David Chesky Pays Tribute to Jazz Pianist John Lewis

On Tuesday, April 17, 2001, New York said farewell to John Lewis in a memorial ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Over 5000 New Yorkers from all walks of life attended, but the most visibly represented community was the musicians.

I arrived early and took a seat about a third of the way back from the nave—everything closer was already occupied. The first person I saw was Ken Burns, now part of the jazz community, and then I realized that the elegant woman in the row in front of me was Maya Angelou. Lou Tabackin stood next to me for a while, talking to Percy and Albert Heath—all three breaking off repeatedly to greet impeccably groomed gentlemen of a certain age, many of whom I recognized from decades of album covers and concert footage. Suddenly, a lean figure in a beautifully tailored double-breasted suit was standing silently next to me. It was David Chesky.

"I studied with Professor Lewis," David said. "This is hard for me to take in—somehow I thought he'd live forever."

David wandered off, talking quietly to other guests, and after a while, the service began. Performances by Wynton Marsalis, Jim Hall and Percy Heath, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin, Dick Katz, Jimmy Heath and Eric Reed, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra alternated with personal recollections by Ahmet Ertegun, Gunther Schuller, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, and George Wein. It was touching, personal, and—oddly enough, given the size of the venue—intimate.

Lewis the man seemed close at hand—the respect offered by the musicians was palpable and the personal recollections went back nearly 60 years. I felt Lewis' spirit most strongly, however, when George Wein was at the podium. He read a letter he'd received from David Chesky, who described Lewis not as a great man or a jazz legend, but as a teacher and nurturing spirit.

I asked David if he'd let us publish that letter here to honor John Lewis' accomplishments as a teacher.

"I never knew John Lewis. I only knew Professor Lewis.

"When I was a young student, I had the privilege of studying with Professor Lewis. I am grateful to him not only for teaching me, but also for having enough faith to give me opportunities to create a life in music. After all these years, I've realized that Professor Lewis taught me the meaning of a special word—the word is elegance. Elegance is not a word for the young. It takes maturity and living to understand this word. Professor Lewis, like his music, was the epitome of elegance. In today's world we are bombarded with fluorescent colors, but Professor Lewis' music was like a beautiful watercolor. A perfect Zen simplicity of elegance and grace.

"The last time I saw Professor Lewis was at Clark Terry's One on One session. I had no problem calling all of the musicians by their first names—Clark, Monty (Alexander), Billy (Taylor). Though over 20 years had passed since school, when it was Professor Lewis' turn, the words 'John Lewis' would simply not roll off my tongue. It was 'Professor Lewis, take one.'

"When he started to play I was still the student, and he was still the teacher. And as I listened to his music as a mature man, all the lessons made sense. Now I can fully appreciate elegance."—David Chesky, Student of Professor Lewis