State jazz figure Charles Lewis celebrates 81st birthday with party, intimate concert

Charles Lewis plays the piano on Sept. 21, for his 81st birthday party at the Nash. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)
Charles Lewis plays the piano on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014, for his 81st birthday party at The Nash jazz venue. The Arizona Music & Entertainment hall-of-famer left his birthplace of Philadelphia to attend Arizona State University in 1953. (Courtney Pedroza/DD)

Renowned jazz pianist Charles Lewis may be 81 years old, but he is still highly energized and smooth on stage as he pounds out jazz tunes.

“I’ve reached a point in my life where I can just enjoy being involved, with music and with playing,” Lewis said. “I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for music. I can’t see that ever happening.”

Lewis is one of the most well-known jazz musicians in the state. When the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame opened in 2002, Lewis was the first jazz musician inducted.

On Sunday, The Nash, a jazz venue located on First and Roosevelt streets and owned by Jazz in Arizona, a nonprofit company that works to encourage jazz music in the state, celebrated Lewis’ 81st birthday with a highly personal performance by Lewis and his band. A large chocolate cake was brought out and served during intermission.

Lewis performed at the party with his Charles Lewis Trio, which includes bass guitarist Bob Lashier and drummer Dom Moio. A packed house watched Lewis perform.

The concert felt deeply personal. Many in attendance seemed to know Lewis on a first-name basis and had seen him perform before. In turn, Lewis was intimate and warm with the crowd, speaking of life experiences both good and bad.

Long-time Phoenix Suns broadcaster Al McCoy was among those in attendance. The two have been friends since McCoy met Lewis more than 60 years ago while doing an afternoon television show on Phoenix’s Channel 10.

“He’s such a great player,” McCoy said. “He never plays the same tune the same way twice. As someone who loves jazz, it’s always inspiring to hear someone with that approach to music.”

Many other patrons, who gathered at the birthday party, had similar thoughts on Lewis, both about his personality and his musical chops.

“He is the ultimate performer. I think he can perform anything,” concert attendee Darlene Lewis said. “He’s always such a gentleman, such a reasonable person, very talented and very humble.”

Lewis was born in Philadelphia in 1933. His hard upbringing is something he was open about during his performance, among other personal experiences.

“When I was born, it was a surprise for my father,” Lewis said. “The judge wanted some petty cash, so he darted.”

His dissatisfaction with life in Philadelphia was what drove him out west to attend Arizona State University in 1953. He saw the desert as an escape from his experiences in Philadelphia, where he spent much of his time in tenement houses, where everything was “close and noisy.”

Lewis has remained a fixture in the Arizona jazz scene ever since. He has also served on the Music Advisory Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts agency in Washington, D.C, among other ventures.

Lewis is also a music teacher, and said he considers his work with children to be his crowning achievement. He has taught private lessons on jazz piano, theory and, despite not being a professional singer, vocal performance.

“If the student is right and can ask questions that cause the teacher to have to think before they answer, the teacher is benefiting from the having the student,” Lewis said. “Teaching is a wonderful opportunity for growth.”

Still very energetic and passionate about his music, it does not seem as if Lewis will pack it up any time in the future, and his passion will continue to resonate with jazz lovers in Arizona.

“I just enjoy playing and the involvement, particularly in the group situation,” Lewis said. “I like the team aspect of jazz. It’s just, you know, very special collective indulgence.”

Contact the reporter at djmarino@asu.edu