Chicago Jazz Archive | Leon H. Lewis, Cartographer of Chicago's South Side Jazz

Mr. Leon Lewis, UofC '28

Deborah Gillaspie, Curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive, fondly remembers Leon Lewis and his jazz map:

By the time I joined the Chicago Jazz Archive in March of 1996, Mr. Lewis lived in Highland Park and wasn't getting down to Hyde Park much. I found his jazz map while familiarizing myself with the Archive's collections, and called him up. During my phone conversations with him, I learned that he began compiling the map at age 80, from memory as well as from published sources, and that he was a Hyde Parker and 1928 graduate of the University of Chicago! In one of his letters to the Archive in 1993, Mr. Lewis mentions working his way through the UofC by playing fraternity dances and other campus events with his own band, where he sang and played the banjo.

There have been jazz maps over the years -- Paul Eduard Miller's map on the endpapers of the 1946 Esquire Jazz Book comes to mind -- but nothing as complete as Mr. Lewis's, nor anything concentrating on the South Side venues. It is a very significant achievement, and his gift of the map to the Archive was generous by any standard. To the Archive, it is doubly important and touching because Mr. Lewis was at UofC during the peak of the "Chicago" period of jazz, roughly 1924-28.

The CJA got many requests for Mr. Lewis' map, but it was on 11"x17" paper, and there was no way to provide it except by piecing photocopies and mailing them out. For two years I thought about putting the map on the new CJA website, but the technical challenges proved daunting until 1999. That year, I had a marvelous UofC Music PhD student as my Archive assistant, Rich Jankowsky. He found a newly digitized map from 1914 comparable to the one Mr. Lewis used for his paper map, and painstakingly reproduced Mr. Lewis' map digitally. Looking at the digitized map and club lists, Rich and I decided not to stop there; we decided to make the map interactive, integrating items about the clubs from the Archive collections and the Chicago Defender newspaper. While I provided the content for the club pages, it is Rich's lovely HTML work that really makes the map special.

Mr. Lewis was so happy when the map went online! He provided updates regularly, and enjoyed hearing about the new items we added to the club pages. Although he was very modest about his work, I believe he was proud that his map was transformed into a crown jewel of the Chicago Jazz Archive website. Mr. Lewis passed away on June 12, 2003. I will always be glad I was the CJA Curator who helped bring Mr. Lewis's dream to life; his map is now his legacy. © 2003, Chicago Jazz Archive. All rights reserved.

Mr. Lewis' daughter, Katherine Lewis, talks about her father's lifelong love of jazz:

Dad was 95 when he passed away. He was a pioneer in the advertising industry, an ad executive for 50 years. He was born and raised in Hyde Park, on Chicago's South Side. He proudly graduated from the University of Chicago in 1928, finishing his studies a year early so he could work to support his parents. Dad had hoped for a career as an international diplomat, but it was not to be. From his college years he gained a lifelong love of books and learning, and took college courses well into his 80's. He loved maps, and kept up with current events with an atlas at hand.

From his earliest years Dad was surrounded by the "hot jazz" of Chicago's South Side, and he fell in love with it. He never lost his love and respect for the genius, creativity, and joy of the classic jazz he heard as a child and young adult. Dad formed his own band in high school, singing and playing the banjo. One member of his band was the young Gene Krupa, just starting his career as a drummer. Dad worked his way through high school and college playing the music he loved. He had vivid lifelong memories of the jazz bands he saw and heard on Chicago's South Side during the 20's and 30's, when Chicago had the best jazz in the world.

During Dad's career as an advertising executive, he represented Selmer Musical Instruments, where he worked with Benny Goodman and Andres Segovia. Through Selmer he also met his idol, Louis Armstrong, whose music Dad admired throughout his life.

Dad never lost his love for classic and traditional ("trad") jazz, especially the musical genius of the great black bands of the South Side. When he was 80, he decided to record his memories of the jazz he loved so that future generations would know about the history of the music he grew up with. He began compiling a map of the South Side's earliest jazz venues and a list of the people who played there, his "Jazz Map of the South Side: 1915-1930", which he donated to the Chicago Jazz Archive of the University of Chicago Library. In 1999 the Archive found a way to place his map on its website, to make it available to jazz lovers worldwide. On the website, Dad's original map was expanded to include items from the Archive's collections. Dad was so proud when the map went onto the CJA website, and made additions to it up until his passing. The map can be found at http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/cja/jazzmaps/ctlframe.htm

Dad will be remembered throughout the traditional jazz community for his map and his scholarship. Because of this map, Dad was highly respected in Canada, Great Britain, and Italy for his contributions to jazz history. His friends can remember him through donations in his name to the Chicago Jazz Archive, which are being handled by the Library's Development Office, 773-702-8742. © 2003, Katherine Lewis. Used with permission.

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