As we approach this year’s Berklee High School Jazz Festival, we at the BerkleeJazz.org staff would like to present a portrait of one of the many faces you will see at this year’s HSJF: Adjudicator Charlie Lewis.
A musician of the highest caliber, Charlie Lewis is also one of Berklee’s beloved faculty members. Known for a passionate love for the music he teaches, a great sense of humor, and a deep care for his students, it was an honor and a pleasure to interview Charlie Lewis about his musical background and how he first came to Berklee.
Q: Talk about your introduction to music and when you first started to play.
Charlie: Well, that would have to take me back to my mother. My mother played the piano and she gave me lessons starting at age five; I played for a couple years. I didn’t really like playing the piano that much…but the next thing I became really interested in was the trumpet.
My band director [elementary school] showed me how to make an embouchure and that was it. He showed me how to put it up, and by the end of the week I was in the band [laughs], which was fun; it was very exciting. I played in the band for the rest of the time I was in elementary school, and then we moved and I became a member of a church where I sang and was part of the choir, and there was an Arban book [now published as Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet (Cornet)] there…I got the book and I started looking through it; it’s a pretty thick book…they call it the ‘Trumpeter’s Bible’, and I did that [looked through it] for a while, and then I decided that I wanted to talk to my mother about taking trumpet lessons.
So we went to the Wilmington Music School which was, at that time, actually still now, is a pretty prestigious school. I got accepted and got a full scholarship. That summer, a group came from Berklee…to do a jazz workshop. At that time Herb Pomeroy was there, Ray Santisi was still alive, Phil Wilson, and Lin Biviano; he was the traveling lead man with the group. Then there came a time where I had to decide where I was going to go to school, and the director of the Wilmington Music School wanted me to go to a conservatory and he led me in that direction. I ended up going to the Peabody Conservatory [since 1986, the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University] where I had a full scholarship also and finished undergrad there.
The third year I was at Peabody, I met the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony, Armando Ghitalla, and he liked the way I played. I met him through an audition for Tanglewood; he had to choose four trumpet players, and I came out number five, [but] he said, “If you can come to Boston, I’ll teach you for free,” and I thought, “Well, that’s a bargain,” so I came to Boston. I only came a couple of times, but I met him and he put me up at his house and gave me lessons for a weekend, and it was really great.
Then the next year, I got into Tanglewood and from there things took off pretty quick. I was at Tanglewood and from there I got hired to play the Bernstein Mass opening in the Kennedy Center; also, while I was at Tanglewood, I met Gunther Schuller, and he invited me to come [to New England Conservatory] to get a master’s degree. The second year I was there, I also played with the Springfield Symphony in Western Massachusetts and Duke Ellington’s band came through [laughs] — can you believe this? — to play with the Springfield Symphony, and they had some parts. The first trumpet player said “Can you play this?” So we had a rehearsal — the symphony trumpet section and Ellington’s trumpet section — and Mercer Ellington comes and says, “Who’s playing those notes?” and I said, “I am” [laughs]. He said, “What are you doing Saturday night?” “Well, right now I’m not doing anything.” “How’d you like to play with us?” “Really? Ok.” [laughs]. “Manchester, New Hampshire, can you make it?” So I showed up and played; it was fun, I had a good time. I didn’t go with the band [on the road]; they wanted me to go — they called me the summer after that, [but] I was playing the Bernsetein Mass that whole summer and they kept calling me…but I never went on the road with the band.
This is around the same period that Gunther Schuller put together that ragtime band that won the Grammy [Gunther Schuller and the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble’s recording Joplin: The Red Back Book won the 1974 Grammy Award for "Best Chamber Music Performance"]; I was in that group. We made the recording, and right after that I moved to New York and did a couple shows in New York for Joe Papp, the Shakespeare Festival. The production was in Central Park, and all of a sudden they decided to take it to Broadway; it was five players and we did a little concert before the show, we played along with the show, did a little interlude. Then the news came that it was going to Broadway and that was great. Now it just so happened that there was a little time, and the guys who had written Hair did another show called Dude, and I got connected with this New York contractor, Herb Harris; he had booked the Bernstein Mass and he had booked the outside thing for Joe Papp, and he said, “Do you want to do this Dude show” ?Sure, we’ve got time.? So I did that and recorded it…I guess the most notable person on that gig was Bernard Purdie; he was the drummer. Ray Beckenstein was lead alto, Sheldon Powell was playing tenor…I was playing with some pretty heavy guys; it was very exciting…Then I did go to Broadway with the Joe Papp thing, Much Ado About Nothing, and I played on Broadway with that show for seven, eight months, something like that. Then I got the call to come back [to Boston] to play some of the Chateau de Ville [chain of dinner theatres], and I came back up here and was playing for about four and a half years straight; that, and shows downtown. I also got hired to teach at New England Conservatory; the beginnings of the Empire Brass Quintet were put together.
We [Empire Brass Quintet] became the in resident group at BU [Boston University], so I had to leave New England Conservatory, and we went with Columbia Artists. I did that for 13-14 years, traveling extensively the last five, and that’s where I am.
Q: I hear that the Empire Brass made an appearance on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Could you talk about that?
A: That’s right [Laughs]! He was a very nice man. The word that comes to mind was relaxed; he was such a sweet guy…we met his neighbors, he met our neighbors, and we were just all neighbors [laughs]!
Q: What brought you to Berklee and when did you start teaching here?
A: I was playing with Don Byron at the time I was hired, and we had just finished a tour of Italy, up one side and down the other. It was a great trip; it was fantastic. I had actually interviewed here a couple years before. I started here in ‘97, so I think I did in interview like in ’95 or so, and I got back from the tour and I got a call from the chairman of the department: “Would you like to come and interview for a position?’” I came in and the same afternoon I was hired; they already knew who I was because I had been here before.
Charlie Lewis performing with the Empire Brass on Mr. Rogers Neighborhood