Tune in to The Night Beat with your host Doug Crane on Wednesday evening May 10th for an appreciation of drummer Mel Lewis.
Born Melvin Sokoloff on May 10, 1929 in Buffalo, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents (his father was also a drummer), Mel began performing professionally at the age 15.
In the early part of career beginning in the late 1940s Mel worked with bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Tex Beneke and Ray Anthony. He credits his time spent with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the mid-1950s as when he was able to develop small group approach to playing in a big band. Jazz critics at the time remarked that Mel was the first drummer to make the Kenton band swing.
Moving to Los Angeles, CA in 1957, Mel worked with the Terry Gibbs and Gerald Wilson orchestras. He also appeared on countless recording sessions led by Bill Holman, Marty Paich and Shorty Rogers. He also was the drummer on a number of jazz combo recordings by a number of jazz musicians including Hampton Hawes, Bill Perkins, Bob Brookmeyer, Richie Kamuca and Frank Rosolino. Among my favorite albums of this era featuring Mel are any of the Mel Torme/Marty Paich collaborations, Art Pepper’s “Modern Jazz Classics” (with arrangements by Marty Paich) and Woody Herman’s “Live at Monterey” recorded at the festival in 1959.
Before moving back to New York City in 1963, Mel toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman, Europe with Dizzy Gillespie and worked and recorded with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Big Band.
Mel is best known for co-leading the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra from its inception until Thad moved to Copenhagen in 1979 and as the leader of the band from then until Mel passed away from cancer (melanoma) in February of 1990, days before the 24th anniversary of the band’s weekly Monday night engagement at the Village Vanguard that began in 1966. After Mel’s death, the band renamed itself the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra where it continues to perform at the Greenwich Village club on Mondays.
Mel subscribed to a “less is more” philosophy as a drummer, rarely calling attention to himself. He felt his role was to be supportive rather than shine a spotlight on himself. Spotlight or not, tune in Wednesday evening at 8pm for some great music featuring drummer Mel Lewis.