Lew Anderson was born in Kirkman, Iowa, the son of a railroad telegrapher and a stay-at-home mom. His Iowa upbringing probably accounts for his Midwestern style of dry humor. He doesn’t tell jokes — he just says things that make you laugh a couple of seconds later.
I won’t tell you when he was born (a long time ago) because it would belie his incredible youthful spirit.
Most men his age are not writing new arrangements every day for his wonderful big band, which plays every Friday from 5:30 to 7:30 at New York’s nicest jazz club, Birdland. I’m fortunate enough to play with the band from time to time, and look forward to the challenge of playing a most difficult but rewarding book.
Lew also plays solo and lead alto on the bandstand, and gets one of the prettiest sounds on that instrument you’ll ever care to hear.
Lew reminds me of the famous character actor Lon Chaney, who used to be referred to as “the man with a thousand faces.” Lew, being a musician, of course doesn’t wear that many hats, but he’s involved himself in so many pursuits over the years, that he wears more of them than any other musician I know. His resume includes being perhaps the last musician alive who can say he played with a territory band that traveled on a sleeper bus out of Omaha, Nebraska. (The band was Lee Barron’s.)
For you younger cats, a sleeper bus band in the 30’s and 40’s was your total home. Bunk style beds, bathroom, a shower (maybe), and a small locker to stash your personals. You toured the West and Southwest, and as Lew mentioned, “You never, but never, went east of the Mississippi.” You left the bus for meals and gigs, which were mostly one nighters, and that was about it. Rough stuff, but it trained a lot of musicians who then went on to the so-called name bands of the day. The sleeper bands advertised for players in the preeminent musicians’ magazine of the day, Downbeat, and I’m old enough to remember reading the ads in my teens and thinking what a romantic life it would be. As I recall, the most famous was the Don Strickland orchestra, also out of Omaha, and the only musician I ever knew who was on the band for a considerable time was the trombonist-arranger Hale Rood, now deceased, who related stories to me about the lifestyle of a sleeper bus band musician in the Midwest during the 30’s and 40’s. It wasn’t romantic!
A MUSICAL BEGINNING
Lew’s musical career began as a young man, when his sister decided that she no longer wanted to play the clarinet. Lew inherited the instrument along with the promise of his future. He took to it right away, and very soon was involved in all the junior high school and high school musical activities that were offered. This included band, orchestra and vocal chorus. Of course, while in high school, he formed his own dance band and started doing some gigs locally. This was followed by a year in junior college in Fort Dodge, Iowa, after which he received a music scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines.
He attended for two years, but then quit school to begin his professional musical life by accepting a job with the Lee Barron sleeper bus band. By this time, Lew was arranging for whatever musical venue he was involved in. When I asked him where he studied his arranging, he answered, “On the bandstand, watching and listening.” Pretty precocious, Lew.
Lew missed the World War II draft by enlisting in the Naval Air Corps in 1942, but discovered it wasn’t his cup of tea, and after resigning, was sent to Great Lakes training camp as an unranked “swabby.” After boots, he was assigned to a submarine tender in the Pacific theatre. The officer in charge of that group of ships was a musician, and helped Lew assemble his own big band. This was almost unheard of, because the only Navy authorized bands were assigned to carriers, battleships, or cruisers. Lew has his repertoire of war stories, but we’ll let that go for now by just saying he saw his share of action in the Pacific.
His first job after his service years was playing with the Carlos Molinas Latin Orchestra, where he also wrote the American dance arrangements, as the band was playing venues that required both styles. After that, it was a series of big bands, both playing and arranging.
It was time for Lew to put on another hat, and, in the late 40’s, he joined a group out of Chicago called the Honey Dreamers, for which he both arranged and sang. The group had a couple of hits that brought them onto some of the top television variety shows of the day. It was on one of these variety shows that was being hosted by Bob Smith (a.k.a. Buffalo Bob) when the fellow playing Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody Show quit. It so happened that the producer of the variety show, who Lew had befriended, was also the producer of the Howdy Doody show and he approached Lew to see if he was interested in taking over the role. He asked Lew if he could juggle or do magic and Lew answered “no.” He then asked Lew, “Well, what can you do?” and Lew answered “nothing.” The producer replied, “Perfect, just what we want,” and Lew became Clarabell the Clown from 1954 to 1960, postponing his musical career for those years.
RETURN OF THE BIG BAND
Lew spent the 1960’s composing, arranging and singing for the exploding TV jingle mills, but missed the thrill of the big band sounds he had grown up with. He decided to start writing a big band book in the 70’s, and by the middle of that decade, had assembled his first aggregation. I’ve followed the history of his bands from inception, and can honestly state that I think most every truly talented New York big band jazz musician during the last 30 years has passed through the portals of the Lew Anderson big band. His list of alumni reads like a who’s who of the jazz world.
Lew’s music library now numbers in the thousands, and is comprised of every musical concept you could imagine. When you go to work on Friday with the band, you never know what arrangements he’s pulled for that night’s performance. You’re liable to find yourself playing anything from “The Overture of 1812” to singing “Hey Daddy, I want a diamond ring, champagne, everything,” all beautifully arranged.
There’s also a lot of comedy in Lew’s writing — what else would you expect from Clarabell the Clown!
Lew and wife Peggy live quietly in South Salem, N.Y., breed golden retrievers (Lew’s latest hat), and rarely venture into town unless it involves something to do with the band. He’s got the usual aches, pains and maladies of all us older guys, but when you see him in front of the charging 16 cats who comprise the Lew Anderson big band, you’ll think you’re watching an excited teenager. Music is definitely the great healer. Keep swinging, Lew.
Leo Ball plays trumpet and flugelhorn and is the coordinator for Local 802’s payroll service, Legit 802. He has written many interviews for Allegro.