Art Lewis, Sax Player en la frontera

This morning on El Paso’s online magazine newspapertree.com, I read Richard Baron’s profile of our local (I use the word “local” in the WCW sense, not the pejorative sense that it too often means in the El Paso parlance) saxophone great Art Lewis. Art is a very wise man, a wonderful showman on the sax, and a gritty blues singer, even as old man like me still sexy belting out “Baby, I’m gonna rock you, oh, I’m going to rock you all night long.” Actually, a few years ago Art moved back to his hometown Houston a few years ago to care for his mother and to take care of some of his own health issues. He was a fixture in the music scene here, and he still once a year returns for the "Art Lewis Birthday Jam” organized at random times by his good friend Hector Montes. He’ll be in town this weekend, tonight at the Camino Real for the Jam proper and Sunday night at Kiki’s up on Piedras Street, one of his old venues.

[Note: Richard Baron is a photographer and essayist, with an emphasis on documenting arts and culture. He now lives in Albuquerque. The photo of Art is of course Richard's.]

Please read Richard’s profile of Art. It’s important reading if you’re interested in the soul of El Paso. Indeed, if you’re interested in the fronterizo spirit. And while you’re at it, read the entire selection of Richard’s profiles that are collected on Newspaper Tree. Richard’s idea was to capture the foundation of the El Paso arts and culture scene by profiling a number of its citizens, folks who may not receive a lot of publicity but whose presence really reflects the integrity of the fronterizo imagination. These profiles are important stuff, I promise you. I especially recommend the profile of Ed Patrycus.

Art moved to El Paso in the late 50s or early 60s—I was never sure when. But I do know that Art Lewis quotations litter my journals for the last ten or so years. He is an important part of my El Paso imagination, the way I’ve come to love this peculiar place that seems so much in the eye of the storm these days. In fact, after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks the U.S., I wrote a long poem trying to understand bin Laden and that whole chaos. Art Lewis served as a guide for me, a Virgil of sorts, playing his magical sax. Here’s a section from that poem, “The Soul of Osama bin Laden,” that’s in my book White Panties, Dead Friends and Other Bits & Pieces of Love:

Art Lewis walked in. Tall, lanky and very black. He was wearing a black suit and a black shirt and shiny black shoes and a very nice black porkpie hat. Art is growing old, but nobody ever asks him how old. Maybe that’s because he is a wise man. His wisdom is rooted in music. Every day of his life Art Lewis steps into the river of his life and prays into his jazz saxophone. His sacred horn blows away the stifling air of fundamentalism. Right and wrong, innocence and guilt are notes in the same piece of music. Improvisation as a devout way of life. It’s his spiritual practice.

Maggie brought Art Lewis a cup of green tea. Art, she said with a smile on her freckled face, you smell like marijuana, you better be careful. Art laughed, and gold glistened inside his mouth.

Art was wearing a long necklace of wide silver links and turquoise scattered here and there like stars. A cheap necklace really—not real silver, not real turquoise—but it was handsome hanging around Art’s black neck. Art, I asked, where did you get that handsome necklace? Oh, he said, a wino in the alley outside the Cincinnati Street Bar gave it to me. The guy was an Indian from some place called Acoma. He wanted me to play him some blues. So I played him some alley blues, and he gave me the necklace.


Anonymous said...

I know this is an old article. I remember listening to Art Lewis at KIKIS. I never heard better music.

Bobby Byrd said...

Dear Anonymous, Never too late to comment about Art Lewis. I thought about Art when I read about Long John Hunter playing in El Paso. Art and Long John used to play together back in the day. Great and good stuff. We miss art.

Anonymous said...

My ex husband used to play with Art Lewis. Art used to come to our house and practice with him. I remember being mesmerized by Art's sax playing. Taken away somewhere. I hope he is doing well.

Bobby Byrd said...

Ellen, I think Art is okay. He moved back to Houston to look after his mother. For a while he couldn't play because of a hernia but I don't know if he's playing much now or not. I can't imagine Art without the saxophone in his mouth. I was at Kiki's the other night and they have that wonderful photo of him in the second room.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to inform you Mr. Art passed away today.

Bobby Byrd said...

Dear Anonymous, this is sad news to hear. Please, if you can, send along any link or other information. My email is bbyrd@cincopuntos.com