat, noted how it clicked: “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, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge—sat in at the Savoy.

So the Savoy showed that Boston would support a jazz-only venue, and 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 Fitch Bandwagon radio program in July 1942, broadcast from Boston’s Statler Hotel. That broadcast opened doors, and over the next four years Lewis was often in New York clubs like the Famous Door and the Club Zanzibar, spreading the sound of Boston jazz.

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. It was Lewis, and not other Boston bandleaders like Joe Nevils or Preston Sandiford, who 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. In the late 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. We’ll get to the Hi-Hat, and the breakup of the Lewis band, in this space on December 18.

Because of the recording ban, Lewis lost a contract with Decca and his wartime band never recorded. I will upload some of his mid-forties music to YouTube shortly… stay tuned.

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 was using it before that:

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