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How a Phoenix music icon helped jazz great Lewis Nash take off in New York

Lewis Nash was an aspiring drummer who had a lot to learn about jazz history when Charles Lewis, a pianist bandleader and something of a legendary figure on the Phoenix scene, invited him to play a few gigs. with his band in the late ’70s.

“We established a really good relationship,” Nash said of those first dates.

“I was like a sponge trying to absorb as much as I could. The Charles Lewis Quintet was the first professional work situation I was involved in. So that was the very beginning of my understanding of what even to be a professional musician.

Nash built on lessons learned with Lewis when he moved to New York and eventually became one of jazz’s finest drummers.

This makes the upcoming series of reunion concerts with the Charles Lewis Quintet Plus One at the venue named in Nash’s honor a particularly poignant occasion. The first of five shows takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 18 at The Nash in downtown Phoenix.

Nash came to regard Lewis not just as a mentor but as family.

“My mom would invite her over for the holidays,” Nash said.

“Actually, on her 89th birthday, we had a little reunion at the health facility. And Charles came and spent his last birthday with her. So Mr. Charles Lewis is very important in my musical development. and my life.”

“Above all, he was swinging”

Nash was still a student at East High School when he first caught Lewis’ attention.

“I was a judge at an orchestra festival in high school,” Lewis recalled.

“And I was impressed with his musical maturity. His sense of what a drummer should do in relation to the whole thing. And most importantly, he was swinging. He had what I would call a great groove.”

Lewis made a mental note to keep tabs on Nash, who was attending Arizona State University when he received the call.

“I’m always interested in young musicians,” Lewis said. “Their energy is usually a lot more urgent. It’s something they don’t get a chance to do, to work with professional players. So there’s a commitment and an urgency there.”

When Nash first joined his high school live band, they were playing songs from Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

“So there was horns and it was jazzy,” Nash said. “But it wasn’t jazz.”

A new band manager changed all that, introducing Nash to real jazz.

Prior to this, he copied grooves and beats from R&B and soul recordings of the time – James Brown, Motown – which he says helped his understanding of groove.

“It’s a more visceral and intuitive game, which I think is needed,” he said.

“Jazz education has created a thing where we produce all of these musicians with technical ease. It’s great. But there’s a certain authenticity to the feeling that we have to be sure to address.”

Prior to performing with Lewis, Nash would go see jazz bands at the El Bandito Lounge and the Century Sky Room to try to understand how jazz worked.

He was still figuring it out without knowing much about the story or the players.

“I was just following what I heard,” he said. “And lucky for me, there was a very good drummer in Phoenix at the time called Dave Cook. He was the first real jazz drummer I ever heard.”

Soon Nash was sitting on drums at local clubs.

“They were like, ‘Who is this kid? Let him play,'” he recalled with a laugh.

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Charles Lewis Quintet at the disco

It was this work that earned him his first regular gig – with Lewis at the Pointe in Phoenix.

“They had a nightclub there,” Nash said. “And they were alternating. So when the disco was over, the Charles Lewis Quintet was doing a set. But people were dancing for both of us.”

Lewis remembers the Point as a very supportive environment.

“We were free to do whatever we wanted,” he said.

“And we had an audience that really enjoyed what we were doing. Besides really enjoying dancing at the disco, they were interested in a jazz band doing things creatively.”

This creativity was influenced by Lewis’ general interests.

“Charles was very fond of Afro-Cuban music,” Nash said.

“He was into world music before the term was even coined. I would go to his house and he would play Brazilian music, Cuban music, Indian music. I didn’t know what I would hear when I was going to his house. He might have a symphony. And that showed me that high-level music can come in many different forms.

Lewis also did shows for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“He would take his quintet to reservations and to schools and we would play for the kids,” Nash said.

“It was truly magnificent. I had the chance to really see another side of Charles. More than a great musician, he was an excellent pedagogue and communicator with young people. I think that still influences me. “

Lewis’ impact on Nash went beyond music

Lewis’ influence on Nash went beyond music.

“He was very committed to a healthy lifestyle,” Nash recalled.

“So early on, due to his influence, I changed my diet replacing a lot of fried foods, greasy foods, soul foods that I grew up on and started eating healthier and more natural foods.”

He also dabbled in natural medicine.

“It really has nothing to do with the music,” Nash said.

“But it has to do with staying healthy enough to play music. Charles will be 88 on his next birthday. And he looks great. He’s doing great. He hasn’t let up. socket.”

After the gig at The Point ran its course, the drummer began working with another great pianist, Keith Greco.

“He was another giant of the Phoenix jazz scene,” Nash said. “I played six nights a week with him for a long time in Scottsdale.”

Nash is quick to thank those who nurtured and inspired him along his journey, from Cook to Greco and Prince Shell, another influential pianist on the Phoenix scene.

“Prince and I had huge record collections,” Lewis said.

“And Lewis was sharp. His interest vitality was high, so he was able to absorb the quality of the material we gave him.”

Nash sees Lewis, Shell and Greco as key influences, saying, “They first provided me with the right information, the right experiences that prepared me to enter the New York scene.”

Nash moved to New York in 1981

In 1981, Nash moved to New York to pursue her career.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I went there with a purpose. I was going to audition for a gig with Betty Carter. I didn’t just go and look for what I was going to do. I had a specific thing I was coming to do. And it hasn’t stopped since.

Nash has performed on over 400 records, including 10 that won Grammys. Modern Drummer proclaimed him “Jazz’s Most Valuable Player” in 2009.

Lewis recalls her first reaction to Nash’s career taking off as it did.

“It was, you know, ‘Hello.’ What else would I expect? Lewis’ instinct was excellent. And it grew rapidly.”

The drummer has kept a strong connection to his Phoenix roots through it all.

“When I went home to visit my parents and family, I always reached out to Charles and other musicians,” he said.

How the Phoenix Jazz Community Honored Nash

In 2012, the concert hall named for Nash opened on Roosevelt Row.

“I remember that moment,” Nash said after being approached by Jazz in Arizona.

“I was actually speechless. Once I collected my thoughts, I said, ‘Sure, that would be a great honor. Not knowing if he would be able to survive or have enough interest. Of course, many years later, I’m happy to say it’s thriving.

Nash not only continues to perform, but is also a practice instructor in Jazz Studies at the ASU School of Music.

In May 2021, the Charles Lewis Quintet Plus One – featuring Joe Corral on flute, Frank Smith on sax and flute, Dwight Kilian on bass, Steve Banks on percussion and Nash – took to the stage for their first concert in addition 40 years old.

This Nash Under The Stars performance in the garden of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society also marked Nash’s return to the stage for his first show since February 2020.

“A lot of times you hear people talk about how they’ve missed playing for people, interacting with audiences, playing with other musicians, all those things,” Nash said.

“But there’s one aspect that I don’t hear much about. And that’s how satisfying it is to play music, what it does for us internally. It’s satisfying on another level. “

The Charles Lewis Quintet Plus One with Lewis Nash

When: 3 p.m. on Sundays July 18 and 25; August 1, 8 and 15.

Or: The Nash, 110 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix.

Admission: $29 to $39.

Details: 602-795-0464,

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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