Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lewis, Mel (Sokoloff, Melvin)

Drummer Mel Lewis set a new standard for the modern big band as co-leader of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s. From his early years with bandleader Stan Kenton through his hundreds of sessions as a sideman, Lewis's sophisticated ear made him both a flawless timekeeper and an attentive accompanist.

Melvin Sokoloff was born on May 10, 1929 in Buffalo, New York. Born to Russian immigrants, Mel’s father was a drummer who performed around the Buffalo area. At the age of three, Lewis began to play the drums after his father showed him how to properly hold the sticks. Lewis played drums through elementary school, then switched to the baritone horn in high school. He later credited his experience learning the baritone horn as having helped him percieve the melodic potential of the drums.

During World War II, many jazz musicians were drafted into the military, leaving plenty of vacancies in working ensembles. Because of this, Lewis was able to begin performing professionally at the age of thirteen. By the age of fifteen, Mel joined the Musicians’ Union and began to perform with a big band. During these formative years, he gained significant performance experience by playing weddings, bar mitzvahs and other society gigs.

While living in Buffalo, Lewis saw several drummers perform live, including Max Roach and Art Blakey. By the age of seventeen, Mel was touring the West Coast with an ensemble and within a year he was performing with bandleader Lenny Lewis. With this group, Lewis journeyed to New York City and performed at several noted venues such as the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theater.

From July until November 1948, Lewis performed with bandleader Boyd Raeburn before joining the band of bandleader Alvino Rey. Beginning in 1949, Mel performed with bandleader Ray Anthony before performing with saxophonist/vocalist Tex Beneke, a position he kept until 1953. During his time with Anthony, he changed his last name to “Lewis” at the insistence of Anthony, who did not want it to be known that he hired a Jewish musician.

Around August 1954, Lewis began to perform with Stan Kenton, and did son on an on-and-off basis until 1957. A highlight of Mel’s time with Kenton is the 1956 concept album Cuban Fire!, considered a high point of Kenton's musical achievements. The track “El Congo Valiente (Valiant Congo)" showcases Lewis’ expertise as an accompanist and how strong he is at coordinating the band's vast instrumentation.

The song is an excellent example of how well Lewis guides all the instruments in an arrangement. Mel’s strongest feature in the arrangement is how well he listens to the ensemble, changing his performance to suit every nuance of the instrumentation. Though he is only one component of the band, it’s almost as if he himself is an entire big band with his cymbals taking the role of the brass section and the toms acting as the reed section. The outcome is an expansion of the sonic capabilities of the drums within the modern big band.

During his time with Kenton, Lewis also performed with trombonist Frank Rosolino’s quintet and pianist Hampton Hawes’s trio. By 1957, Mel settled in Los Angeles where he led a quintet with saxophonist Bill Holman and worked as a studio musician. He kept his studio career active throughout the late 1950s by performing on sessions with alto saxophonist Art Pepper and pianist Marty Paich to name a few.

In 1959, Lewis performed with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster on their album Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster. Mel’s talents on the album can best be heard on the song “Tell Me When.” After a brief introduction from pianist Jimmy Rowles, Lewis and the rest of the ensemble enter the arrangement. Mel uses brushes to enhance the romantic sentiment of the song and to give a light feel to the atmosphere. Along with bassist Leroy Vinnegar, he expertly fuses the rhythmic aspect of the bass and piano with the dynamic produced by the two saxophones.

In 1960, Lewis traveled to New York City to perform with Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. In the following year, Mel toured throughout Europe with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and in 1962 he toured throughout the Soviet Union with bandleader Benny Goodman. During this time, Lewis decided to make New York City his home, and he earned a living primarily as a studio musician.

In June 1963, Lewis performed with tenor saxophonist James Moody on his album Great Day alongside trumpeter Thad Jones. In December 1965, Mel formed the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra with Jones. In the following year, he recorded with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and recorded the live album Opening Night – The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band at the Vanguard, though it was not released until 2000. A prime example of the album’s efforts is the song “Big Dipper.”

The song exhibits Lewis’ role as both a rhythmic and melodic element of the orchestra. On one hand, Mel easily adheres to the beat of the song and adds articulations when necessary and on the other his choices of said articulations show how he uses his drums as a melodic device. The result is a subtle and innovative way to enhance the orchestra as a whole and the soloist at hand.

In April 1966, Lewis performed with Jones and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams on their album Mean What You Say along with pianist Duke Pearson and bassist Ron Carter. The following month, Mel and Thad recorded the album Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra, their first official recording. On April 28, 1967, the orchestra recorded the album Live at the Village Vanguard. The album was nominated for the “Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Large Group or Soloist with Large Group” Grammy Award.

On October 1, 1968, Lewis contributed his musical talents to tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s album Always Something There for Blue Note Records. The following year, Mel and the orchestra released the album Central Park North.

It was the orchestra’s next release, 1970’s Consummation, which set the benchmark for what the modern big band could do. The album was a critical success and features several of their best-known compositions including “TipToe" and “A Child Is Born.”

The following year, Lewis performed with vocalist Jimmy Rushing on his album The You And Me That Used To Be alongside tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, bassist Milt Hinton and pianist Dave Frishberg.

In 1973, Lewis performed with saxophonist Al Cohn and violinist Stephane Grappelli. On November 14, 1975, he joined tenor saxophonist Gregory Herbert and bassist George Mraz on Jones’s album You Made Me Love You. The album features renditions of the popular standards “Autumn Leaves” and “My Romance.”

The following year, Lewis recorded the album Mel Lewis and Friends with a band which included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker and pianist Hank Jones amongst others. In 1977, Mel performed with trumpeter Chet Baker and in the following year he performed with guitarist Sal Salvador. In 1978, the Kendor Music Company released Lewis’ instructional book Its Time for the Big Band Drummer, which he wrote with Clem DeRosa.

The same year, Lewis and Jones received the “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band” Grammy Award for their album Live in Munich. In 1979, Jones decided to leave the orchestra with Mel becoming its sole leader. Later on, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer took on the roles that were vacated by Jones, which included composing, arranging and being the musical director. Now entitled the Mel Lewis Orchestra, the ensemble continued its Monday night residency at the Village Vanguard while performing throughout Europe during the decade. During this time, the orchestra included the talents of saxophonists Joe Lovano and Kenny Garrett and bassist Rufus Reid.

On July 16, 1980, Lewis brought his orchestra to the Montreaux Jazz Festival and recorded the album Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock. The album features the orchestra performing several of pianist Herbie Hancock’s best-known compositions including “Dolphin Dance” and “Eye of the Hurricane.” Throughout the early to mid 1980s, Mel freelanced with tenor saxophonists Buddy Tate and Wayne Marsh and trumpeter Jon Faddis.

During the late 1980s, Lewis performed with trombonist Jimmy Knepper, arranger Gil Evans and trumpeter Buck Clayton amongst others. In 1985, Mel was diagnosed with melanoma where it initially began in his arm before spreading to his lungs and brain. Throughout his battle with melanoma, he continued to work at a steady pace. The following year, Lewis recorded with pianist Joe Haider’s orchestra in Switzerland.

In 1987, Lewis performed in Germany and Austria with tenor saxophonist Roman Schwaller. The following year, Mel released the albums The Definitive Thad Jones: Live from the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. In 1989, he recorded The Lost Art, his last album as a leader. The same year, Lewis performed with Jay McShann’s orchestra in Paris. During this time, Mel performed with the American Jazz Orchestra and led drum workshops at William Patterson University in Wayne, New Jersey.

Lewis died from melanoma on February 2, 1990 at Cabrini Hospice in New York City, he was sixty years old. He was performing up until a few weeks before, and he passed away mere days before the orchestra was to celebrate its twenty-fourth anniversary at the Village Vanguard. Lewis is survived by his wife Doris and his two daughters Lori and Donna.

In 1996, Doris donated Mel’s recordings, photographs, scrapbooks and scores to the Miller Nichols Library at the Kansas City campus of the University of Missouri. The result is the Mel Lewis Collection, a comprehensive collection of materials from his life and career.

Select Discography

As a leader

Opening Night – The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band at the Vanguard (Recorded 1966, released 2000)

Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra (1966)

Live at the Village Vanguard (1967)

Central Park North (1969)

Consummation (1970)

Mel Lewis and Friends (1976)

Live in Munich (1976)

Live in Montreaux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock (1980)

The Definitive Thad Jones: Live from the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (1988)

The Definitive Thad Jones: Live from the Village Vanguard, Vol. 2 (1988)

The Lost Art (1989)

With Thad Jones

You Made Me Love You (1975)

With Thad Jones & Pepper Adams

Mean What You Say (1966)

With Stan Kenton

Cuban Fire! (1956)

With James Moody

Great Day (1963)

With Gerry Mulligan & Ben Webster

Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (1959)

With Jimmy Rushing

The You And Me That Used To Be (1971)

With Stanley Turrentine

Always Something There (1968)

Contributor: Eric Wendell