Story and Photo by Rick Mattingly
In an era when big band drummers were expected to be showmen who drove their ensembles with aggressive timekeeping and fast, furious fills, Mel Lewis defied the trend and served the music by supporting the band rather than by calling attention to his own playing.
The warm sounds of his "old K's" and his calf-headed bass and snare drums served as a cushion for the band's sound, blending with the other instruments rather than cutting through them. As Lewis sat calmly behind a small drumkit that looked more appropriate for a combo than a big band, the hint of a smile was often visible at the corners of his mouth as he led the band with the authority of his time feel, which was all the more impressive by virtue of its understated quality. Indeed, Lewis could swing a band just as hard with brushes as with sticks.
Mel sometimes complained that to most people, "chops" meant "speed." He could handle fast tempos with no problem, but he was never one for playing blazing fills and solos. For him, "chops" had to do with control of the instrument, a sense of color, and above all, the ability to swing.
"I learned that the power of the drums was in this smooth glide of rhythm," he once told writer Stanley Crouch. "It wasn't the volume." Lewis could play loudly when the situation called for it, but he could also play very softly. He was always proud when his band was cited for its ability to play with a wider range of dynamics than most big bands.
Lewis was highly regarded for his touch on the cymbals, and for choosing the right cymbal to play behind each soloist. He could get an amazing variety of sound from each cymbal as well. "Every cymbal I use is a ride cymbal," Lewis told me during a 1985 Modern Drummer interview. "Every one of my cymbals is also a crash cymbal.
"I find that all the cymbals should be dark," he continued. "Darker cymbals are more complementary to horns. When you hit a high crash cymbal with the brass section, you will knock out half their sound. If there are four trumpets and the fourth is playing the lowest part, your ride cymbal should be the fifth trumpet, which is lower yet. Trombones, of course, can go lower than my cymbals can, so I want to be somewhere in the middle register where I don't obliterate the lead and I don't destroy the bottom.
"With the saxophones, you want a roaring sound to envelop, because reeds don't have the power that the brass has. That's why I believe that during a sax soli -- where you have five saxophone players standing up playing together -- nothing sounds better behind them than a Chinese ride cymbal, because there's a blend. Bass violin players love Chinese cymbals because the low sound and the Oriental type of roar make the bass sound spring forward. It gives tremendous fullness to the sound of the band.
"You should treat the different sections with different ride cymbals. Even in my dark sounds there is still a higher sound, a medium sound, and a lower sound. I'll use the high sound behind a piano. I'll also use the lowest sound behind a piano. But I won't use the middle sound behind the piano because it's too much in the piano's range. Behind the piano, a flute, or a muted trumpet, I'll also use the hi-hats or brushes. When I'm playing behind, say, a trumpet solo followed by a tenor solo, and I know that the tenor player is a hard-blower, I'll use the Chinese cymbal. Now, if it's just going to be a trumpet solo, or if the tenor player has a lighter sound, I'll use my normal 22-inch ride cymbal. But I'll always save my Chinese for the hardest blowing soloist.
"Also, you should start with a crash and end with a crash. I see drummers ending with a crash cymbal, but then choking it. When you hit that big chord at the end, let it ring. Hit that bass drum and hit that cymbal: 'POW' instead of 'pop.' That's exciting. There should be a finality to that final blow, unless it's a soft ending, of course. Then you don't need a cymbal, although I like to hit one softly. But that's always been a thing of mine: Start with a crash and end with a crash."
Mel Lewis, whose real name was Melvin Sokoloff, was born in Buffalo, New York. He began playing professionally at age fifteen and worked with the bands of Lenny Lewis, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Tex Beneke, and Ray Anthony. When Lewis joined Stan Kenton's band in 1954, many jazz critics credited him with being the first drummer to make the Kenton band swing.
The Kenton gig also provided Lewis with the setting in which he could develop his "small group approach to big band." Mel wanted to play like the bebop drummers of the day, using ride cymbal more than hi-hat, breaking up the time, and dropping occasional "bombs." That didn't fit with a lot of the swing/dance bands that Lewis worked with early in his career, but it was perfect for Kenton, which whom Mel worked for three years.
Lewis moved to Los Angeles in 1957 and worked with the big bands of Terry Gibbs and Gerald Wilson, and with pianist Hampton Hawes and trombonist Frank Rosolino. He also co-led a combo with Bill Holman. In 1962 he made a trip to Russia with Benny Goodman. In addition, Lewis did a variety of studio sessions while in L.A. (My favorite trivia fact about Mel is that he was the drummer on the early '60s rock song "Alley Oop.")
After returning to New York in 1963, Lewis worked with Ben Webster and Gerry Mulligan. In 1965, Mel and trumpeter Thad Jones (Elvin's brother) formed the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, which began a steady Monday-night gig at the Village Vanguard club in February 1966. The band also recorded frequently, and the group toured the Soviet Union in 1972.
In 1978, Jones left the band to move to Europe, but Lewis kept the group going, calling it the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. One of the most distinctive features of the ensemble was its emphasis on soloists, who were always given plenty of room to stretch. Hearing Mel's band live was often like hearing two bands in one. "It's only a big band when everybody is playing together," Mel told me. "When someone is soloing, then it's a quartet."
Although the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra received high critical praise, none of the musicians, including Mel, could make a living from it. So they all did other work, and besides jazz gigs and recordings, Mel also did his share of commercial "club dates." But despite being a consummate jazz musician, he didn't have an "attitude" about playing gigs such as weddings. "Playing for dancers is great training for a drummer," he told me. "It really teaches you to be consistent."
Mel was known as one who wasn't afraid to speak his mind. In print, he could come off as being abrasive, but he was not malicious by any means. Mel called things the way he saw them, and there was often a twinkle in his eye when he knew his words were likely to raise eyebrows. Although he was open-minded about different types of music, in certain matters he could be quite inflexible. For example, he contended that it was impossible for a drummer to swing with matched grip. And he was vehemently opposed to the electronic drums and drum machines that came along in the 1980s, going so far as to declare that the company responsible for the LinnDrum machine should be blown up.
For a brief period, Lewis taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, and he occasionally gave drum clinics, but he was never one for private lessons. "I teach every Monday night at the Village Vanguard," he would respond when someone asked him for lessons. But Mel was very encouraging to young drummers and would invite them to his apartment to listen to records and discuss music, go with a drummer to pick out a new cymbal, and generally serve as an advisor and father figure. When I worked full-time at Modern Drummer, Mel would sometimes call to suggest that I check out a young drummer that he felt showed promise. Danny Gottlieb, Joey Baron, Kenny Washington, Adam Nussbaum, Jim Brock, Dennis Mackrel, and Barbra Merjan were just a few of the drummers Mel championed, hiring many of them to fill in for him at the Vanguard when he had to miss a Monday night.
There were quite a few nights like that in the late 1980s. Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma, a form of cancer that can turn up in various parts of the body. It started in his arm, but he received treatment and thought it was cured. Then it surfaced in his lungs, and again he received treatment and thought he had it beat. Then it went to his brain.
During all that time, Lewis played as often as he could, making several recordings and even taking a couple of trips to Europe. In October 1989, Mel was honored at a concert by the American Jazz Orchestra.
His Monday-night gig at the Village Vanguard was the most important thing in the world to him. The last time I spoke with him, in December 1989, he had just come out of the hospital. As usual, he predicted that the worst was behind him. "I'll be at the Vanguard Monday night," he told me. "I'm not sure if I'll feel like playing, so there will be a sub on hand. But I'll be there."
In January 1990, he traveled to New Orleans for the IAJE Convention, where he gave a clinic and performed with his band. It was his final performance. Lewis died on February 2, just days before his band was to celebrate its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.
I once asked Mel to evaluate himself. "Mel Lewis, I guess, is a guy who has never known anything in his life except drums and music," he replied. "I admit I am very opinionated and I really can't stand people who are mediocre. So that might be one of the harshest parts of me, but basically I'm a lover of humanity and, above all, music. I can't see myself doing anything else in this life except playing music."