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J. Lewis, 70; Creations Gave New Sounds to Jazz

April 22, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juno Lewis, a musician, composer and instrument maker best known for "Kulu Se Mama," the composition that became a key element in one of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane's later recordings, has died. He was 70.

Lewis, a fixture in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles, died April 9 of complications from a stroke at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood.

Born Julian Bertrand Lewis in New Orleans, Lewis showed an affinity for art at an early age, fashioning drums and learning to sculpt using mud from the nearby Mississippi River. By the age of 16, Lewis was working as a professional musician, primarily as a drummer.

After moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, Lewis formed his own Caribbean-style band, which performed in some of Hollywood's top clubs and hotels. He was also one of the early black performers to find work in Las Vegas, playing at the Thunderbird Hotel.

But by the early 1960s, the eclectic Lewis had given up his band work and was focusing on his real passion--making drums and other musical instruments.

Over the years, he produced an array of odd-looking and odd-sounding instruments: trumpets with double bells, and a horn that looked like a saxophone grafted onto a trumpet. Each would offer a sound much different in pitch from its standard counterpart.

Lewis said he got the idea for double-belled horns from watching the stances of such musicians as Miles Davis, who seemed to blow their instruments in every direction except straight out in front of them.

To supplement his income, he opened a studio, Juno's Conga Village, where he taught and made drums.

"Drum rhythms are the heartbeat of the world," he told friends.

He viewed drum-making as a sacred calling.

In the mid-1960s, Coltrane's band was appearing in Los Angeles at the now-defunct It Club. Some mutual friends introduced Lewis to Coltrane. Lewis showed Coltrane his long work, "Kulu Se Mama," a lengthy autobiographical poem that reflected his pride in his ancestors and strong sense of tradition.

Weeks later, Coltrane invited him into an L.A. studio to join his regular band. They recorded "Kulu Se Mama," which took up a full side of the album and became the name of the record.

Lewis sang in a Creole dialect and played conch shells as well as his own handmade instruments.

In the liner notes for the album, noted critic Nat Hentoff called the performance "an absorbing, trance-like fusion of tenderness and strength, memory and pride."

"For all its length," Hentoff wrote, "the work has an organic tonality; and at the end, there is a fulfilling sense of achievement--of a long-nurtured and developed story finally being told."

It was one of the last recordings of the legendary Coltrane before his death from liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 41.

Lewis had hoped that the proceeds from the album would fund a cultural center for youth in Los Angeles where he could teach music. However, that dream never materialized.

"Kulu Se Mama" was one of the few albums on which Lewis performed. He played one other time with Coltrane, in a concert at Stanford. In the 1970s, he worked with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and drummer Billy Higgins.

He returned to his life as an instrument maker and began a business promoting music for children, which he kept going for 10 years.

The longtime resident of Los Angeles took a loft in Leimert Park in the early 1990s.

"[He] was a father figure in the community," poet Kamau Daaood said of Lewis. "He didn't teach in a traditional way, but shared his experience with younger members of the community."

Lewis is survived by several children.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the L.A. Friendship Center, 5899 Venice Blvd. An open jam session in his honor will follow at the World Stage, 4344 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles.

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