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The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis (Number 10 in the North Texas Lives of Musicians Series)

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Mel Lewis (1929-1990) was born Melvin Sokoloff to Jewish Russian immigrants in Buffalo, New York. He first picked up his father’s drumsticks at the age of two and at 17 he was a full-time professional musician. The View from the Back of the Band is the first biography of this legendary jazz drummer. For over fifty years, Lewis provided the blueprint for how a drummer could subtly support any musical situation. While he made his name with Stan Kenton and Thad Jones, and with his band at the Village Vanguard, it was the hundreds of recordings that he made as a sideman and his ability to mentor young musicians that truly defined his career.Away from the drums, Lewis's passionate and outspoken personality made him one of jazz music's greatest characters. It is often through Lewis's own anecdotes, as well as many from the musicians who knew him best, that this book traces the career of one of the world’s greatest drummers.  Previously unpublished interviews, personal memoirs, photos, musical transcriptions, and a selected discography add to this comprehensive biography."Smith did a fine job. The research is meticulous and his insights into the music of Mel Lewis are good ones."—Bruce Klauber, author of World of Gene Krupa: That Legendary Drummin' Man"This is the best and most complete tracking of Lewis' career."—John Riley, author of The Art of Bop Drumming and holder of Lewis' chair at the Village Vanguard

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1 - Born a Drummer

ePub

Mel Lewis loved to sit in his living room at 325 West End Avenue #2C and listen to music. He sat in that room and listened for hundreds of hours, usually in the company of a young musician who intently absorbed his entertaining stories of the music business, life on the road, and the wide range of musicians he had worked with. When relaxing in his favorite lounge chair it was typically the music that encouraged Mel's stories of the past, and more importantly, sparked his excitement for the future. At only fifty-eight-years old Mel was a living jazz legend, one who still played drums every Monday night with his band at the Village Vanguard. He loved to talk about future musical projects, his band's next album, politics, or the New York Giants' upcoming season. However, by 1989 his four-year battle with cancer often forced him to silently reflect on the decades of music that defined his career. Mel cared about his legacy and hoped that his musical accomplishments would not be forgotten. “I'd like to leave a mark. I'd like fifty years from now for people to say that Mel Lewis was a pioneer in a way. I'd like to have had my share of doing something important for music,” he said.1 The desire to preserve his story led him to begin writing a memoir, which he aptly titled “The View from the Back of the Band.” Mel was only able to complete several pages before passing away in February of 1990; however, the pages that he did complete offer remarkable insight into his thoughts and memories. There could be no more fitting way to begin this book than printing Mel's unfinished personal memoir for the very first time:

 

2 - Mel Meets New York City

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In January of 1948, after years of talking about relocating, Lenny Lewis finally moved his band and young drummer to New York City. When the Lewis Band arrived, the height of the big band era had passed and even after successful engagements at the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater, Lewis found it much more difficult to find gigs than he had expected.1 He broke up the band after only several months in the city. During a 1957 DownBeat interview, Mel reflected:

If Lenny's band had stayed together, it would have been one of the greatest swing bands. We had guys like Al Killian, Harold (Shorty) Baker, and Fats Ford on trumpet; and Frankie Socolow, Eddie Bert, Sonny Russo, and Al Cohn. Basie loved that band. He still remembers it, too.2

Saxophonist Gene Cipriano had recently joined the Lewis Band and recalled the music and personnel of the band, saying, “That Lenny Lewis band was a true bebop big band and was stocked with great musicians. Unfortunately it was a really bad time for big bands, but for me it was great because I got to meet and play with Al Cohn and Mel.”3 Even though the Lewis Band did not last long in New York City, Mel had enough time in the city to meet several musicians who changed the course of his career.

 

3 - Brookmeyer and Kenton's Initial Offer

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In 1951, Mel once again persuaded Beneke to hire another one of his friends, this time on piano. Bob Brookmeyer, a young pianist and valve trombonist from Kansas City, joined Mel and Buddy Clark in the rhythm section. Mel recalled his first meeting with Brookmeyer and how he eventually got him on the Beneke Band:

Bobby and I met in 1949, in Chicago. I was playing drums with Ray Anthony; now this is before Anthony was really very well known, he was just starting to go out. The band was more or less a Les Brown type of band, not quite as good, but it was close. And Brookmeyer was playing piano with the Orrin Tucker Band, that's what he was doing.

Bob and I met at a jam session at a little club called the High Note in Chicago. Also that night we met up with Al Cohn, Tiny Kahn, Frank Rosolino, they were all working in Chicago at the time. And we were with two commercial dance bands, Brookmeyer with the extreme commercial band, and he was down there with his valve trombone. We are the same age, in fact I am older than Bobby six or seven months. So we were both around nineteen years old then and met at that session. It was one of those things where we liked each other, liked the way each other played and we became fast friends.

 

4 - Kenton Presents Mel Lewis

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In September of 1954, twenty-five-year-old Mel Lewis flew to Los Angeles and joined the reorganized Stan Kenton Orchestra. After four days of rehearsal the Kenton Orchestra set out on the second installment of their nationwide tour named The Festival of Modern American Jazz. The tour began in San Diego on September 16 and Mel quickly adapted his musical concepts into the Kenton Orchestra. He often told the story of his first night with the band, stating, “When I joined Kenton, that very first night, he came over and yelled, ‘Hey Mel, can you play louder?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Okay, I just thought I'd ask.’”1 For the remainder of his time with Kenton, Mel's softer dynamics and bebop-influenced style of big band drumming were a major influence on the band's sound.

The Festival of Modern American Jazz featured the Kenton Orchestra, along with the several other groups such as the Art Tatum Trio, Charlie Ventura's Quartet, and Shorty Rogers and His Giants.2 The drummer touring with Shorty Rogers's group was former Kenton drummer Shelly Manne. By 1954, Manne was the top call jazz drummer on the West Coast, having gained national exposure and fame playing with Kenton from February 1946 to December 1951.3 During his time with Kenton, Manne had provided the blueprint for how a drummer could add dynamics and color to the oftentimes loud Kenton Orchestra. The two-month tour gave Mel the opportunity to watch and learn from Manne every night. Mel later recalled the specific advice Manne gave him during the tour:

 

5 - Contemporary Concepts and Thad Jones

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July of 1955 was one of the most important months in Mel's career. The Kenton Orchestra had hit their stride, and jazz critics began to notice Mel's drumming and the orchestra's lighter swinging style. Jazz journalist Nat Hentoff heard the band during their famous July engagement at Birdland in New York City and proclaimed:

The new Stan Kenton band is still working itself into a more balanced, more relaxed shape, but as of its Birdland bow, it displays a crisp arsenal of power, exuberance, and several swinging soloists. In line with the last two years, this is a leaner, far less pretentious sounding band than some of the crews Stan used to front. In fact, in its better, unstiff moments, this band swings unusually hard to the extent that one late entrant on opening night shook a skeptical head and asked, “Are you sure this is a Kenton band?”1

Burt Korall also heard the band at Birdland and took note of Mel's control of the ensemble stating, “Mel Lewis plays with a surety that gives the band definition and much of the small group feel that is essential to moving it off the ground. He is technically proficient and very much at home in the band.”2 Korall's statement highlighted Mel's unique ability to play with the subtlety and interaction of a small group drummer in a big band setting. Though he never intended to, Mel truly invented a small group approach to big band drumming.

 

6 - Life in Los Angeles

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Mel's career after Kenton provided him the opportunity to develop a wider network in Los Angeles and accept more studio work. In 1957, the Los Angeles jazz and studio scenes were very active, providing a wide variety of work for most musicians. During the winter and spring, he performed or recorded with Lennie Niehaus, Dave Pell, Bill Perkins, Jimmy Rowles, John Graas, Med Flory, and Quincy Jones, among others.1 He was also being called for an increasing number of big band dates, many of them led by former members of the Kenton Orchestra.

Maynard Ferguson had recently led the Birdland All-Star Dream Band in New York City and was looking to establish his own thirteen-piece band on the West Coast. He asked several of the men who had just left Kenton's band to join his new outfit. In addition to his old friend Mel, Bob Fitzpatrick, Ed Leddy, and Richie Kamuca joined the first ever Maynard Ferguson Orchestra. “I've wanted to have a band like this for years, and now that it exists I darn well want to keep it going. If everything works out, I hope to keep at it for a long time,” stated Ferguson.2 Though Mel performed with Ferguson's band for only a very short time, it was one of the first examples of him being a first call big band drummer in Los Angeles.

 

7 - Terry Gibbs and “The Tailor”

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Mel first met vibraphonist Terry Gibbs in 1948 while both men were living in New York City. Gibbs remembered his initial encounters with Mel:

Mel was with Tex Beneke, and he used to try to find me all the time because he loved Tiny Kahn's drumming. He knew that I grew up with Tiny, and had all of these things I could tell him about Tiny. So he would find me and we'd talk a little bit, but we never really got to know each other until I moved out to the West Coast.

When I moved out to the West Coast and wanted to start a band, that's when we got really tight. Mel was looking for a band to play with, and even though he had Bill Holman's rehearsal band and Med Flory's band, all they did was rehearse and my band ended up as a working band almost immediately.1

The two men first recorded together in September of 1957 on an album titled Jazz Band Ball—Second Set (Mode).2 It was during that session that Gibbs famously gave Mel his nickname, “The Tailor.” Gibbs recalled the exact reason:

 

8 - Webster and Mulligan

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Mel's suddenly high profile work with Terry Gibbs introduced his playing to an increasing number of network contractors in Los Angeles. As a result, he joined the staff of ABC Studios Hollywood.1 His 1959 studio work included playing on the Eddie Fischer Show, performing live dates with Frank Sinatra (subbing for Irv Cottler), and performing on numerous radio and television commercials.2

Mel was also involved with the motion picture The Gene Krupa Story. The movie was loosely based on the story of Gene Krupa's life, but while the movie was entertaining to audiences, it didn't succeed in portraying much reality. Krupa himself recorded most, but not all, of the drumming sequences for the movie. Mel was brought in to record the drumming audio for several scenes, including a montage from low periods in Krupa's career. The scenes depicted Krupa playing with bad groups, awkwardly forcing Mel to try and sound like Krupa on his bad nights. In the end, the opportunity for Mel to be a part of a movie about his lifelong drumming idol and friend was a nerve-racking, but enjoyable, experience.

 

9 - Mel's New Cymbal and Europe with Dizzy

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Just as the Concert Jazz Band began to gain popularity, it received two major setbacks.1 By the end of 1960, Mulligan began to devote more time to take care of his girlfriend Judy Holliday who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Also in January of 1961, only a month after their successful second run at the Village Vanguard, Granz sold Verve Records to MGM for two and a half million dollars.2 The move meant that Granz would no longer help promote, record, or financially back the band. While Mulligan financially kept the band performing and recording until 1964, the band was never able to take another European tour or record as often as Mulligan would have liked.3 These two events destroyed the momentum that the band had built during their first year. The Concert Jazz Band performed sporadically throughout 1961, with most of their work consisted of jazz club dates in New York City.4 For Mel, what had seemed like an opportunity for a busy steady job with Mulligan, turned out to be musically rewarding, but not nearly as steady as he had hoped.

 

10 - The Soviet Union and a Move East

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In April of 1962, Mel accepted an exciting offer from Benny Goodman's management to join an extensive tour of the Soviet Union for the U.S. State Department. At that time, the Cold War was growing increasingly tense; the previous ten months had seen both the construction of the Berlin Wall by the East German regime and the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. It would be only weeks after the conclusion of the tour that the two countries faced off in the Cuban Missile Crisis.1 The State Department picked Goodman for the tour because he was quite possibly the best-known jazz musician in the world.2 The goal of the tour was for Goodman and his musicians to present “an anthology of American jazz” to the Russian people.3

It took the first several weeks in April for the personnel of the group to be finalized, but when it was, the band was a dynamite cast of musicians. Joya Sherrill was the featured vocalist. Zoot Sims, Jerry Dodgion, and Phil Woods were part of the saxophone section. Joe Newman and Jimmy Maxwell were in the trumpet section. The rhythm section consisted of Bill Crow on bass and Turk Van Lake on guitar, and featured Victor Feldman on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano.4

 

11 - Back in the Big Apple

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In April of 1963, Mel finally made the decision to move himself and his family back to New York City. This ended up being one of the best decisions he ever made, beginning the most artistically satisfying period of his career.

Arriving in New York City in May of 1963, Mel gigged on the jazz circuit almost immediately:

I started working and playing with everybody, and playing jazz gigs within two weeks after I arrived. In two weeks I started making a living, not just a job here or a job there, I mean it started and it went bam! It's hard to believe, but that's the way it was.1

His first month in the city was better than he could have imagined, and June proved to be a successful and important month as well. Earlier that spring while still living in Los Angeles, Mel had told Ben Webster of his plans to move to New York City. According to Mel, Webster responded by saying, “Well, if you are leaving I am leaving too, you got room?”2 Mel was playing with Webster on a regular basis in L.A., and as he told it, his decision was the tipping point of Webster's decision to also move back to the East Coast. Just a week before the two men planned to drive to New York City together, however, Webster told Mel that he was not going to travel with him because he wanted to stop in Kansas City on his way east. He told Mel that he would eventually meet up with him at the famous musician establishment Jim and Andy's on West 48th Street in Manhattan. In early June, Webster did find Mel at Jim and Andy's and their musical association quickly resumed.3 Mel recalled seeing Webster in New York City for the first time:

 

12 - Thad and Mel Get their Opening

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Throughout 1964, Thad and Mel performed together on a regular basis in their small group with Pepper Adams. However, the most high profile work that Thad and Mel shared was with the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. Earlier in the year trumpeter Clark Terry had left the Concert Jazz Band, accepting a contract to work for NBC Studios in Los Angeles. Famously, Terry's contract was the first ever offered to an African-American musician by NBC and resulted in his decade of high profile work on The Tonight Show. Amazingly, ABC and CBS had already hired African-Americans in their studio orchestras, but it wasn't until Terry in 1964 that NBC finally followed suit. On Mel and Brookmeyer's recommendation, Mulligan hired Thad Jones to take over Terry's trumpet chair in the Concert Jazz Band.1 The band was not touring or recording at the time, but still played several long residencies at clubs in New York City. Thad soon found himself sitting next to Mel during the Concert Jazz Band's three-week residency at Birdland during March and April of 1964. Even though there are no commercially available recordings of Thad with the band, Bill Crow remembered Thad's performances by saying, “Those gigs were testament to his musical interaction and connection with Mel.”2

 

13 - Opening Night at the Village Vanguard

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In November of 1965, Thad and Mel quickly put together a list of the musicians they wanted for their band. While Thad had certain friends at CBS whom he wanted to hire, and Mel had musicians he wanted, they easily agreed on the personnel. Thad remembered the process of forming the group, saying, “We agreed on everything. And that's ridiculous. Musically it bordered on fantastic. And then, when we finally started calling, nobody turned us down. Not a soul.”1 Eugene “Snooky” Young, Bob Brookmeyer, Pepper Adams, and Richard Davis were the first musicians hired, as Thad and Mel loved all four men as both musicians and friends. Next came Jimmy Nottingham, Jack Rains, Cliff Heather, and Hank Jones, all of whom were on staff with Thad at CBS. Jimmy Maxwell, Bill Berry, Danny Stiles, Jerome Richardson, and Jerry Dodgion were all accomplished jazz musicians active in the New York City studio scene, and were soon invited into the band.2 It is important to note that while Thad and Mel were previously friends with many of the musicians they hired, this wasn't true in every case. Thad himself stated, “We weren't all friends in the beginning. We were acquaintances who respected each other as individuals and musicians. The friendship came through our association together with our band.”3 The two men were determined to fill their band with great musicians, regardless of age or race. When promising young players such as Joe Farrell (who was recommended by Wayne Shorter), Garnett Brown, Jimmy Owens, and Eddie Daniels were asked to join the band, often Thad and Mel were going on musical ability alone.4 Eddie Daniels recalled the chance meeting that got him hired into the band:

 

14 - The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Solid State

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After the initial success of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, several record companies quickly approached Thad and Mel about recording the band. Creed Taylor, who was working for Verve at the time, had set up a meeting with Thad and Mel in February of 1966. Both men had previously had their personal and professional disagreements with Taylor, and neither of them was thrilled about attending the meeting. Mel remembered the earlier incident that caused the rift in his relationship with Taylor:

Creed and I weren't even talking at the time, because we had had scenes at Verve. That's how I ended up not being on Verve anymore. Because when I moved back to New York Creed said, “You'll be my drummer here.” But I had a big scene with Stan Getz, he was drunk one night. In fact, I drove him to the date and he was drinking all the way to the date [Stan Getz: Reflections]. When we got there he ended up getting in some kind of scenes and started picking on me, because I was the only guy he knew there. And I let him have it, and Creed says, “You can't talk to my star like that.” I said, “who the hell are you, you're going to sit here and take shit from him? I ain't going to take any shit from you either.” I told them both off…and I never worked for Creed again.1

 

15 - Thad and Mel Hit the Road, and the Road Hits Back

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1968 marked the first time that the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra took extended tours of the United States and Japan. The tour of the United States began on April 20 with a performance at the second annual Bay Area Jazz Festival in Berkeley, California. Joe Williams was the guest vocalist with the band, which included several new members, including Danny Moore and Randy Brecker on trumpet, and Seldon Powell taking the place of Joe Farrell in the saxophone section. From Berkeley the band traveled to San Francisco to perform on Ralph J. Gleason's television show Jazz Casual.1 The group performed “Just Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Kids Are Pretty People,” and “Don't Git Sassy.” The entire performance, plus on-air interviews with Thad, Mel, and Brookmeyer, has been reissued on DVD and is the earliest commercially available footage of the band.2 After the band taped their afternoon performance, they traveled to Los Angeles for an evening performance at the club Marty's on the Hill. The band performed at the club from Monday, April 22, through Saturday, April 27, before heading back home to New York City.3

 

16 - The Youth Movement

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By most accounts, the four-year relationship between Thad, Mel, and Solid State producer Sonny Lester was always a good one. Lester had the reputation of often being overbearing as a producer; yet with Thad and Mel, he seemed to give unprecedented freedom in the studio. Mel recalled Lester's hands-off approach saying, “Manny Albam had more to say at our dates. Sonny sort of stood in the back and kept looking at his watch once in a while.”1 Lester never pressured Thad or Mel to make commercial music, and other than his occasional request for one or two standards per album, he let the men be as creative as they desired.

Sadly, January of 1970 marked the beginning of the end of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra's successful association with Lester. After the merger of United Artist Records and Liberty Records in late 1969, Solid State, the jazz division of United Artist, was merged into Liberty Records' more prestigious jazz label Blue Note.2 The merger resulted in the cancelation of Thad and Mel's contract with Solid State, but before they left the label they made one more recording that was released on Blue Note titled Thad Jones/Mel Lewis: Consummation (Blue Note).

 

17 - Ten Years at the Village Vanguard / The Road Family

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In 1975, Thad and Mel wasted no time getting the band back on the road. On January 19, they began a two-and-a-half-month tour across the United States, one of the longest domestic tours that they ever put together. During the tour the band performed at an astounding number of colleges and universities. The increase of jazz in higher education continued to be seen in the itineraries of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. In February and March alone, they performed concerts at Arizona State University, Chabot College, Stanford University, University of Texas, University of Wisconsin, Michigan Tech, Florida State University, Dade Community College, Westfield State University, Monroe Community College, Oberlin College, and State Universities of New York in Pottsdam and Oswego.1 In addition to providing income, the school concerts also provided an opportunity to have their music discovered by the younger “rock” crowd. The average twenty-year-old who did not listen to jazz radio, or read DownBeat magazine, could still discover the band through these live performances.

 

18 - Thad Leaves for Denmark

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In the fall of 1978, only weeks after their bus tour of the United States, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra set out on a three-month tour of Europe. The tour and the weeks that followed were a defining moment in Mel's career. As previously stated, there had been many personnel changes in the band following their spring tour across the United States. Many of the changes had taken place in the saxophone section. Bob Rockwell joined Rich Perry on tenor saxophone, Steve Coleman had recently moved to New York City and joined on second alto, while Charles Davis took over baritone saxophone duties. The most important change in the saxophone section was Dick Oatts taking over Jerry Dodgion's vacated lead alto chair. Oatts recalled his hesitation to become the lead alto player:

Thad asked me to play lead, and I told him I didn't really want to. He then proceeded to tell me that I didn't have any choice. It was kind of a drag for me because I really enjoyed playing second alto under Dodgion. In a way, I was also trying to focus more on the jazz end of things and didn't want the responsibility of playing the lead part.1

 

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