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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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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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