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

David A. Orthmann By

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"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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