Jazzman and graphic artist Tim Lewis dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday September 28, 2022
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Jazz pianist and graphic artist Tim Lewis. Photo: Courtesy ReverbNation
Jazz pianist and graphic artist Tim Lewis. Photo: Courtesy ReverbNation

Jazz pianist and graphic artist Tim Lewis died September 12 in San Francisco after a lengthy struggle with several debilitating health conditions, friends announced. He was 65.

In an obituary, friends noted that Mr. Lewis, a gay man, had a depth of love for, and knowledge about, jazz artists, and they said they would miss the delightful sardonic humor he shared so readily and consistently.

"His self-effacing quality belied the strength and depth of his musical and artistic accomplishments," the obituary stated. "Tim was an artist who lived following his passions for jazz standards and the Great American Songbook, American musicals, and mid-century art and design."

Born March 21, 1957 in Palo Alto, Mr. Lewis grew up in Santa Barbara but left home on the day he turned 18 in 1975, moving to San Francisco where he had lived ever since. While at Lone Mountain College, he began his graphics career working for the Lone Mountain Gazette and the Haight Ashbury Voice. He later worked as art director of the Berkeley Barb, but when it folded in 1980, was hired as art director of Spectator magazine, an offshoot of the Barb's adult and erotic services ad section. It had a freewheeling and diverse approach to all expressions of consensual sexualities. After leaving the Spectator he was art director of Drummer magazine.

Mr. Lewis was hired by Winston Leyland of Gay Sunshine Press to design covers for books in the Straight to Hell and Meatmen series, as a 2020 profile in the Bay Area Reporter noted. (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?ch=bartab&sc=barchive&id=286484) Mr. Lewis' musical interests intersected with his freelance graphic work in design projects for KCSM-FM, Pomegranate Press, Concord Records, and the late, lamented Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint where he produced posters for a wide array of queer performers, the obituary noted. Most recently, he designed the cover for Marc Huestis' memoir, "Impresario of Castro Street: An Intimate Showbiz Memoir."

In a Facebook message, Huestis said he mourned his friend's passing.

"Tim was a consummate jack-of-all-trades, a true talent in design, music, and snark," Huestis wrote. "Sometimes creating a cover can be a process fraught with conflict, but with Tim it was a joyful fun process, with his enthusiasm for turning out the best possible design fueling the final result. He was a special man and will be missed."

Graphic design allowed Mr. Lewis to indulge his passion for playing music, which never paid the bills. "If you want to be a jazz musician with a million dollars, it's easy," he quipped to writer Michael Flanagan in the 2020 B.A.R. profile. "First, start with two million dollars."

Musical work

Mr. Lewis began playing piano at age 5, the obituary noted. At age 15, his life changed when he acquired a bunch of 78s and sheet music from a store where he worked. As he told Flanagan, "It included Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday, and Dinah Washington. I wouldn't be playing piano now if I hadn't gotten it. I didn't know about Black music till then. While friends were listening to the Beatles, I was looking for Ella Fitzgerald records."

Mr. Lewis served as musical director and pianist for Mary Media and the Cassettes, a musical performance subset of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He accompanied Sisters on the main stage at the International Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day Parade, the Miss Haight Ashbury Contest at Great American Music Hall, the Castro Street Fair, and other venues, frequently garbed as an angelic altar boy.

He began performing as a cabaret musician in 1985 thanks to his friend and mentor Frank Banks at the Mint. After the bar closed, they would hang out playing music and singing with other patrons. When Banks became ill in the early 1990s, Mr. Lewis was one of his caregivers (a service he provided for several other friends, as well) and performed at his memorial on Valentine's Day, 1993, according to the B.A.R. profile.

After playing at the Mint, he accompanied Mitch Bandanza at Buckley's and then performed with a jazz quartet for many weeks in the late 1980s at the Blue Lamp on Geary Boulevard.

In June 1991, he performed with vocalist Kelly Houston in the revue "Riffin' with Mr. Cole: A Tribute to Nat King Cole" (an artist about whom Mr. Lewis was passionate), later moving it from Charpe's to Mason Street Wine Bar through September.

In 1993, he returned to Mason Street with another revue, "Love Songs and Other Nonsense." He also played at the Phone Booth on South Van Ness in the 1990s and, in 1994, played piano for "Late Nite With Joan Jett Blakk" at Josie's Cabaret. He played show tunes and accompanied Donna Sachet at the Plush Room for her annual "Songs of the Season" in 2000.

Venues where Mr. Lewis played in the early 2000s included a stint for over a year at the original Lush Lounge piano bar on Post Street and at Mayes Oyster House on Polk. Later, he performed two nights a week for three and half years at Caffe Trieste on Market, sometimes accompanied by bassist Kaeli Earle, and also played with the Donovan Plant Band at Red Devil Lounge on Polk Street.

In recent years, Mr. Lewis' razor sharp humor, pop culture interests, and encyclopedic musical knowledge came together on Facebook where he delighted in hosting several pages. "Timmy's Jazz Heaven" was one, "Mommie's Memes" devoted to Joan Crawford "Mommie Dearest" memes was another, and there was a "Tim Lewis Design" page, in addition to his "Tee Willikers" general interest home page.

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