William (Willie) Lewis, jazz clarinetist and bandleader, was born on June 10, 1905, in Cleburne, Texas. He grew up in Dallas and began his performing career playing in a Texas variety theater. He trained in the New England Conservatory of Music. While in the East he auditioned for and earned a place in the Will Marion Cook Orchestra. Soon thereafter he left Cook's group to join the Sam Wooding Band, which performed at the Nest Club in New York, and he traveled with the band to Europe. Beginning in 1925 Lewis toured South America, North Africa, and Europe with Wooding's Symphonic Syncopators. When the band broke up in 1931, he formed his own band, Willie Lewis and His Entertainers, with some members of the old group.
During the 1930s he was the first prominent black expatriate jazz bandleader in Europe. Lewis played alto and baritone saxophone as well as clarinet; he also performed as a singer. His shows featured such jazz musicians as pianist Herman (Ivory) Chittison, alto saxophonist Benny Carter, tenor saxophonist Frank (Big Boy) Goudie, and trumpet great Bill Coleman. While in Paris, Lewis and the Entertainers recorded for the French label Disques Swing.
Despite its success, the group disbanded in 1941, and Lewis returned to New York. During the 1940s and 1950s he faded from the jazz scene. He occupied himself briefly with acting, but earned his living primarily as a waiter in Harlem. His musical works include Christopher Columbus (1936), Swinging for a Swiss Miss (1937), Happy Feet (1941), and Willie Lewis and His Entertainers (1985), a compilation highlighting trumpeter Bill Coleman. Lewis died in New York on January 13, 1971. In 1988 an additional compilation recording, Willie Lewis in Paris, was released.
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Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (London: Macmillan, 1988). New York Times, July 7, 1985. New Yorker, July 1, 1985.
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Lewis, William T.,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 25, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
March 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
August 4, 2015
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: