FALL AND RISE
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
It was around this time seven years ago when Glenview resident and jazz pianist Ben Lewis had just finished cleaning the gutters at home.
But the ladder that helped him start the chore would not help him return to terra firma. Gravity aided and abetted Lewis’s frightening descent.
“I remember attempting to climb down from the roof but not much after that,” says the 50-year-old Lewis, who suffered serious injuries to his head, ribs, and a clavicle but not to his key assets—his piano hands.
“Good thing a boy in the neighborhood saw me on the ground and told his mother, who called for an ambulance.”
The Winnetka native and 1991 New Trier Township High School spent a month in the hospital as his life hung in the balance.
“The music community supported my family and me after my fall,” says the forever-grateful Lewis, who resumed his music career in 2017, including performances as an original member of Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band.
Bank on Lewis to raise the roof during a concert at Studio5 in Evanston on December The Ben Lewis Trio—also featuring Larry Kohut (bass) and Jon Dietemyer (drums)—and guest vocalist Paul Marinaro will perform music by Bill Evans, a legendary jazz pianist and composer who died in 1980 at age 51.
Evans recorded critically acclaimed albums with Tony Bennett in 1975 and 1976.
“It’ll be a tribute to Bill Evans,” Lewis says. “He had such an influence on me. I first heard of him when I was at Indiana University, majoring in jazz studies. His sounds, along with his simplicity, were impactful, beautiful. Bill stayed true to jazz in the 1970s, at a time when others in jazz were turning electronic.
“It was tragic, Bill dying so young,” he adds. “He was experimenting as a musician, trying a more aggressive approach, weeks before his death. But it was still Bill, still great.”
Studio5 is an intimate performing arts center that also boasts excellent sight lines and comfortable seating. Co-founders Steve Rashid, an Emmy Award-winning composer, and Bea Rashid, a dance educator, choreographer, and theater director, opened the welcoming space in 2016—expanding Dance Center Evanston to include Studio5 as a performance arts venue presenting professional dance and music events among other forms of entertainment.
The Ben Lewis Trio tribute to Evans will incorporate stories, visuals, and memorable music, notably Evans’s mesmerizing, oh-so-gentle “Peace Piece,” from the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and “Waltz for Debby,” a solo piano piece on his 1956 album, New Jazz Conceptions.
“The intention of the concert is not for me to sound like Bill Evans, or for Paul to sound like Tony Bennett,” Lewis says. “Instead, it’s to create something that’s our own, and something that will make the audience members feel full.
“Music,” he adds, “is intended to fill your soul.”
Howard Reich, the former classical music reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, described Lewis’ pianism as “shimmering.” What also struck Reich was Lewis’ “go-for-broke energy.”
A son of Robert and Sherri Lewis, Ben was a seventh-grader when he took his first piano lesson from the late Alan Swain in Evanston. He later enrolled in a Jazz Band class at NTHS.
“I wasn’t a prodigy in high school,” says Lewis, whose fraternal twin is Matt, a vocalist, trumpeter, and guitarist now living in Colorado (Sarah is their sister). “I thought there was a chance I’d get better as a jazz pianist. Attending jazz summer camps, like the Jamey Aebersold workshop, then opened my eyes to the possibilities in the field of music.
“I was fortunate and blessed to have grown up with parents who encouraged their kids to develop their creativity. My mom is a gifted composer, with great musical instincts. She and my father wanted us to pursue whatever brought us joy.” Soon after graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor of music degree in 1995, Lewis participated in jam sessions and met musicians in Chicago. He reconnected with Grazyna Auguscik, a Polish jazz vocalist, composer, and arranger, in the city about a year after Lewis had introduced himself to her.
“She had kept my card, the one I handed to her when I was a senior at Indiana,” Lewis recalls. “Grazyna gave me my first opportunity to work with someone on an album (Auguscik’s Don’t Let Me Go, in 1996).
“More than 20 years later, we’re still good friends.”
Lewis knew Kimo Williams before Williams and Sinise, a Highland Park native and an Academy Award-nominated actor, formed the Lt. Dan Band in 2003. Lewis jammed with Williams—between bites of pizza and sips of beer at the latter’s house—and then found himself performing for the band at its debut concert on Diego Garcia, an island of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Each December at Disney World in Orlando, the band and the Gary Sinise Foundation host a Snowball Express for the surviving spouses/guardians and children of fallen military heroes.
“Gary is extremely generous with his time and committed to such a wonderful mission through his foundation,” says Lewis, who served as a jazz ambassador for the U.S. State Department. “His life goal is twofold—to show appreciation for those who serve in the military and to show compassion for family members who lost their loved ones in military conflicts.
“I’ve seen kids laugh during our concerts, and I’ve seen kids cry at them. Nothing makes us happier than being able to at least provide an entertaining escape for them. It’s a tremendous honor to perform for them.”
Lewis has been married for 14 years to Joliet native Abigail Derby Lewis, who is the senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center. They have three children—Isaac, 12; River, 10; and Jove, 3.
“What do I do in my free time?” the father says with a faint smile. “I cook and do laundry. I like to make vegetarian lasagna and banana bread. Banana bread works well as a gift, too.
“Seriously,” he continues, “I’m lucky that I’m able to make a living as a musician. I was lucky as a child, getting the opportunities I got in Winnetka and at its schools. Then, mainly through music, I received opportunities to see the world. I saw the beauty of diversity.
“I want my children to be surrounded by diversity.”
Studio5 is located at 1934 Dempster Street in Evanston. For ticket information about the Ben Trio concert on December 1, 8-9:30 p.m., and for more information about Studio5, visit studio5.dance or call 847-328-6683. For more information about Ben Lewis, visit benpiano.com.