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

David A. Orthmann By

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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.


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