Bryan Lewis has made a lot of connections.
The London-born 80-year-old drummer has been a fixture of the Santa Fe jazz scene for over 30 years, and for the last 19, he's held a Friday night residency at El Mesón with his band, The Three Faces of Jazz.
"Most people that come through Santa Fe, if they have an interest in jazz, they'll find me," he tells SFR.
Lewis has been a purveyor of jazz even longer. He got his first set of drums nearly 70 years ago and the age of 12, and was inspired to start playing after discovering legendary drummer Gene Krupa in a film about the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Listening to his stories, it seems Lewis is a magnet for interesting people. He says he thinks that's because people know he's the "real deal" when it comes to his passion for jazz.
"You can't fake it," he explains. "Well, you can, but people will get wise to it."
A sit-down for a conversation with Lewis is filled with jazz-themed jokes and recollections of the people he's met: He's hung out with Miles Davis, taught drummer Tony Williams how to drive and drummed for Grammy-winning singer Dionne Warrick in one of his first gigs; he was even fired by jazz legend Charlie Parker in the middle of a gig—for showing off and overshadowing him.
"He turned to me and said, 'I think we'll do without the drums for the rest of the set,'" Lewis recalls. But then Parker changed his mind, and told Lewis, "Actually, I think we'll do without the drums for the rest of the night. Why don't you pack up and go?'"
Lewis had to break down his drum kit while Parker and his band waited onstage and the crowd looked on. He had to carry his gear through the audience to the club's only exit up front, an experience he describes as embarrassing, but as an important life lesson.
"The music is the boss," Lewis says, explaining that in his attempt to impress Parker, he neglected to match his style of playing. "I didn't give him what he needed."
It took him nearly a year to bounce back from that firing, but bounce back he did, eventually finding his way to Santa Fe in the late 1980s after seeing a picture of Canyon Road in the Los Angeles Times.
"I always go where the art scene is," he says, and in Santa Fe, Lewis adds, he's been able to find his niche and develop close ties within the community. Now Lewis needs the help of his community: he was diagnosed with liver cancer seven months ago during a Christmastime hospital stay for pneumonia. And though his spirits remain high, the treatments are taking a financial toll.
Luckily, some of Lewis' friends are rallying around him and have set up a GoFundMe page, with the goal of raising at least $1,500 to help Lewis with his medical and day-to-day expenses. "For the past two decades," the campaign reads, "this talented drummer and colorful personality has enriched our lives with the gift of jazz." As of this writing, donators had raised $290.
Lewis, meanwhile, continues to enrich his friends' lives. John Smallwood, one of the crowdfunding organizers, says he hasn't seen any kind of change in Lewis' demeanor since his diagnosis.
"He's as quick as ever," Smallwood tells SFR. "If anything, he might just need a hearing aid, but nothing else has changed."
Lewis does have tinnitus,hence the hearing aid comment, but when asked if he has any plans to slow down considering his recent diagnosis, Lewis responds with a resounding "no."
"If anything, I plan to speed up," he says jokingly. "Now I have more interest in life and playing music than ever."
He still fronts The Three Faces of Jazz every Friday night—which he admits should probably be called "Five Faces of Jazz" since they've evolved to become a quintet—though now he mostly serves as emcee, he says, since drumming exacerbates his tinnitus. But you can still catch him hopping behind the drum kit for a couple songs during gigs. It's a double-edge sword, but as he says, "Jazz is therapy."
"The trick," he adds, "is never to quit."