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The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis


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The following is an excerpt from "Chapter 13: Opening Night at the Village Vanguard" of The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis by Chris Smith (University of North Texas Press, 2014).

In November of 1965, Thad and Mel quickly put together a list of the musicians they wanted for their band. While Thad had certain friends at CBS that he wanted to hire, and Mel had musicians he wanted, they easily agreed on the personnel. Thad remembered the process of forming the group, saying, "We agreed on everything. And that's ridiculous. Musically it bordered on fantastic. And then, when we finally started calling, nobody turned us down. Not a soul." Eugene "Snooky" Young, Bob Brookmeyer, Pepper Adams, and Richard Davis were the first musicians hired, as Thad and Mel loved all four men as both musicians and friends. Next came Jimmy Nottingham, Jack Rains, Cliff Heather and Hank Jones, all of whom were on staff with Thad at CBS. Jimmy Maxwell, Bill Berry, Danny Stiles, Jerome Richardson, and Jerry Dodgion were all accomplished jazz musicians active in the New York City studio scene, and were soon invited into the band. It is important to note that while Thad and Mel were previously friends with many of the musicians they hired, this wasn't true in every case. Thad himself stated, "We weren't all friends in the beginning. We were acquaintances who respected each other as individuals and musicians. The friendship came through our association together with our band." The two men were determined to fill their band with great musicians, regardless of age or race. When promising young players such as Joe Farrell (who was recommended by Wayne Shorter), Garnett Brown, Jimmy Owens, and Eddie Daniels were asked to join the band, often Thad and Mel were going on musical ability alone. Eddie Daniels recalled the chance meeting that got him hired into the band:

Tony Scott had hired me to play with him at the Half Note, and it was one of my first jazz gigs ever. One night Thad and Mel came in and heard me. I was only playing saxophone because Tony Scott wouldn't let me play clarinet. But, they came in and heard me and I got a call several weeks later to join their band. I was shocked. You never know!

Jerry Dodgion was a much more established musician than Daniels at the time. He had previously worked with Mel in several musical settings, including a recording session with singer Peggy Lee and as a member of the Benny Goodman tour in 1962. Even though he was a contemporary of both Thad and Mel, he recalled a similar joy and surprise when asked to join the all-star band:

Mel is the one who called me, he said, 'Thad Jones and I are starting a band together and we wanted to know if you wanted to be a part of it?' I said, 'Of course!' So I knew these two individuals separately, but not as a team. And I thought to myself, 'I wouldn't miss this for the world, because in a way they are sort of the "odd couple." They are totally different individuals, and I'm thinking, even if this lasts for one rehearsal, or twenty, I need to be there and I wouldn't miss it for anything. So I was in the place I wanted to be, and they were in the place that they wanted to be.

After the all musicians confirmed their availability, Thad and Mel had assembled an incredible group of musicians. They had also unintentionally created a very racially diverse band. As saxophonist Dick Oatts explained, the diversity of the band was very significant to the jazz community at the time:

When Thad and Mel started the band in 1965 it was so unique. During that turbulent time in the mid-1960s, they were able to form a truly mixed-race band. Everyone in the band had a distinct personality and direction in life and music. It broke through a lot of barriers and it was a good time for that to happen. It was really revolutionary. Not just what was going on musically, but it was also a sign of racial harmony. And I think the band represents that harmony, as much as it does the music. Thad's writing brought differences in life and music together, as did Mel's passion for putting the music "first above all" and the way he tailored the rhythmic direction. The glue for success was the respect of the differences of each member.

The group's first rehearsal took place sometime on November 26, 27, or 28, Thanksgiving weekend of 1965. The all-star band gathered at A&R Studios in Manhattan, located at West Forty-eighth Street near Sixth Avenue, just above the famous musician hangout Jim and Andy's. As Thad later recalled, even a major delay didn't dampen the musician's excitement for their first rehearsal:

Our first rehearsal was at A&R Studios, and was scheduled for eleven o'clock. Everybody got there at ten-thirty. The latest cat was there by that time; I got there around ten o'clock, bringing with me a bottle apiece of brandy, Scotch and vodka. Hank, who doesn't drink, brought three bottles of whisky; he came in five minutes after I did.

And you know what happened? The studio we were to rehearse in was occupied; they were recording a jingle. They were supposed to be out by eleven, but the jingle went on until around twelve-thirty. We sat there and we waited. Nobody left.

When the studio was finally open we went in, had our first rehearsal, and everybody fell in love. We had a ball!

Even though they did not have gigs scheduled when they began rehearsing, the band was formed to be a performing and touring ensemble. Thad and Mel did not create the group as a rehearsal band, and even though critics and journalists often stated otherwise, the men were adamant about their reasons for forming the band. In an interview with Les Tomkins, Mel emphatically stated, "We are not a rehearsal band. We're an organized, living, working band." Thad echoed Mel's comment stating, "We have never been a rehearsal band. The band wasn't formed just to rehearse. This is a point we've discussed many times."

During the mid-1960s there were several rehearsal big bands in New York City, including bands led by pianist Duke Pearson, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, as well as tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Kenny Dorham. These bands usually meet once a week late at night, and served two purposes. First, the bands were an opportunity for composers to have their new music and arrangements played. Second, they served as a chance for jazz musicians who worked in the daytime studio scene to stretch out and play jazz during the evening. Even though Duke Pearson's band would frequently gig in New York City later during the mid 1960s, none of the previously listed bands performed or recorded anywhere to the extent of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. "I think because so many of the members of the band were the most respected and busy studio musicians in the city, the term 'rehearsal band' was incorrectly applied for years," stated Jerry Dodgion.

To further contradict the rehearsal band label, the group rehearsed only six times before playing their first show. For these rehearsals Thad and Mel had worked out a deal with Phil Ramone, who promised his studio as free rehearsal space if they allowed his recording engineer students to practice their recording skills during the rehearsals. Unfortunately, surviving recordings of these first rehearsals seemingly do not exist. The rehearsals usually began at midnight and went until the early morning hours. Mel commented on the dedication of the band members by saying, "Everybody'd be there. They'd be putting in their whole day at work; they finished rehearsing at four or five in the morning, got home at six and had to be back in their studio jobs by nine or ten a.m. And it wouldn't matter to them at all." These late night rehearsals were usually held at A&R Studios on Forty-eighth Street, but also took place at A&R Studios on Seventh Avenue between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets and at Soundmixers Studio at Broadway and Forty-ninth Street.

Thad and Mel invited several important guests to witness their new band in action during the December and January rehearsals. WABC disc jockey Alan Grant and DownBeat magazine's New York editor Dan Morgenstern visited an early rehearsal and were so amazed by the group that they took it upon themselves to help the band find a gig. Grant and Morgenstern urged Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, to book the group on a Monday night in February, as Monday was the slowest night of the week for business. Monday nights at the club were usually jam sessions prior to 1966 and rarely, if ever, did a group of this caliber perform on Monday night. Gordon was successfully persuaded to hire the band, and gave them the first three Monday nights in February. To make the booking financially possible for Gordon, each band member agreed to play for only seventeen dollars a night. In addition to his help with the booking, Grant also promoted the band on his weekly radio broadcasts leading up to opening night. Word spread quickly throughout the city that Thad and Mel would be debuting their all-star big band at the Village Vanguard in February.

Another important visitor to the band's first rehearsals was Manny Albam. In addition to previously working with many of the band members on various jazz and studio projects, he was working closely with A&R studio engineer Phil Ramone on the new Solid State record label. In February, as the Thad and Mel began looking for a record label for the band their close friendship with Albam made Solid State a clear favorite.

On Monday night February 7, 1966, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra made their debut at the Village Vanguard. The group was originally billed as The Jazz Band, but the title quickly changed to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra because fans and critics usually used Thad and Mel's names when mentioning the group. On opening night, Thad and Mel arrived at the club early in the evening to set up for the performance. Because the Village Vanguard wasn't equipped to handle a big band, they had to bring their own music stands and create makeshift music stand lights so that all eighteen musicians could read their music in the dimly lit club. The two men also had to figure out how to fit a full big band setup on the small stage of the Vanguard. Eventually, the saxophone chairs and stands were pushed as far as possible to the front of the stage area allowing drums to fit in the far back corner by the trumpet section. After setting up the bandstand, a task that may have been more suited for two engineers, Thad and Mel joined club owner Max Gordon in the back office. Thad recalled the multitude of emotions that he experienced while waiting for the band's first downbeat:

Mel and I bought music stands, which we hoped were strong enough to hold the music and set them up on the stage. Then around 9 p.m. we sat in the back of the club with Max who was getting more nervous every minute. I told him: 'There's no sweat.

The people will come.' But I was whistling in the dark.

We went on talking for a while, then around 9:30 I heard a buzz from outside. I looked out, and to my amazement, the place was packed. They were four deep on the stairs and when we hit at 10 o'clock it was almost impossible to get through to the bandstand.

Thad and Mel knew from the very first rehearsal that they had assembled an amazing group, yet it wasn't until minutes before their first public performance that they realized New York City would embrace their band. Jazz fans, musicians, and record company executives paid the $2.50 cover charge and crammed into the basement jazz club to witness history. At ten o'clock the orchestra began their first set. In addition to its leaders, Thad conducting and playing cornet and Mel setting the musical pace on drums, the opening-night orchestra consisted of Jimmy Nottingham, Jimmy Owens, Snooky Young, and Bill Berry in the trumpet section; Bob Brookmeyer, Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, and Cliff Heather (bass trombone) in the trombone section; Joe Farrell (tenor), Jerry Dodgion (alto), Eddie Daniels (tenor), Jerome Richardson (alto/soprano), and Marv Holliday (baritone) and possibly Pepper Adams (baritone) in the saxophone section; and joining Lewis in the rhythm section were Hank Jones (piano), Sam Herman (guitar), and Richard Davis (bass).

Jerry Dodgion recalled there being only ten arrangements in the band's book on opening night, yet they still managed to play three sixty-minute sets. Thanks to the level of musicianship in the band, and Thad's ability to conduct and reshape his arrangements during performances, the band could perform the same arrangement twice in a night and not get a complaint from the audience. By replaying certain sections of the arrangement, opening new solo sections, and coming up with new backgrounds on the spot, the band almost never played an arrangement the same way twice. They adapted to Thad's conception of reshaping his arrangements during their first performances at the Vanguard. Even during that very first night, the music was changing and growing. As Thad stated, "We want to establish a style, a musical pattern. But it should have a lot of elasticity. Once you begin over-listening for something, what you're striving for is gone. And there has to be both freedom and discipline."

With a nearly full audience at all three sets, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra's opening night was a huge success. Jerry Dodgion recalled the excitement at the Vanguard that night,

I remember the place was packed, I mean really packed! After we played that first set, it took us forever to get back to the kitchen because so many people where stopping us to express their delight at the sound of the band. The spirit of the occasion was very memorable and just to be there was a great feeling. Everyone who was at the Vanguard that night knew something very special was happening.

Reprinted from The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis © 2015 Chris Smith by permission of University of North Texas Press.

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