Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival: In this moment Larnell Lewis is marching to his own drum

Larnell Lewis first picked up a drumstick in church. He was four years old at the time and as it goes, he just started playing along every Sunday.

Instead of turning away from music, however, Lewis doubled down and these days he’s leading his own band which includes Elmer Ferrer (guitar), Andrew Stewart (bass), Rob Christian (woodwinds), William Sperandei (trumpet) and Jeremy Ledbetter on piano.

His own hustle aside, Lewis is also a mainstay with the Grammy winning band Snarky Puppy and has played with other jazz notables such as Laila Biali, Pat Metheny and Gregory Porter.

Lewis will bring his band to the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival’s winter weekend for a show on Jan. 31 in the Arts Court Theatre.

But back to church. Lewis grew up in a Pentecostal church and a band played every Sunday.

“As a young kid in church you are hearing music and you’re dancing and then you realize there are people playing instruments. And the person you see first is the man swinging the sticks. So you start to imitate.”

Lewis’s family was musical already. His grandfather was a musician, so were his uncles and his father was the musical director at the church in fact.

“I found my way onto the kitchen sink at times with spoons and pots and pans and stuff and you take that to the drums. Music was just a part of my life from the beginning.”

The music from his church does carry through into his music today, he said.

“It does. I grew up in the Church of God. It was rooted in Caribbean culture. My parents came from St. Kitts to be part of the church because they needed musicians.”

The church started in someone’s home, he said. It outgrew that and moved into a school and eventually into a building to house a congregation of 300 that became 500.

“When it comes to music and church as a young musician you are immediately met with the task of playing at a high level for a service that requires music to have very different moods, a certain type of energy and that creates a certain type of atmosphere. So you learn what you have to do to create that atmosphere.”

You learn, he said, at a young age that you are an atmosphere changer and that is a life lesson for a professional musician.

“It’s a huge responsibility for a young kid because the other musicians are 20, 30 or even 40 years older than you. You have to keep up with them.” Lewis was sitting there on a full drum kit.

The Church of God also holds competitions for junior and senior musicians. Lewis entered these contests. The senior competitions took him across North America.

Jazz was just one of the forms of music of which he was aware.. His mother, for example, was a fan of country music especially George Strait and Alan Jackson. Another family favourite was a Christmas album by Ella Fitzgerald.

“I knew that album inside and out. If there was something similar to it, such as a bass line, then I knew what to do on my drums because I was familiar with that album.”

His understanding of jazz was cemented in high school, but before that he was helped by a middle school teacher who did everything she could to advance his music studies.

He was helped on his way by mentors who saw the talent. He was aware that he had something. “I was definitely aware at a young age that I was comfortable. I was playing with a lot of different gospel artists at age eight or nine.”

Toronto too was a great place to develop his skills in part because people were coming there from all over the world.

“To have access to musicians and artists, it was great to be able to get the untainted perspective on their music.”

Along the way he even got to meet Oscar Peterson. In 2004, Lewis won the Oscar Peterson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music, the highest award given by Humber College. When Lewis won, Peterson was on hand to pass out the award.

“What was really special about that was my dad, being a multi-instrumentalist on keyboard and guitar, was there too.” There is a treasured family picture showing Lewis, his dad and Oscar.

Later Lewis was able to sit down with Oscar and listen to the legend tell stories about his time in music. “I remember the stories the most. I was so young in my experience in jazz I could not take full advantage of the moment.”

Lewis was in a trio in high school in which he played bass. The trio did a lot of corporate events and retirement homes “if they wanted music and standards we were going to do it.”

But his first pro gig was with Salome Bey, also when he was in high school. One day Larnell got a call from a contact named Bruce Skerritt, who had grown up with his dad, saying that he needed a bass player. Lewis wasn’t scared. In fact, he was very comfortable just sitting in. He’d been doing that regularly since he was seven when his dad volunteered him for a live to air TV performance.

These days he leads his band from the drum kit. For Lewis, the drummer is “the sheepdog of the band.” He is constantly herding the musicians.

“They have to know when it’s too fast or too slow; whether the energy is too high or low. Can they change it up? If I see something happening based on the instructions given, I have to do the roundup. That’s how I look at my role.” In his band he usually sits on the right at the front.

He indicates changes from section to section with a nod or through a musical cue from the drums. He often will play something to alert his mates that “we are going to move on.”

Now the band, which has been together since 2014, is at the point where Lewis does very little verbalizing.

Lewis has also become more confident about sharing his compositions. He had always composed, even as a kid. Over time, working with other musicians, getting grants from government agencies and with significant push from his wife Lewis pulled together enough music for a CD. He found a producer named Eddie Bullard who kept him on task and the result is a record released in 2018 called In the Moment.

His work with Snarky Puppy started in a club called The Rex in Toronto.

“At the time I was there quite often. I was playing in another band and Snarky Puppy was playing just before us. I got to meet them.”

Turns out the music director at The Rex had told them about Lewis and they invited him to sit in. Over time it became a regular gig in Toronto. The work accelerated. He played with them in Montreal and on a European tour. Finally he got a last minute call to play on the 2014 album We Like It Here. You can hear Lewis on the songs Lingus and What About Me with a featured solo. That was a real boost to the career.

Lewis also credits something called Drumeo which is a series of a music education videos some of which he has done as helping get his name around.

All of a sudden he realized the power if the internet and accelerated his social media presence.

“Over the years I have been able to build a pace to my life that I manage.” He does this so he can step away and live his life. “Now I’m on for business and then I’m out.”

He has two children under two that he’s helping raise so he needs to check in on a different kind of moment.

TD Ottawa Jazz festival presents The Larnell Lewis Band
Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Jan. 31 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.