Many jazz trumpeters ride the New York City subways, a few unfortunate ones such as Woody Shaw have died there, but Sylvester Lewis wound up working as an employee of the transit system for more than the last two decades of his life. The decision could possibly be blamed on the controversial Schillinger method, which Lewis began studying at New York University the year before he became a full-time employee of the New York Transit Authority. Or perhaps his chops gave out, a distinct possibility for a trumpeter who had been involved in diverse expressions of the jazz genre, in ensembles both large and small, under leadership of the high and mighty as well as the obscure but influential.
His gigs in his native Kansas City began in the mid- '20s while Lewis was a university student. The trumpeter hit the road with a revue entitled Shake Your Feet, beginning a relationship with Herbie Cowens that would continue at New York City's Rockland Palace venue where the Herbie Cowens Big Band held forth from the fall of 1928. Lewis recorded with the demanding and brilliant Jelly Roll Morton during this period. In the late '20s he began working with Aubrey "Bobbie" Neal's Ramblers, followed by more than six years in an orchestra led by the fine Kansas City jazz pianist Claude Hopkins. Lewis began spending more time in larger orchestral settings, including a huge group assembled by Billy Butler to accompany the Rhapsody in Black revue.
In late 1941, Lewis became part of another revue which became quite famous in wartime. This was Shuffle Along, a concoction for the USO that involved both Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The trumpeter himself served in the conflict, his responsibilities including leading his own band in the Pacific theater. His career following the end of the second World War was much less active, meriting the mention of solely his Schillinger studies in John Chilton's Encyclopedia of Swing. Despite the connection with Morton, the majority of recordings featuring Lewis are from the years with Hopkins, such as the marvelous 1999 Transcription Performances: 1935.