Mel Lewis - born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York to Russian immigrant parents - started playing professionally as a teen, eventually joining Stan Kenton in 1954.
His musical career brought him to Los Angeles in 1957 and New York in 1963.
In 1966 in New York, he teamed up with Thad Jones to lead the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The group started as informal jam sessions with the top studio and jazz musicians of the city, but eventually began performing regularly on Monday nights at the famed venue, the Village Vanguard. In 1979 the band won a Grammy for their album Live in Munich. Like all of the musicians in the band, it was only a side line. In 1976, he released an album titled "Mel Lewis and Friends" that featured him leading a smaller sextet that allowed freedom and improvisation.
The band became The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, but when Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, it became known as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. Lewis continued to lead the band, recording and performing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard until shortly before his death from cancer at age 60. The band still performs on most Monday nights at the Village Vanguard; today it's known as The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and has released several CDs.
Mel Lewis's cymbal work was unique and added qualities to his groups that are hard to describe, but that are recognized immediately and virtually impossible to emulate (Buddy Rich once said that "Mel Lewis doesn't sound like anybody except himself"). He insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, switching from the Zildjian brand later in his career to the Istanbul brand. His setup included a 21-inch ride on his right, an 19-inch crash-ride on his left, and his signature sound, a 22-inch swish "knocker" with rivets on his far right. The dark, overtone-rich sound of these rather lightweight cymbals, combined with the rich, warm sound of his wood-shell drums (he almost exclusively played Gretsch drums, although in later years was playing Slingerland drums) equipped with natural calfskin top heads (again, Lewis was a purist), using regular mylar heads on the bottom, exuded a veritable treasure trove of sound. Lewis once described his playing philosophy of not "pushing or pulling" but "supporting." "If you watch me, it doesn't look like I'm doing much," he said in an interview, describing his subtle but highly musical style. He could play at a break-neck tempo for lengthy periods and hardly break a sweat. He wasn't flashy or loudjust tasteful, and highly musical.
In the late 1980s, Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma. He died on February 2, 1990, just days before his band was to celebrate its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.
Talking to Les Tompkins, 1971:
My home town is Buffalo, New York; that's where I started playing drumsat three years old, which is quite early. My father was a drummer, but he didn't want me to be one. However, the drums were there in the house and as a baby, he took me along wherever he played.
So that's all I saw; I just loved them, right from the beginning. I started fooling with them, he showed me how to hold the sticks, and that was it.
I played all through elementary school; then, in high school, as I couldn't read music I went on to the baritone horn. I learned quickly on that. That's how my approach to what you'd call a more musical type of drumming came about; when I see notes I don't think in terms of the drums. I think of that horn, and I'm always concerned with the value of every note.
When I was thirteen, I did my first professional job, with a trio at a dance hall in Buffalo. And it just kept right on from there. At fifteen, I joined the Musicians' Union and got with a big band.
Actually, the big band thing started for me when I was about eight or nine years old. For my last couple of years in school the music teacher gave me the job of playing the whole set of drums with the whole school orchestra. There were a lot of drummers who graduated, and I was all that was left. So she said: "Would you like to tackle it that way, because I have nobody coming up who's ready yet." It meant my handling eighty pieces.
Of course, when I was into music professionally, there was a lot of small group activity, too. Also the usual weddings and barmitzvahs situation which you go through in a large city. There was nothing wrong with any of that, though; it was all good, helpful experience.
I was playing society music and all that, along with going out to jam, chasing all the drummers, listening to everybody I could and learning from them. Because that was the only way I could learn. I didn't have the formal training; I was playing already. And whenever something changed, I wanted to hear it, to be there to watch it and listen to it.
Buffalo was a good stopping off point from New York City. All the bands played there regularly; bands played there regularly; also all the small bebop groups used to come through to play breakfast dances and suchlike. I got to see Max Roach and Art Blakey that way.
By the time I was seventeen, I was already out on the road with a big band, working in a territory out West. Then a year later I was in New York. I would say I'd considered myself a bebopper from around sixteen onwhich was 1945. That's about the time it hit, anyway.
It was with the Lennie Lewis band that I went to New York. He was a leader from Buffalo who had a marvellous band; he picked up some great musicians when he got to town, including several guys from the Duke Ellington band, who were off at the time, as Duke had broken up and gone to Europe with a small group for about six months. We played at the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre.
Out of that I ended up with the Boyd Raeburn band, followed by some commercial bands for quite a while; Alvino Rey, Ray Anthony, Tex Beneke. But there were always good jazzmen in each of these bandsup against the same thing as me: there were only four major jazz bands going. Even then, it was just Duke, Basie, Woody and Kenton.
Shelly Manne was very busy with Kenton at the time, as were Don Lamond with Woody, Gus Johnson with Basie and Sonny Greer with Duke. No openings anywhere.
And if there were, I wouldn't have got the job, anyway, because I didn't have the jazz reputation. Although I knew an awful lot of jazz musicians in New York; I always made all the sessions, sat in everywhere I could.
This sort of situation continued until '53, when Stan Levey was about to quit Kenton. The band was preparing to go to Dublin and Levey wasn't going ta make that trip; he'd got in a beef with Stan over something. I was playing with Beneke in Detroit the same night. Kenton was there, and he sent somebody out to hear me, because I'd been recommended by Maynard Ferguson, who'd been on the Raeburn band with me.
Kenton told his associate: "Don't listen to the band; just listen to him play, and if you think he's strong enough to handle our music, have him come to see me tomorrow." The guy did like me, we had the interview and he hired me. Then Levey changed his mind, they made up and he decided to stay put; so I remained with Beneke far a while, after which I rejoined Ray Anthony.
Sure enough, though, Kenton lived up to his word: the next time Levey left, I took over, and I stayed there three years.
The Kenton band was a completely different thing to what I had done before, but I was entirely ready and able to handle it. Right from the start, I had no trouble. And, frankly, I thank working with all the commercial bands. BecauseI'll tell you somethinga lot of young bebop drummers find it very difficult to work with a big band. For obvious reasons: it's not an easy thing. Playing in a jazz band, you have to be geared to create and to swing; it's dependent on your taste, your feeling and your being a jazz musician. I would stress the word musician.
Most of the arrangements are much more intricate than in a commercial band; there's a lot of things going on.
You have to take over; also if you're a creative player, you want to do it your way. Whereas in a commercial situation, it's simpler music, yet it's harder to play in a lot of waysbecause. there's not much you can do with it. The musicianship in bands of that kind was generally fairly high, but there was an attitude towards laziness. So being able to get something happening with a commercial band made you strong. That's why it was such extremely good experience.
If a young drummer coming up gets a chance to play with a commercial band and he doesn't want to do it, because its not musically stimulating for him, I tell him to think twice about it. Any kind of commercial work can have this strengthening effect.
That is, if you also spend all your free time playing with the right musicians. Your first love is jazz, but you must still be able to turn that other thing off and on. Which is not easy; this is the reason the average drummer is not a jazz drummer. Once the commercial thing takes you over, that's all you end up doing.
The trouble today is that it's much more of a problem to find somewhere to go out and play. When I was younger, it was a lot easier.
By the time I got to the Kenton band, in the early 'fifties, he had really started stretching out; it was not quite Progressive Jazz, as it was called, any more. He had Bill Holman writing for him, and he was leaning mare towards a swinging sound. It wasn't as loud as before; the band was lighter and more flowing. The soloists were more stimulated and they could swing harder.
The Boyd Raeburn band, by comparison with that, had been more a concert band. A little stiffer, too; they still played with the dotted eighths/sixteenths feel. But it was a difficult and interesting book, nevertheless; it taught me a lot. The Kenton book was more intricate, and the musicianship was even higher.
Plus the welcome new direction he was taking, Actually, he went back to the Progressive thing later. I feel that I was lucky; I happened to be part of what I consider one of Kenton's best musical eras. We sort of call that the Bill Holman band. That was really Bill's band in a lot of ways. He made it become something marvellous.
From that period to this day, Bill and I have been very close friends. I regard him as one of the very greatest writers. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, on the West Coast he is the best.
His writing is just as individual as he is himself. Bill Holman is a very singular person; he's not like anybody else I know. He has his own type of humour and creative thinking.. He loves counterpoint and he really knows how to use it in the most beautiful way.
Listing my favourite arrangers, in no special order, it has to be Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Bill Holman. These are three fantastic minds musically. I think all three of them are completely underrated as arrangers. And that's sillybecause there's nobody better. In my opinion, anyway, but I believe a lot of people are starting to agree with me.
Brookmeyer has been a great writer for years, but not enough people seem to know about him. He did one band album of his own, and he wrote most of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band book. The things he's written for our band are tremendous; a beautiful change of pace from my partner Thad. Nobody can write for this band better than Thad, but Bobby is the only one who can capture the band; he can change the sound yet it still fits us.
It is really Thad's band, though: from a rhythm standpoint, he's unique; Thad is one of the most interesting drum writers I've ever known. His music is very difficult to play. You have to be a high calibre musician to play Thad Jones arrangements.
But when they are played right, forget it!there's nothing like it. I can't help boasting about him, because as a writer, player, conductor and as a man, he has no peer.