Sabby Lewis: pianist, band leader

William Sebastian “Sabby” Lewis: born Jan. 31, 1915 in Middleburg, NC; died July 9, 1994 in Boston

  • Lewis didn’t arrive in Boston until he was 18, but to many, Sabby Lewis was the man on the Boston jazz scene in the late 1930s and 1940s.
  • His band won the regional competition to perform on the popular Fitch Bandwagon radio program on the NBC network in 1942, and later was heard regularly over New York’s WOR.
  • In 1948, the Sabby Lewis band, featuring saxophonist Jimmy Tyler and bassist/vocalist Al Morgan, began a six-month engagement at the Hi-Hat in Boston’s South End, helping to make it the city’s hottest club.
  • In 1952, Lewis moved into radio, becoming a disc jockey on WBMS (later known as WILD), remaining until 1957.
  • Lewis played in some of the premier jazz venues of the day, including the Apollo in New York, the Howard Theater in Washington, and the Regal Theater in Chicago. He shared billings with big-name stars including Nat Cole, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine and Billie Holiday.
Sabby Lewis

Sabby Lewis (Photo by Ruth Williams)

Nat Hentoff on Sabby Lewis

There is a very brief mention of Sabby Lewis in the Ira Gitler/Leonard Feather Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (Oxford), but he deserves a chapter in any comprehensive history of the music. He himself, as a pianist and arranger, always knew the crucial values of space and dynamics. His soloists had room to breathe, and the ensemble playing was crisp and infectiously swinging.

Sabby was also a jazz educator. He communicated his love—and that’s the word—of the music so clearly that, I expect, he led countless numbers of listeners, in schools as well as clubs, to a deeper understanding of the lifelong pleasures of the music. Personally, he was like a jazzman I later came to know, Clifford Brown, in that he was unfailingly generous, utterly incapable of malice, and always ready to encourage fledgling musicians—and listeners.