As a college student, Murphy Albert Lewis auditioned to sing the chorus for the 1968 version of Duke Ellington’s three “Sacred Concerts,” which were recorded in separate years.
“I thought it was amazing just to rehearse,” Rev. Lewis recalled in a 2007 Globe interview. “I got to see the musicians interacting.”
A longtime educator who began teaching in the Boston Public Schools in 1975, he was drawn as much to the spiritual aspect of the Ellington concerts as he was to the musicianship. For Rev. Lewis, there was always an unbreakable bond between music and faith.
“When a person is so much involved in the arts, you automatically get involved in the spirituality of it,” he said. “You realize, ‘This is not so much from me. It’s coming from a greater source.’ ”
Rev. Lewis, who combined ministry and music throughout a life that led him from New Orleans to Boston, died in his sleep in his Dorchester home Sept. 15 of a heart attack. He was 69.
“He had strong faith and was very positive,” said his daughter, Koriana Bradford of Dorchester, who followed in her father’s footsteps and teaches music in Boston’s schools.
To all his five children, Rev. Lewis conveyed his focus on what was possible, rather than what appeared insurmountable. “Even when things seemed at their worst, he was positive and praying for us,” his daughter said. “That played a large role in our lives.”
In the late-1990s, he was citywide music director for Boston’s schools and was an outspoken advocate, asking the administration and the City Council to spend more on music teachers and instrument instruction. At one point in 1999, more than 1,200 instruments languished in a warehouse and buildings throughout the school system. Gathering dust were 350 violins, 89 ukuleles, eight harps, and dozens more clarinets, drums, flutes, trumpets, and violas.
Administrators didn’t want to loan them to students without a way to ensure the instruments would be returned. Along with those logistical hurdles, there was no money to pay teachers to offer lessons. Undaunted, Rev. Lewis drew public attention to the unused musical treasure.
“We’re trying to let people know about the instruments,” he told the Globe when he was music director.
He knew well the difficulties of covering many miles to provide face-to-face music lessons. Several years earlier, when he was a music teacher, he taught more than 200 students a week while traveling throughout Boston to nine public schools. The commuting cut into how much instruction he could offer. “It’s very discouraging to be in a situation where you are trying to cover so many schools and yet there is so little time to learn,” he told the Globe in 1991. “I have high standards with the kids, but we are limited as to what we can do.”
At one point, he recruited several dozen students to play in an all-city band, only to add de facto taxi driving to his duties. Because there was no money for a bus driver, he personally transported students to and from their disparate neighborhoods and rehearsal locations. “In the beginning I was rehearsing kids in different spots,” he said. “Eventually, I was allowed to have one big rehearsal and couldn’t get them all to the hall. The problem wasn’t the principals. The problem was not enough staff.”
Murphy Albert Lewis was the youngest of seven children born to the Rev. James Lewis Sr., a Baptist minister, and the former Isabelle Ashley. He and his twin, Myrtle, were born 13 months after another set of twins.
While growing up in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, Rev. Lewis already had artistic inclinations. He carved a backyard tree stump into a sculpture, and as a first-grader, he won a school art competition that was set up for fifth-graders. At L.B. Landry High School, he played the sousaphone in the band and was a drum major.
His family said his musicianship earned him a scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans, where he studied composition. A subsequent offer of a scholarship for graduate studies brought him to the New England Conservatory, which he attended until he became involved in the ministry and preaching at St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge. Rev. Lewis, who later was ordained an itinerant elder, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and participated in antiwar protests with notables such as comedian Dick Gregory.
“He just didn’t believe in killing,” said Rev. Lewis’s daughter. “He believed that every life had value and that war wasn’t the answer.”
Rev. Lewis, who received a master’s in education from Cambridge College, initially taught in what was then the Massachusetts Experimental School System in Boston and at Henry Buckner School, which he helped found at St. Paul AME Church. He also worked at Roxbury Community School, where he met Delores (Shavers) Smith.
They married in 1976 and he helped raise her three children from a previous marriage, along with the couple’s two children.
“He was an observer, but once you got him in a conversation, he could tell you anything about everything. He had so much knowledge,” their daughter said. “He’s got literally two whole libraries in the house. He read about everything.”
Sometimes the family would find Rev. Lewis launching home-improvement projects. “We’d say, ‘How do you know how to do these things?’ And he’d say, ‘I read a book,’ ” his daughter recalled.
A service has been held for Rev. Lewis, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves his son, Jonathan of Dorchester; three stepsons, Troy Smith of Dorchester, Barry Smith of Douglasville, Ga., and Alan Smith of Morristown, N.J.; four sisters, Hilder Scott, Lee Grace Brown, and his twin Myrtle, all of Los Angeles, and Idabelle Oden of New Orleans; his brother, James Lewis Jr. of Los Angeles; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Rev. Lewis, whose Boston schools position was eliminated by budget cuts in 1999, and who filed suit unsuccessfully to get his job back, also formerly led the ministry at Bethel AME Church in Plymouth. His family said he later joined the Charles Street AME Church in Boston and performed with its Sacred Music Ensemble.
Through much of his life, he also painted and exhibited life-sized portraits, including of educator and neighborhood activist Elma Lewis, to whom he was not related. That painting was displayed in the museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston. And throughout his years, Rev. Lewis remained a teacher in and out of classrooms.
“When we were kids, he taught us to read pretty early,” his daughter said. “He had a musical way of teaching us how to read that stuck with us. He always had a natural gift to teach young children.”Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.