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Fri, 07.13.1900

George Lewis, Musician born

George Lewis

*George Lewis was born on this date in 1900. He was a Black jazz clarinetist.

He was born Joseph Louis Francois Zenon in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Through his mother, Alice Zeno, his maternal great-great-grandmother was a Senegalese slave brought to Louisiana around 1803. Zeno's family retained some knowledge of the Senegalese language and customs. He married Emma Zeno in 1918 in New Orleans; they had four children, Mildred Zeno-Major; Joseph Zeno; William (Bill) Zeno; and George (Baby George).

During the 1920s, he founded the New Orleans Stompers band. He also worked with Chris Kelly, Buddy Petit, and Kid Rena and was a member of the Eureka Brass Band and the Olympia Orchestra. In the 1930s, he played with Bunk Johnson, De De Pierce, and Billie Pierce. He recorded with Johnson in the early 1940s and with Kid Shots Madison. Alan Lomax brought Lewis on a Rudi Blesh radio show in 1942. Unable to earn enough money as a musician, he worked loading and unloading ships' cargo at the docks of the Mississippi River. In 1944, Lewis was injured working on the docks. A heavy container nearly crushed his chest. He practiced while convalescing in bed at his St. Phillips Street home in the French Quarter. His friends, banjoist Lawrence Marrero and double bassist Alcide Pavageau brought their instruments to his bedside.

Bill Russell brought his portable recorder, and they recorded "Burgundy Street Blues," an improvised blues song to become Lewis's signature piece. As Russell recorded Lewis, he occasionally gave new titles to interpretations of pop tunes, such as "New Orleans Hula" for "Hula Lou." Lewis stayed with Johnson's band through 1946, traveling to New York City, where they played for dancing at the Stuyvesant Casino on Second Avenue. Band members included Johnson, Marrero, Pavageau, trombonist Jim Robinson, pianist Alton Purnell, and drummer Baby Dodds.

After Johnson retired, Lewis took over the band's leadership, including Robinson, Pavageau, Marrero, Purnell, Joe Watkins, and a succession of New Orleans trumpeters: Elmer Talbert, Kid Howard, and Percy Humphrey. Starting in 1949, Lewis was a regular on Bourbon Street clubs and radio station WDSU. His band was in the June 6, 1950, issue of Look magazine. His reputation grew, and he became a leader of the New Orleans revival. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, his recordings reached the UK and influenced clarinetists Monty Sunshine and Acker Bilk.

They became important contributors to the traditional jazz scene in the UK and accompanied Lewis when he toured the country. Lewis visited England in 1957, playing throughout the country with Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. In 1959, he returned, this time with his full band, and received a warm response. In 1959, he visited Denmark and played in Copenhagen. Beginning in the 1960s, he played regularly at Preservation Hall in New Orleans as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader until shortly before his death. George Lewis died on December 31, 1968.

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