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

David A. Orthmann By

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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)


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