Sinking His Teeth Into Jazz
“Keeping jazz alive — that is my passion,” says Jeff Lewis, D.D.S., past president of the Tucson Jazz Society. Weekdays, Lewis is a board-certified prosthodontist. Prosthodontics is a complex dentistry involving cosmetic restoration and replacement of teeth. “This unique specialty is typically beyond the scope and capability of a general dentist; chiefly, I receive referrals from other specialists,” he explains.
His patients might be surprised to learn that on weekends, Lewis plays saxophone in a jazz quartet. “Jazz is just as complicated as prosthodontics,” he laughs. “Both are very creative and intellectually challenging.”
He grew up in Long Island, New York, and Miami, Florida. “I was mostly into sports, but my dad had played the saxophone, so he pushed me into taking lessons,” he remembers. Lewis received his bachelor’s in chemistry from the University of Florida and his D.D.S. from the Medical College of Virginia.
He joined the Air Force right out of dental school, and over the next 20 years or so, lived in Asia, Europe and Washington D.C., where he was the prosthodontist for the Pentagon. Lewis also was an educator in several Air Force dentistry residency programs. In 1989, he was assigned to the dental clinic at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, eventually becoming the commander of the clinic. “I got the assignment out here in Tucson, and after six months I told my wife Linda, “I am not leaving!” He retired from the Air Force in 1994 as a full colonel and has been in private practice ever since.
Jeff and Linda have now been married 45 years and their family consists of grown sons Paul and Grant, and Amos, “a small apricot poodle who affords us enormous pleasure.”
About seven years ago, he asked himself, “What else can I do to stay busy? I hadn’t played the sax in 30 years, but I decided to open a jazz club in Tucson. My parents were in the restaurant business, and I thought that would be fun. To get a sense of the scene, I went several times to listen to some jazz players and they invited me to sit in. I enjoyed it, and soon I was practicing 16 hours a week! I got back into a jazz state of mind and started playing at the Cushing Street Bar and Restaurant.”
“Thanks to owner Betsy Rollings, I have now been there six years, playing tenor sax every Saturday night with the Cushing Jazz Quartet, which includes Rob Boone on piano/keyboards, Ed Delucia on guitar, and Jack Wood plays standup bass. We play West Coast cool, modern jazz.” By the way, Lewis never did open his own jazz club.
After he had started playing on the weekends, Lewis was invited to be a board member of the Tucson Jazz Society (TJS). “I wound up getting involved, even though I am not really a committee person. In fact, after a year, I became the president of the TJS.
“The economic downturn hit and the Jazz Society lost a number of grants and donors. We let our executive director go and in 2007 we became an all-volunteer organization, which we still are.
“TJS wants to keep jazz alive by supporting the local scene and musicians. We bring in great players from New York and L.A. to play with our locals in concerts, and we educate young people about jazz by bringing programs into schools. Jazz is the only truly American art form.”
The Jazz Society puts on signature events each year, including smooth jazz concerts at Loews Ventana Canyon, a spring and fall series of concerts at Tohono Chul Park, and a New Year’s Eve event at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa. “Although TJS has a 32-year history in Tucson, the last five years have been a huge financial struggle because concerts alone are not enough to pay for operations.
“We need to inform people there is a Tucson Jazz Society — and make them aware of the number of concerts we put on,” he stresses. “We would like to attract more young people to join our organization. We are always looking for board members and volunteers.
“I am a very optimistic person who is not put off by a challenge. I’m not afraid to fail. If there are obstacles, you stay positive. I have never believed in standing still. If you are not moving forward, you’re moving backwards.”
Lewis’ proudest accomplishments include making colonel in the Air Force in 1984 (he was awarded the AF Meritorious Service Medal), and becoming board certified in prosthodontics. Right now his goal is to be the best musician he can be. “Once I decide I want to do something, I am competitive and want to do it well. You’re never too old to learn — you just have to have the desire.
“Our quartet is working on making Cushing Street a major jazz venue in Tucson. I record the band every Saturday night and have made a series of CDs that I give to patrons and fans as gifts — in exchange for a small donation to TJS,” he says with a smile.
Jazz is a mental challenge that takes real skill, he observes. “You have to be able to recognize chord progressions and pick out appropriate cool notes on the fly. I try to ‘sing’ through the horn. Jazz is a team sport. We don’t practice; we just come together cold turkey every Saturday.
“Music pumps you up and makes you feel good. It adds to the quality of our lives. It releases your spirit into another place. When I am playing with my quartet, there is no place I would rather be than in the moment.”
— Wendy Sweet
7th Annual New Year’s Eve Gala
with Rick Braun, Richard Elliot and Peter White
Dec. 31, 6:30 p.m.
JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa
For more information or tickets, log onto www.tucsonjazz.org