Putting together a multi-day event is kind of like running a marathon. It takes months to prepare and there are a lot of moving parts: location, vendors, musicians, publicity, funding, diplomacy and a tremendous amount of digging deep for last-minute scrambles.
So it’s a good thing that local promoter, musician and all-around Renaissance man Jason Lewis has a few long-distance runs under his belt, literally and figuratively.
Over the past decade, Lewis has had his hand in multiple events around Northeast Florida including Vans Warped Tour, Welcome to Rockville and The Big Ticket. He was a partner in the recent Collective Con and has promoted dozens of shows at smaller venues like Jack Rabbits.
This week, Lewis heads up Jazz Fest After Dark, an extension of sorts of Jacksonville Jazz Festival, featuring dozens of bands stretched over nine venues from Downtown to Riverside.
“I love creating and seeing things to fruition and just coming up with little things like Jazz Fest After Dark,” Lewis says, sitting at the dining room table in his historic, two-story home in Springfield. “Like, ‘Let’s make this event happen and how do we make it happen?’”
In 2012, Lewis’ band Tropic of Cancer, an improvisational instrumental group with an ever-changing lineup, played a gig at Jazz Fest. After their performance, the members went to Chomp Chomp on Adams Street for dinner.
“We were sitting there and I could see the back of the main stage when it used to be in the Burrito Gallery parking lot,” he remembers. “I knew that there were between 10,000 and 25,000 people in the audience right then, but we were less than a block away and there was nobody walking around on the street.”
The proverbial light bulb went on inside Lewis’ head. Thousands of revelers came to Downtown for the long-running festival (established in 1981), but when the performances ended in the early evening, attendees rather unceremoniously jumped into their cars to drive home. With all the bars and live music spaces downtown, Lewis — whose personal appetite for sonic pleasure knows no bounds — saw an opportunity to harness the crowd, getting them into local bars and restaurants for more music.
“I’ve known Jason personally for about five years now, but I knew him by name before that through his band Tropic of Cancer,” says Katherine Hardwick, marketing director of Downtown Vision Inc., who has worked with Lewis on Jazz Fest After Dark for the past three years.
She continues, “It’s easy for me to see how much talent Jacksonville has. Jason has this amazing power to make the rest of Jacksonville see it, too. He’s such a champion of our local music scene and he’s spent countless hours creating beautiful things for our city.”
• • •
Born Jason Huckleberry Lewis on April 19, 1970 at San Francisco’s General Hospital and moving with his family to Hawaii shortly after, Lewis had an interesting childhood that undoubtedly helped shape him into the unconventional person he is today.
“They were hippies,” he says of his mom and step-dad. “It was pretty much what you would expect. It wasn’t vegan at the time because this was the ’70s and vegan really wasn’t a thing yet, but it was a vegetarian sort of commune boarding house, like, a mile away from the University of Hawaii.”
The boarding house, says Lewis, quartered a unique string of characters including college kids, professors and even, if his memory serves him correctly, “a couple of strippers.”
“As a kid, I didn’t listen to the radio. We didn’t have a TV in our house. I would watch TV when I went to other people’s houses, but I was more interested in being outside, playing outside and running around,” says Lewis. “Hawaii was like a big playground.”
When he was 10 years old, the Lewis family returned to California for a few years and then settled in South Florida — right across the street from his grandma and uncles. The next few years proved formative in spawning a deep appreciation and affection for music from diverse and varying genres.
“Once I started listening to music, it was a good, neat time to listen to music because it was breakdancing music or hip hop or whatever you want to call it, rap,” he says. “And punk rock and MTV and all of these things were happening and different people were exposing me to different things.”
Lewis’ uncles were into classic rock and took him to arena concerts including The Police’s Synchronicity Tour and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Tour. His older stepbrother exposed him to punk rock bands like Dead Kennedys. And Lewis and his friends were buying 45s of groups like The Sugarhill Gang.
After graduating from Booker High School of Visual & Performing Arts in Sarasota in the late 1980s, Lewis headed north to attend Jacksonville University, earning a degree in history (he intended to be a history teacher). He also started playing music around this time.
“I tried to play music when I was younger — when I was a teenager,” Lewis says. “But it wasn’t like instantly I could do something. So I said, ‘Oh, this must not be for me.’ I realized later on that the guitar sucked and that the action was really bad. That if I had just had a decent guitar to try on, that maybe it would have been different.”
Better late than never. At age 20, Lewis bought a friend’s hand-me-down bass and eventually picked up guitar, too. But it would be 10 years before he’d join a band or really play any music in public.
• • •
After graduating from JU, Lewis remained in Northeast Florida, living Downtown and working as a manager at the now-defunct Milk Bar, a popular music club located underground in a huge, department store-sized basement (currently, De Real Ting Café occupies the space).
“Working at the Milk Bar was a great experience. I learned so much about the music business, how to stage events and so much else,” he says. “I also, stupidly, worked about 50 to 70 hours a week and was probably making about five dollars an hour, but I was doing something I loved.”
This was throughout much of the 1990s and it gave Lewis the opportunity to book other venues like Moto Lounge and Voodoo Ultra Lounge. He also formed close ties with groups like Inspection 12, Limp Bizkit, Yellowcard, Matt Butler Quartet and “thousands of other bands;” many of these bonds have outlived the groups themselves.
“I met so many people — so many that I still have a relationship with,” says Lewis. “The experience really was too encompassing for me to narrow it down into a phrase or a few sentences.”
In 1999, Milk Bar moved down the street and combined with another club called Paradome. Shortly after, The Milk Bar at Paradome changed its name to 618 and then changed again to DV8. Lewis was let go during this final transition.
Around the same time he left the nightclub scene, Lewis started a new chapter of his life, called Tropic of Cancer.
Longtime friend and former bandmate Colin Westcott remembers it like this:
“I’d hang out at the club with him on the weekends,” he says. “Weekend after weekend, Jason would play me these melodies with potential and finally I said, ‘We have to record this.’”
So the guys headed over to friend Brian Hicks’ studio, Anvil Audio, located in Riverside. On a return trip, they asked Hicks to add a wind instrument like saxophone or flute. “It was like, ‘This is cool. We have three different instruments on here. It’s almost like it’s a band,’” remembers Lewis.
A few months later, fellow music promoter Tim Hall mentioned he needed an opener for California Guitar Trio at Jack Rabbits. The guys got Jay Peele (guitar/Moog/percussion) on board and, all of the sudden, they had a four-piece.
Currently, Tropic of Cancer boasts nearly a dozen of the area’s most venerable musicians, including Sean Hendrix on vibraphone, drummer (and Folio Weekly columnist) John Citrone, saxophonist Eric Riehm, Chris Jackson (guitar/percussion), and sometimes-phantom-member (and FW A&E editor) Daniel A. Brown on bass.
The lineup is constantly changing, with approximately five members playing each gig.
“Jason and I have been very good friends for 20 years,” says Westcott, who left the band in 2013 for work reasons. “He’s done a lot for the community. He’s done a lot for musicians. He’s always been much more than you think you’re getting from him. He’s complex with a great heart and more.”
Over the years, music promotion has proved a sink-or-swim occupation for Lewis.
“There came a time when I tentatively couldn’t make a living off of it or at least not in the way that I was doing it, so I got a part-time job at Blue Buddha [Exotic Foods],” Lewis says of the upscale grocery purveyor. “It turned into a full-time job and I’ve been there for six years now.”
Working during the day and promoting at night means that Lewis is a very busy man. He’s also a newlywed. He and his wife of one year, Katrina, met in 2010 when they both joined a running group. The couple married last April and they’ve been in their Springfield home since September 2013.
“She was married when I first met her and I was very weary,” admits Lewis, who had previously been married for a brief period in his early thirties. “But we did hit it off very quickly when things started to happen.”
• • •
Lewis has been a runner since high school and recently completed two marathons, including the Philadelphia Marathon in late 2014 and the 26.2 With Donna in February 2015, placing second out of local participants. It’s a skill of endurance that has helped him with his long-term music promotion ambition, especially this week’s Jazz Fest After Dark, now in its third year. It’s held May 22 through May 24 at nine venues including Underbelly, 1904, The Volstead, The Hourglass Pub and Rain Dogs — all free events. There’s also a block party ($5-$10) called The Armada CW17 Watch Party in the courtyard of the Laura Street Trio.
“What we’re trying to do, and our budget is so small, is we’re just trying to get good local bands,” says Lewis. “They’re not all local, but a lot of them are. I would say 90 or 80 percent and some of our headliners are local like Inspection 12 and Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and Whole Wheat Bread.”
Working with Lewis at First Wednesday Art Walk and other local events like
One Spark and Welcome to Rockville, Hardwick sees the impact that he’s had on the First Coast.
“Jacksonville is only as good as its people,” she says. “You can sit back and be a part of Anywhere, USA, or you can foster an idea, put in a little elbow grease and make something unique and special for the community. Jason’s done that.”
Hardwick continues, “The thing about Jason, though, is that he’s such a gentle, behind-the-scenes kind of guy, you wouldn’t necessarily know he’s such a driving force just talking to him. He’s one to spread the credit around.”
“You get to see people happy and you’re like, ‘Oh, look. I was a part of this,’” Lewis says about his myriad ventures. “It’s very stressful and you get figuratively punched in the gut many times. But there’s definitely something fulfilling about making that happen, seeing that happen and being a part of it.”