Chris Smith: At The Intersection Of Scholarship, Performance and Pedagogy

David A. Orthmann By

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In the introduction to his book Jazz Matters (University Of California Press, 2010), David Ake writes about bringing "together the practical side of making jazz, the pedagogical side of teaching it, and the academic side of writing about it." (p. 12) "Nothing but good," Ake adds, "can come if we increase the numbers of scholars who can play, players who can cite the music's sociocultural history, and instructors who can do both." (p. 12)

Ake's exhortation to reach for excellence in a variety of musically related endeavors brings to mind Chris Smith, a young scholar, drummer, and educator. In the fall of 2014 the University Of North Texas Press published The View From The Back Of The Band, Smith's scholarly, accessible biography of drummer Mel Lewis. In addition to amassing a notable discography as a sideman, Smith is beginning to make a name for himself in New York City's notoriously competitive jazz scene. With an eye to eventually securing a full-time teaching position in academia, Smith teaches privately and gives clinics and master classes, as well as performing as a guest artist, in colleges and universities across the country.

All About Jazz: Did The View From The Back Of The Band originate as your doctoral dissertation from the University of Northern Colorado?

Chris Smith: It did. I graduated in 2012.

AAJ: Why did you choose Mel Lewis as the subject of your dissertation?

CS: A couple of main reasons, really. He was a drummer I had always admired, yet I knew that I hadn't really checked him out enough. I loved his playing, but I knew that I had a lot more recordings of his to check out. I didn't know anything about him—sort of the trajectory of his career. I didn't know anything about him as a human being. I also knew that, as a drummer, I didn't sound like him at all. I had been trying to work on getting a more legato sound out of the drums and cymbals. And I had really been working on my ride cymbal beat. And so who can you really get into to improve those aspects of your playing? Mel is an obvious choice.

The other thing is that there had been no major research on him. That was obviously a rule in academia for doing the dissertation—doing original research. It was kind of obvious, but it was a major reason, as well. The ten or fifteen pages that Burt Korall wrote in Drummin' Men were the largest single source of information on Mel. There seemed to be a need out there.

AAJ: Was it difficult to engage the support of the university and your dissertation advisor in terms of researching and writing about this particular topic?

CS: Not at all. I did this at the University of Northern Colorado, and I was actually the first person to graduate from there with a Jazz Doctorate. So I have a DA in Jazz Studies. It was a jazz research project from the get go. My committee included an English Professor—because there had to be an outside professor on the committee that's not from music. And even though he was in the English Department, he had lived in LA in the 50s and was an amateur jazz pianist. How great is that! Everyone else on my committee was a Jazz Studies faculty and completely on board, I was lucky in that regard. Jim White, who I was studying drums with there, was very helpful. The English professor, Dr. Norm Peercy, out of the goodness of his heart and because he really cared about the research and information, edited the entire dissertation with me for free. He wanted to make sure that it was really great. So I had all the support in the world from Northern Colorado. No one was trying to make me write the research they had always wanted to do. It was my project and everybody was on board.

AAJ: Generally speaking, what were the primary challenges of doing the research for the dissertation?

CS: At first, the primary challenge was putting together Mel's life before he joined Stan Kenton. Basically, everything from 1929 to about 1955. That was difficult at first, but then one morning I got an email from Adam Nussbaum and then twenty minutes later I got an email from Ed Soph. It was circulating around this bootleg audio interview Mel did with Loren Schoenberg. Mel did all of those famous interviews with Loren about the history of jazz drums. There was one episode where Mel talked about his own life. When I got that it was like I had been racking my brain trying to put all of this together, and the next thing I know I'm sitting in my living room hearing Mel tell the whole damn thing! It was almost a two-hour interview with Mel talking about his career from birth to 1955. This sounds weird, but I kind of felt like Mel knew what I doing and, somehow, he got that into my hands. Then it was a matter of transcribing and digging into that information. So, initially, that was the biggest challenge. And it got sorted out, miraculously, by hearing Mel tell it. That was a remarkable thing.

The University of Missouri, Kansas City, has a Mel Lewis Special Collection at the LaBudde Special Collections in their Library. Mel's wife, Doris, and daughters, Lori and Donna, donated it to the Library. Danny Gottlieb was instrumental in having the family take what they had as far as Mel's belongings, date books, old reviews, articles and contracts, and donate it to the Library. All of these things were just sitting in this Library, basically waiting for someone to dig through them, organize it, and write. And so the organization for me was a challenge. There was a lot of material. It's easy to get overwhelmed!

I think that the other primary challenge was the conducting of a lot of phone interviews. I had never done that before. So for me that was a pretty big challenge. Asking clear questions and not having too much of a written agenda. Listening to what the person had to say if they went in different directions, because they got off on a story about Mel doing something—to just kind of let them go. So really learning how to conduct a good phone interview was a challenge for me.

AAJ: I think that you were wise in choosing a subject who had strong connections to more than one generation of jazz musicians, including many figures that are currently active on today's scene. What was the process of getting people to contribute interviews for the book?

CS: I studied with John Riley at Manhattan School of Music. I've known Dick Oatts for years, because I'm originally from Iowa, and he's from Iowa. Those are two pretty big figures in the continuation of Mel in the New York scene today. When I told them that I was thinking of doing this, they were totally on board with me doing it. Between those two guys I pretty much had a good base of getting in touch with people in New York City. They helped me get in touch with Joe Lovano, John Mosca, and everybody else out here that I needed to talk to. Then in Los Angeles I'm friends with Jeff Hamilton, and he helped me get in touch with Bill Holman and Terry Gibbs.

Word of mouth started spreading that this guy was writing a dissertation on Mel, he's a player, he knows the deal, he's my student, and he's my friend. And he's somebody you want to talk to. So that's how I had my New York base covered, and Jeff Hamilton helped me with LA, and it kind of took off from there.

I knew that if I was going to do this research, I didn't want to just collect old newspaper articles. That's not interesting to me. None of the real good stuff is in an old newspaper article. No offense to the newspaper articles, but the stories about the band bus, and the stories about Mel as a human being are going to be from actual people. I knew that there was a strong network of people that I knew, and people I wanted to get to know, that knew Mel. It would have been more of a challenge if I had written about someone like—another drummer I love—Bill English. I wouldn't even know where to start.

When I started calling people, I didn't know how they would react. Many of them I had never met in person. I introduced myself on the phone. At that point I was living in Colorado, a random kid calling them up wanting to talk about Mel Lewis. I was overwhelmed how much people wanted to talk about Mel. I'm getting done talking to Joe Lovano, Rufus Reid, Marvin Stamm, and all these people that I look up to so much, and at the end of the interview they're thanking me! You know? And I'm like, "What are you talking about? Thank you! You just gave me an hour or two of your time, and you gave me all of this great information!" But they were just so thrilled to talk about Mel. That was something that surprised me about the interviews and the process. Everybody talked about him like they were talking about their Uncle. Or, their grandpa. Or, their dad. They were just thrilled to talk about him. It was pretty cool.

It was funny how so many people had the same experiences. I guess it's not odd. They're all talking about the same man. It didn't matter when they knew Mel. Gene Cipriano played with Mel in Tex Beneke's band, and that was in the early 50s. The same stuff he said about Mel from then, the way that Mel would talk forever, and go on and on. His personality and the way he handled himself musically was exactly the same way that Ted Nash talked about Mel in 1984. Thirty years later. The same exact thing. Which is kind of cool to hear.

AAJ: You obviously put a great deal of care into transcribing and analyzing some of Lewis' key recorded performances. What kind of discoveries did you make about his playing during this process?
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