George Lewis: You Got To Learn to Make It Talk


SKF NOTE: Discovering music pioneers of horns, keyboards, strings, reeds; songwriters, lyricists, arrangers — this remains one of my favorite parts of studying drum pioneers. A common theme among pioneer musicians is the importance of originality, of learning to express ourselves through our instruments, of learning to communicate through our instruments.

Studying Dixieland jazz led me to two Blue Note albums by clarinetist George Lewis and his New Orleans Stompers — and drummer/singer Joe Watkins. The song, Ice Cream, is from one of the Blue Note albums. After listening to George Lewis’s music, and reading the album liner notes, I bought a George Lewis biography, Call Him George, by Ann Fairbairn. Ms. Fairbarn’s real name is Dorothy Tait. And this exchange between George Lewis and a young clarinet student comes from that biography.


George Lewis explained the improvisation further in response to a question from a young clarinet student.

“How do you get your tone, Mr. Lewis? And what’s the secret to your technique?”

“You got to know your horn, son,” said George Lewis. “Don’t be in too big a hurry. You can’t learn it quick. You got to know it like a baby knows its mamma’s face. It takes time.

“And you can’t do it just taking lessons. You got to play that horn just for yourself, for hours and hours and years. You got to learn to make it say what you want it to.You got to learn to make it talk, just like you learned to talk. I never been much of a talker, not me. But my horn talks for me. There’s no one can teach you that. You got to learn it for yourself.

“And there’s something else you got to remember. Don’t try to play like George Lewis. Try to play like you.”

Photo Credit of George Lewis


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