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

David A. Orthmann By

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"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 He was asked to join the Count Basie Orchestra, but the offer was rescinded by Basie's management when they realized that it would not be safe for a white man to travel with the band on a long tour of the south.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)

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