Internationally acclaimed jazz drummer Victor Lewis returns to Nebraska for concert, honorary doctorate

Victor Lewis. Photo by Michael A. Black.
Victor Lewis. Photo by Michael A. Black.

Internationally acclaimed drummer and composer Victor Lewis returns home to Nebraska to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln on Thursday, Dec. 8.

The honorary doctorate will be presented during the Portraits in Jazz concert featuring the UNL Jazz Orchestra and UNL Big Band on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall. The concert is free and open to the public. Lewis will also be guest performing during the concert. The concert will also be live webcast. Visit the day of the performance for the link.

“It is not often that we get an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of our alumni. Even more rare is the opportunity to honor a legend in our field. On Dec. 8, we have the opportunity to do both,” said Paul Haar, Associate Professor of Saxophone and Director of Jazz Studies in the Glenn Korff School of Music. “As a music lover and fan of jazz music, I get to enjoy the talents of this great artist. But as an educator, I am reminded that everyday we may be guiding the next Victor Lewis. Like the students he will share the stage with, he was a student who played in our bands, studied in our classrooms and walked our halls.”

Born into a family of musicians in Omaha, Nebraska, Lewis began his musical studies taking classical lessons in cello and piano, before moving on to the drums. He began playing professional local gigs at age 15 and went on to study music at the University of Nebraska.

In 1974, Lewis moved to New York City, where he performed with many top jazz artists, including Woody Shaw, Carla Bley, David Sanborn and Dexter Gordon. He was a member of the Stan Getz Quartet from 1980 to 1991 along with Kenny Barron (piano) and Rufus Reid (bass). By the late 1980s, he had built himself a busy career as a freelancer, touring and recording with artists like Barron, Art Farmer, J.J. Johnson, Mike Stern, John Stubblefield, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Bartz, Bobby Hutcherson and Bobby Watson.

Aside from performing, Lewis also does work as a composer and educator. He features several of his compositions on his own albums, Family Portrait, Eeeyyess!, Know It Today, Know It Tomorrow and Three Way Conversations.

In 2003, Victor joined the jazz faculty at Rutgers University, where he teaches drums and coaches chamber jazz groups.

“Simply put, Victor is a legend,” Haar said. “Perhaps the greatest and most versatile of the living jazz drummers. He has played with everyone—from Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon to Woody Shaw and J.J. Johnson. What makes him special as drummer is his versatility. Some people specialize in fusion or traditional jazz. Victor plays it all, and he does more than play the various rhythmic styles. He adds a color to the ensemble that would not be the same with any other drummer. This gift to feel the music and to make it three dimensional is what made Stan Getz build his tours around Victor’s availability.”

The Dec. 8 concert will open with two pieces by the UNL Big Band: Oliver E. Nelson’s “Emancipation Blues” and Benny Carter’s “A Walkin’ Thing,” arranged by Vince Norman.

Following the presentation of the honorary doctorate to Lewis by Interim Senior Vice Chancellor Marjorie Kostelnik and Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Endowed Dean Charles O’Connor, Lewis will perform with the UNL Jazz Orchestra on five pieces written by Lewis, including “Hey it’s me you’re talking to,” arranged by David Sharp; “Eeeyyess,” arranged by Greg Simon; and “From the Heart,” “Un-til” and “I wanted to say,” all arranged by Andrew Janak.

“If I were to list my five favorite ‘desert-island’ recordings, Victor would be playing drums on at least four of them,” Haar said. “He is a legend all over the world, but he is an Omaha kid and a Nebraska native who is coming home. In the jazz world, his stature is equal to other great Nebraskans like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Ted Kooser, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, and others.”