Seattle area native Mark Lewis is a well-traveled saxophonist and flutist who has created a large body of jazz music over the past four decades. He's been a part of jazz scenes from Seattle and San Francisco to Rotterdam and Paris. His new album, The New York Session, features piano legend George Cables, veteran bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Victor Lewis.
Born in Tacoma and raised on a farm outside of nearby Gig Harbor, Mark Lewis absorbed music from both sides of his family. His paternal grandmother was a concert pianist, and his maternal grandfather played saxophone (a C melody horn that Lewis started playing at age nine). Despite profound visual impairment, he had free run of the family hi-fi system and soaked up Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Art Tatum while investigating his parents' record collection. Lewis's waking hours were filled with music through his school years, and he went on to study composition, flute, electronic music, and piano at Western Washington University and the Cornish Institute of Allied Arts.
Settling in Seattle, Lewis started performing regularly at Norm Bobrow's Jazz at the Cirque showcase, and quickly found invaluable colleagues and mentors amongst resident masters like Art Foxall, Bea Smith, Dee Daniels, and Buddy Catlett. Drum master Otis "Candy" Finch, who moved to Seattle after a sterling New York career recording with heavyweights like Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie, recognized Lewis's budding talent and took him under his wing. He also encouraged him to get out of town, and in 1978 the 20-year-old saxophonist flew to Europe with a one-way ticket and his alto sax, $500 in his pocket, and virtually no contacts.
He ended up making Rotterdam his homebase for the next 14 years, and established himself as a vital force on the international jazz scene as a player, label owner, and producer. Building an extensive network of musical peers amongst Dutch players and American ex-pats ("Johnny Griffin got me my first gig in Europe," Lewis recalls), he maintained three working Dutch groups, including an organ trio with Carlo de Wijs; an experimental-minded quartet with Willem Kühne, James Long, and Frans van Grinsve; and a world-jazz quintet featuring musicians from India, Holland, West Africa, and South America.
"I only played original music, and I thought it was a good idea to play everywhere," Lewis says. "Gigs helped promote the sales of albums. No one wanted to play in Sweden in the winter, the off season. I didn't mind. I'd play anywhere."
His record company Audio Daddio became one of the era's essential outlets, releasing recordings by Art Foxall, Vonne Griffin, Al Hood, Art Lande, and David Friesen. The label's last European recording The Rotterdam Session features tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and legendary jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, in one of his last recordings. Lewis also maintained a strong presence back in the States, spending several long stints in the Bay Area in the 1980s. He gained a considerable following with a quartet featuring drum maestro Eddie Moore, pianist Mark Levine, and bassist Larry Grenadier (the group featured on most of his critically hailed Quartet Records album In the Spirit).