Smokey tones carry a flurry of notes across the length of a song. The tap of the high hat cymbals and bright, rhythmic horn section drive the music to its conclusion amid the urgent wails and runs of the alto saxophone. This is jazz.
As haunting to the ear as it is to the soul, jazz is something special – a musical language unto itself. At least that’s how Robert Lewis, director of jazz studies at the College of Charleston, feels. And on Feb. 23, 2019, Lewis will get to take this uniquely American musical art form to new heights when he takes the stage at the Charleston Music Hall for the first time as the director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO). Lewis was named director of the CJO in 2018 after the previous director, Charlton Singleton, stepped down to pursue other musical projects, including his band, Ranky Tanky, which features CofC alumni Clay Ross ’98, Quentin Baxter ’98 and Kevin Hamilton ’95.
“Being part of the CJO from its beginning, and participating in its growth into a major arts entity in Charleston, has been one of the great pleasures of my professional career,” says Lewis. “I truly love this band, and it is a great honor to be asked to lead it into the next phase of its existence.”
A lover of music since childhood, Lewis began playing saxophone in middle school. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in saxophone performance from the University of Idaho and a master’s degree in saxophone performance from Western Michigan University.
In 1998, Lewis began teaching in the College’s Department of Music as an adjunct instructor, before taking the helm of the jazz studies program in 2002. His love of jazz runs deep, which is evident in his wide-ranging interests of teaching, performing and composing within the genre.
“I first of all just love the sound of jazz,” he says. “The melodies, harmonic language, and, most importantly, the rhythmic language has captivated me since I was very young. Also, the improvisation that is a requisite part of a jazz performance is extremely satisfying. To compose and perform simultaneously is one of the great joys I find in music, and since the entire group is often improvising there is really a conversation (in music) happening all the time.”
Sharing that passion with his students and seeing them develop as musicians is what has kept Lewis at the College for 20 years.
“I enjoy talking about the technical details of the music, and never get tired of those conversations,” he says of teaching. “It is, of course, also gratifying to see young musicians grow into mature players and to be a part of that process.”
Catch Lewis with the CofC Faculty Jazz Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. on March 11, 2019, in the Simons Center Recital Hall. Tickets can be purchased through the CofC Concerts webpage.