The Vic Lewis Story

"Mom would be washing clothes and I used to hear music coming out of that machine..."

Vic Lewis moved to Canmore in 1923 when he was 11 years old. His father, a very talented musician, told him, "if you want music in the valley, you'll have to go to the kids". So he did, but it wasn't easy. "I wasn't able to teach in the schools because I didn't have a teaching certificate," says Lewis, "so I formed a band parents' association and we eventually convinced the school board to purchase instruments for an after-school program, one in Banff and one in Canmore."

This was in the 1940's and over the next 20 or so years Lewis worked with hundreds of young musicians. "In the mid-60's we hit hard times, musically speaking. The only interest the kids had in music was in guitars or drums...if they played a trumpet or trombone they'd sneak down the alley to rehearsals, they were so embarrassed!" This phenomenon, together with the fact that there was no band program as part of the school curriculum, resulted in the eventual dissolution of the bands in the Bow Valley.

Ironically, the early 1980's Lewis got a call from the Banff High School; they wanted to start a band program as part of the curriculum and though he still didn't have that piece of paper, they allowed him to teach as long as a 'certified' teacher remained in the room with him. Before long, Lewis built up the Banff school band to over 100 students, "but I didn't need another full-time job, so I retired...again...and they hired a qualified instructor." Qualified indeed!

School bands made up only a part of Vic Lewis' musical career. His ambition as a young man was to become an arranger for big bands and orchestras. "My brothers (the Lewis's were a family of 11 children) and I would sit up half the night listening to guys like Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk on the radio. I liked them all." In order to write for all these instruments, however, he had to learn about them, so Lewis learned the guitar (Hawaiian and Spanish), the string bass, accordion, trombone, piano, cello, and drums. "I studied harmony, arranging and composition at Mount Royal. I wrote music all night long!"

That was in the 30's. "Canmore furnished entertainment for the whole valley; there were three orchestras here at one time," Lewis remembers. "I put on two concerts in the Miners' Union Hall that were two hours long without a break. We had a 12-piece band; the trombone trio would introduce a number, the orchestra would take over and then go right into the next number. We had recitations with violins and cello in the background. We even had a mandolin quintet." Lewis did all the arrangements.

Later on Lewis teamed up with a number of fine musicians who called the Bow Valley home: Louis Trono, Johnny Byers, Jim Hutchings, and Emilio Casale to name a few, and toured all over Alberta. He played with Casale for over 30 years. "When he died, I hired another sax player in order to honour our remaining commitments, but it just wasn't the same. So I quit."
Quit playing professionally, maybe. But he never stopped making music. Lewis was the official bugler for the Legion for over 60 years. And his children and grandchildren are musicians as well. Grandson Evan Lewis plays violin and fiddle and granddaughter Erin Lewis plays clarinet in a Canmore band along with hand bells carrying on Granddad's tradition in the jazz band. Adam, Ardith and Amee Lewis are in Calgary and play music written form them by their Grandfather on trumpet, clarinet, saxophone and piano.

In November 1999, just weeks before he passed away, the international fraternity of band masters, Phi Beta Mu, announced the appointment of Vic Lewis as an honourary member of this prestigious international association of band leaders. Established in Chicago, Illinois in 1938, Phi Beta Mu's heritage includes the greatest bandmasters of all time. It was founded to encourage the building of better bands and the development of better musicians in schools throughout the world and to foster a deeper appreciation of, and a wider interest in band music.

This honourary membership acknowledged Vic Lewis's years of dedication and musical achievement as the teacher and director of school band programs in the Bow Valley. The Vic Lewis International Band Festival is an annual tribute to a terrific musician whose legacy Bow Valley children are enjoying today. And as for dedicating a festival for young musicians to him? "I wasn't always a musician," quipped Lewis, "I had to learn too!"

 

 

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