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Book Review

The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life And Music Of Mel Lewis


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The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life And Music Of Mel Lewis
Chris Smith
399 pages
ISBN: #978-1-57441-574-2
University Of North Texas Press

"Good drummers were a rarity and that's all there was to it. There's no ego problem involved, it's just there weren't many good drummers. There still aren't." —Mel Lewis (21)

Chris Smith's The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life And Music Of Mel Lewis is a lot like Lewis' celebrated big band drumming—smart, energetic, empathetic, and inclusive. Just as Lewis was a master at offering specific types of support and stimulation to trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections while moving the music forward as a whole, Smith knows exactly what's needed in order to make a diverse, multi-faceted biography appeal to different kinds of readers. Smith's impressive skills as a writer, story teller, and jazz scholar make it easy for the casual listener, jazz aficionado, and musician—three of the potential readers to which the author painstakingly builds bridges—to appreciate his account of Lewis' life, music and career.

"Well, it all boils down to the fact that Mel played music on the drums. He absorbed what everyone in the band was doing and found things to play that complemented it." —Bill Holman (269)

Lewis' early years in Buffalo, the jazz and commercial studio scenes in Los Angeles and New York, his years co-leading a band with Thad Jones, guiding a band of his own until his untimely death at the age of 60, as well as many stops in between, are covered in a straightforward, knowledgeable, informative manner that includes excerpts of interviews from dozens of the drummer's closest associates.

"I remember distinctly the first time I heard Mel, how impressed I was with how little he had to play and what he would leave out. It made him different than everybody else you were hearing at the time..." —John Mosca (127)

Interspersed amongst the wealth of biographical detail are explanations of Lewis' unique style—these are of importance to musicians, and not beyond the reach of most laypersons—with an emphasis on his philosophy of drumming and jazz in general. Of interest to all parties is a section of tributes from family and fellow musicians, which makes it clear that Lewis was loved and respected in his lifetime, and that his influence as a musician and a mentor continues to the present day.

"Mel's absolute first priority, no matter what, was the feel of the music. He knew that if it didn't feel good, neither the band nor the audience would like it." —Pete Malinverni (270)

Because Smith carefully delineates the nature of Lewis' artistry and skillfully recapitulates key points throughout the book, a section of written commentary and transcriptions of some essential recorded performances encourages listeners to explore the drummer's work in greater detail, and serves as an invaluable resource for musicians. Appealing mostly to gearheads, Smith—with the assistance of Paul Wells—offers a timeline of Lewis' equipment. The book concludes with a Selected Discography of Lewis' 600 plus recordings from 1946 to 1989.

"Mel never made the drums the prominent instrument in the band. His sound was something the band sat on top of, and he was the most supportive drummer I have ever heard." —Marvin Stamm (140)

Lewis was born, as Melvin Sokoloff, on May 10, 1929. His father was a professional drummer who regularly played at the Palace Burlesque Theater, as well as variety of other venues in Buffalo, NY. From age two, when Lewis was presented with his first pair of drum sticks, through age twenty-five, when he joined the Stan Kenton Orchestra, was a protracted period of learning and immersion in popular dance music and jazz. Because Lewis' father knew everyone in Buffalo's music circles and wasn't shy about introducing his precocious son, the youngster was welcomed at age six to sit in with local wedding bands, eventually earning some money and beginning to develop a skill set that emphasized listening and the support of others rather than technique for its own sake.

"Technique must be functional; the means by which a drummer communicates his 'feeling' and ideas. Speed by itself isn't worth a cent. It is the control of the hands and feet, whether playing fast or slow, and sensitivity of touch, that are all-important." —Mel Lewis (281-282)

By the time he reached his teens Lewis played dance gigs on a regular basis, and joined the local musicians union. He dropped out of high school to make his first road trip with a band led by Bernie Burns, and upon returning to Buffalo Lewis discovered bebop, on recordings as well as listening to and sitting in with visiting stars when they passed through town.

"My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don't listen to myself play. I'm too busy listening to everything going on around me....I augment, complement, round out." —Mel Lewis (276)

Before reaching the age of twenty, Lewis relocated to New York City, as part of the Lenny Lewis Band, a transplanted Buffalo outfit that broke up after several months due to lack of work—an all-too-common reality for big bands in the post-World War II era. He was asked to join the Count Basie Orchestra, but the offer was rescinded by Basie's management when they realized that it would not be safe for a white man to travel with the band on a long tour of the south.

"His musical approach to drumming never forced people to play a certain way. He allowed people to play the way they play, and then he made his musical contribution while that was happening." —Jerry Dodgion (266)

Although losing the opportunity to play with Basie—one of his idols—was a great disappointment, Lewis was undeterred. He continued to hit the New York clubs with a vengeance, soaking up influences, and discovering ways to deal with the demands of small and large jazz ensembles. In the next few years Lewis found steady work in high profile jazz and dance orchestras led by Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Ray Anthony, and Tex Beneke, acquiring the discipline and some of the interpersonal skills that it took to survive in the music business.

"He tuned his drums on the loose side and that gave him a very wide-open sound. Mel's sound really spread through the band like a warm blanket..." —Jim McNeely" (267)

The last leg of the journey to joining the Kenton Orchestra lasted from 1952 to 1954, while Lewis waited for Kenton to make good on a promise to hire him after Stan Levey vacated the drum chair. At this point in time, Lewis—without ever really intending to do so—had forged a unique, bebop influenced, small group approach to big band drumming, seldom hitting the drums and cymbals hard, and smartly propelling an ensemble without getting overly assertive. He was also confident enough to stand his ground by refusing to play louder at Kenton's request, and quickly became a major factor in what many observers regard as the most swinging of the leader's bands.

"I just didn't find it necessary to be loud—I don't push a band, I cushion it." —Mel Lewis (45)

"If you play just about the way you would play loudly in a small group, and the band is aware of what you are doing, they'll come down in their volume and the whole thing will swing more." —Mel Lewis (301-302)

In part because Kenton was based on the West Coast, Lewis eventually moved his family to California, where he began to pick up jazz and studio work in both small and large ensembles when Kenton's outfit was on breaks from touring. Anticipating that "It was going to get heavy, and I wanted to swing, so I decided I didn't want to be involved" (56), he left Kenton's organization in late 1956. Fortunately, Lewis' ability to make a contribution to literally any situation was an ideal fit in the golden era of the Los Angeles studios, where highly skilled jazz drummers were in demand for popular records and television shows that required versatility and a jazz sensibility.

"I strive for a full sound. I try to make my drums sound like a fat sounding trumpet." —Mel Lewis (321)

When he wasn't employed in legitimate jazz projects with Bill Holman, Maynard Ferguson, Pepper Adams, Shorty Rogers, and the Terry Gibbs Big Band, Lewis enjoyed the financial security (if not always the music) of a staff position at ABC Studios Hollywood. In 1959, while playing on the Eddie Fischer Show, as well as on numerous radio and television commercials, he had the opportunity to work in small group settings with legendary figures like Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Sonny Stitt.

"The drummer should be sitting there knowing the music inside out. There is no reason to be sitting at the concert reading anything. The reading should have been done at the first rehearsal, maybe the second or third rehearsal, maybe even the fourth rehearsal. After that they shouldn't even be looking at the music. They should know the part, and should be listening and finding the inside of everything." —Mel Lewis (292)

At the urging of trombonist/pianist/composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer—a key figure in the drummer's career, spanning thirty-seven years, from the Tex Beneke Orchestra to Lewis' Jazz Orchestra—in 1960 Lewis threw caution to the winds and joined Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. This move to a band that—at least initially—often toured the United States and Europe meant quitting his job at ABC and, for a time, living a bi-coastal existence between Los Angeles and New York. When work with Mulligan unexpectedly came to a near halt, Lewis took a staff position at the NBC Television Studios in Hollywood. Despite the satisfaction of tours with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman, he began to question his future on the West Coast. The rise of rock and roll as the popular music of the day led to the diminishment of job prospects playing live jazz, as well as in the studios, where a handful of younger session drummers got much of the work, accompanying the sound of guitars and other electronic instruments. (97) Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Lewis decided to pull up stakes and move back to New York, and take advantage of the opportunities in the jazz capital of the world.

"The thing that was so amazing about Mel is that he heard everything that was going on in the band. Mel would give it up for the band. In other words, he felt that he was not only a part of the rhythm section, but that he was part of each section of the band...Mel knew every part." —Marvin Stamm (140)

Within a couple of weeks of arriving in New York in April of 1963, Lewis was very busy, juggling a variety of satisfying jazz jobs, a staff position at ABC studios, as well as an abundance of commercials and record dates. During occasional club gigs before the demise of Mulligan's outfit, Lewis renewed his friendship with trumpeter/flugelhornist/composer Thad Jones. They talked about starting a big band of their own, a precarious proposition in an era when large groups were an endangered species.

"I know everything that is going on in the band...I only boost certain parts that I know need boosting, and I fill up space where nothing is going on...my bit is I play it like the band is playing." —Mel Lewis (183)

It took the better part of two years for the idea to reach fruition. Oddly enough, the band's jumping off point was Count Basie's commission and subsequent rejection of ten of Jones' arrangements, which the Count deemed incompatible with the band's personnel and existing repertoire. (116-117) With Basie's blessing, Jones kept the material, and then he and Lewis utilized them as beginnings of a band book for what would become one of the greatest big bands in the history of jazz.

"Mel got deep inside our personal styles, it didn't matter if you played in front of the beat, behind the beat, right down the middle, straight ahead or avant-garde, Mel was always right there with you." —Ralph Lalama (268)

The next several years marked the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra's growing success as a recording and touring outfit; Mel's termination at ABC Studios—for virtually the same reasons as the situation in Los Angeles; an upswing of college and university gigs that, in part, replaced the dearth of club activity; and the gradual integration of young, talented players into a band that was initially comprised of Jones' and Lewis' peer group. Apart from the artistic triumphs, the band's members regarded themselves as part of a family, a feeling that didn't diminish even as new players entered the group and they spent more time of the road. (179-180) "If you left the band," stated Lewis' close associate, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, "Mel felt like he lost a son or a daughter." (181)

"Drummers are going to have to start becoming more musicians, rather than fillers. Just because there are a few beats, or a beat, or an eighth of a beat, they don't have to play a fill there. Space is beautiful too—silence, or just a time figure." —Mel Lewis (310)

In early 1979, without warning or explanation, Thad Jones abruptly quit the band and moved to Denmark. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Jones had secretly conducted negotiations and had been offered a job with the Danish Radio Orchestra. Remembering a promise he and Jones had made to Count Basie that they'd never give up, and always serve as an example that big band jazz is—despite the pitfalls—a living art, Lewis made a decision to continue the band under his name and create a new identity for the group.

"He was the only drummer that I have ever played with that told me he had a specific cymbal for my sound...He said, 'Yeah, I have a cymbal for George, I had a cymbal for Richard, and I have a cymbal for you.'" —Rufus Reid (266)

Enjoying the unequivocal support of the band members, Lewis quickly made a couple of major decisions. First, he engaged Brookmeyer to serve as the band's musical director, as well as to write and arrange for the group. Secondly, he entrusted the group's section leaders with making future decisions regarding the band's personnel and, later on, assisting in interpreting new music brought in by band members.

"As a soloist, there was a beautiful communication and dialog with Mel. There was a lot of interplay within the phrases because Mel would breathe with you. The way he would also breathe and phrase with the band was just incredible. To play an ensemble passage with Mel was a life changing experience." —Joe Lovano (269)

In the last several years of his life, Lewis kept up a busy schedule, despite dealing with the effects of Melanoma. He made the bulk of his income playing in Europe, most notably with the German government sponsored WDR Big Band, as well as teaching and conducting clinics. On the home front, Lewis' Orchestra thrived, in part because of his willingness to enact "an onstage apprentice system, where musicians developed their skills by performing with and deeply listening to their mentors." (231)

"He had a way of playing fills there were ridiculously simple, but musically perfect...Other drummers would have played a lot more in those gaps, but it wasn't needed...Mel gave the music exactly what it needed and nothing more." —Jim McNeely (267-268)

Joe Lovano articulated the impact of Lewis' leadership on the band: "I was really proud to be part of Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra. He treated everyone in the band like it was their band. He accompanied you like it was your band. And that in turn made all of us play for him." (231) He was also a generous mentor to the next generation of jazz drummers, offering advice, criticism, and support as well as hiring some of them as subs in the Orchestra when he was engaged in Europe, or too debilitated to perform.

"Mel created space for the music to breathe and grow. He had the unique ability to create that space, yet still play enough to support the band through some very difficult music." —John Mosca (267)

Mel Lewis passed away on February 2, 1990, a week before celebrating his twenty-fourth year of a Monday night residency at the Village Vanguard. (253)

"I hope that I've really fallen into something new and valid in terms of big band drumming. I hope that I'm doing something that will make a real contribution. That's what a musician really strives for—not to be taken for granted as just a good player, but having made a real contribution to the music." —Mel Lewis (256)

The View From The Back of The Band is a valuable resource in understanding Lewis' life and music, as well as offering a large slice of jazz history in the twentieth-century. Let's hope that the success of this volume encourages other authors and publishers to issue works on Lewis' contemporaries, such as Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, whose stories and accomplishments are essential parts of the music's legacy.

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