Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra: A Big Band Is Born



© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Who would have thought that a big band born twenty years [20] after their heyday would still be going strong almost fifty [50] years later?

Such is the case with The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra which came into existence in February, 1966 at The Village Vanguard in New York City and still holds forth every Monday night in the same location as The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Obviously, its personnel has gone through changes over the years but the high quality of the band’s music hasn’t.

Of course, this is my interpretation of the band’s historical, shall we say, line of continuity.  Following this introduction, Bill Kirchner offers a much more accurate demarcation between the original Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra and the ones that came after it.

At its inception, the signature aspect of the band’s sound was the writing of Thad Jones, although Bob Brookmeyer, Tom McIntosh and Garnet Brown [all trombonists!] contributed charts to the band’s initial play book.

The band’s founders, trumpeter, composer and arranger, Thad Jones, and drummer, Mel Lewis, traveled widely divergent paths in coming together to form the band.

For years, Mel had been a first-call drummer with The Stan Kenton Orchestra, the Bill Holman Big Band, what has come to be known as the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

Few big band drummers in the history of Jazz have ever been more successful than Mel who would cap his career with almost a decade-and-a-half of performing with the big band he co-led with Thad.

On the other hand, during this same timeframe, Thad Jones had enjoyed an almost exclusive association with Count Basie’s big band [1954-1963] as a trumpet player and composer-arranger, although many of the charts that gave birth to the distinctive sound of the orchestra that he co-led with Mel were largely rejected during his tenure with Basie for the reasons noted below by Bill.

“Gave birth” may be a suitable metaphor for many aspects of the music of The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra as one of Thad’s earliest and, by now, most famous compositions is entitled A Child Is Born.

Music has a way of sometimes capturing – The Ineffable – that which is beyond words and so it is with A Child Is Born. The miracle of human birth is beautifully captured in the melodic refrains of the song in a way that supersedes and transcends verbal expression.

Thad and Mel once said that the music of A Child Is Born should be played when every child is born.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is in full agreement with this sentiment, so much so that we’ve used the band earliest, recorded version of A Child Is Born as the audio track in the following video tribute to the band.


In 1994, Michael Cuscuna and his team at Mosaic Records gathered together the band’s first, half-dozen LP's and issued them as The Complete Solid State Recordings of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra [Mosaic MD-5-151].

Michael asked Bill Kirchner, the eminent Jazz musician, author and editor, to write the insert notes to the collection.

Michael and Bill were kind enough to grant us permission to reprint a portion of Bill’s insightful writings about The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Orchestra’s origins and subsequent history.

© -Bill Kirchner/Mosaic Records; used with the permission of the author; copyright protected, all rights reserved.

"On February 12, 1966, The New York Times ran a review by John S. Wilson entitled "2 New Big Bands Here Appeal To More Than Old Memories." Wilson first men­tioned the reorganized Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and its new director Urbie Green, as well as such sidemen as Howard McGhee, Budd Johnson, Dave McKenna, Mousey Alexander, and Arnie Lawrence. "Most of these sidemen are successful freelance New York musicians," wrote Wilson. "And that makes the band's future questionable. When the band ends its run at the River Boat, will these men be willing to go on the road, or will Mr. Green have to fill in with less experienced musicians?"

The review continued:

“One band that is not likely to leave New York is The Jazz Band, an 18-piece group jointly led by Thad Jones, a former Count Basie trumpeter, and Mel Lewis, a drummer who has served with Woody Herman, Stan and Ben Goodman. Organized last Thanksgiving as a rehearsal band that met once a week, The Jazz Band gave its first public performance Monday night at the Village Vanguard in an enthusiastic atmosphere reminiscent of the great jazz days on 52nd Street. This all-star band — it includes Bob Brookmeyer, Hank Jones, Richard Davis, Snooky Young, and Jerome Richardson, among others — ripped through Thad Jones's provocative, down-to-earth arrange­ments with the surging joy that one remembers in the early Basie band or Woody Herman's First Herd. Those were young bands whose skills sometimes could not keep up with their desires. But these are old pros, having a wonderful time and rising to each other's challenges, even to such adventures as three-part improvisation. Because these musicians have regular jobs, they can only get together once a week. That will be on Mondays at the Vanguard for the next few weeks at least.”

What was obvious to everyone present at the Vanguard on the night of February 7, 1966 was that an exceptional ensemble had been born. What no one could have predicted was that the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra would become one of the most acclaimed and innovative big bands in jazz history, that it would tour extensively throughout three continents, and that its offspring, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, would still be in residence on Monday nights twenty-eight years later.

Two events gave impetus to the formation of the Jones/Lewis band. One was the breakup of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band (of which Jones, Lewis and Bob Brookmeyer were members) in 1964. The second was Count Basie's commissioning of Jones to write an album's worth of arrangements for the Basie band in 1965.

In his nine years as a Basie sideman (1954-63), Jones had contributed significantly to the Basie library (as is evi­denced in Mosaic's boxed sets of Basie's live and studio Roulette recordings), but this new commission resulted in his most ambitious writing for Basie. As far as we know, Jones wrote seven originals: The Second Race, The Little Pixie, A-That's Freedom, Low Down, Backbone, All My Yesterdays, and Big Dipper. Basie tried all of them and ultimately rejected all of them; apparently they were too difficult for the band, as well as too atypical of the band's style.


He did, however, allow Jones to keep the scores and copied parts. At that point (the fall of 1965), Jones and Lewis decided to make their move and called a rehearsal.

Most of the musicians they contacted were, like them­selves, active in the New York television and recording scenes. It was a period when all three television networks, plus the syndicated shows, had large orchestras with musi­cians on staff. Many of these players, and many others as well, also did record dates and jingles; it was quite com­mon for a busy recording musician to do two, three, or four dates a day, every day.

(Much of this work has disappeared, in New York and elsewhere. Most of the network staff jobs have been abol­ished, and record and jingle dates have considerably diminished in number, to a point where most recording musicians now consider studio work a secondary activity in their careers. As one musician, formerly very active in the studios, half-facetiously put it, "If you want to be success­ful in the studios nowadays, start a synthesizer cartage firm.")

A number of musicians on the early Jones/Lewis band were, as was Jones, on staff at CBS: Jimmy Nottingham, Jack Rains, Cliff Heather, and Hank Jones. Snooky Young and Jimmy Maxwell were at NBC, and Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Berry and Danny Stiles did the syndicated Merv Griffin show. Others, such as Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Richard Davis, and Lewis were active in recording. And there were some talented up-and-comers: Eddie Daniels, Jimmy Owens, Garnett Brown and Joe Farrell. (Brown and Farrell had worked alongside Jones with George Russell the previous year.)

The rehearsals began in December, 1965 and although memories differ as to how frequently they occurred, the consensus is that they were held more-or-less weekly, usu­ally on Mondays, beginning at midnight and lasting until three or four in the morning. (Considering the busy sched­ules of these players, the late hours come as no surprise.) For the most part, the rehearsals took place at A & R Studios, 112 West 48th Street near Sixth Avenue (and next door to the famous musicians' bar Jim and Andy's). Occasionally, the location shifted to the second A & R stu­dio at 799 Seventh Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets, or to Soundmixers at 1619 Broadway at 49th.


In exchange for free studio time, Thad and Mel allowed engineer Phil Ramone to use the rehearsals as practice sessions for his student engineers. One such engineer was Don Hahn, who in later years was to record several Jones/Lewis albums, including two in this collection. The rehearsals were recorded on 7 1/2 inch mono tapes; unfor­tunately, the tapes were placed in storage and were probably destroyed.

Though the rehearsals were private, there were a num­ber of invited guests. One was Manny Albam, one of the busiest composer-arrangers in New York during the fifties and sixties. Albam also served as "musical director" for the Solid State label and worked in the engineer's booth during most of the sessions heard here. Another guest was Dan Morgenstern, then New York editor of Down Beat. He recalls that even at the very beginning of its existence, this band was different, not only because of Thad's writing, but also for his use of the rhythm section. For contrast, Jones would at various times cue rhythm players in and out behind soloists. Occasionally, the entire rhythm section was pulled out, and a saxophone or trombone player would be left entirely on his own.

These practices became a source of pride to the band members. As Jerry Dodgion remarked with a chuckle, "It was supposed to be different."

Another invited guest was WABC-FM disc jockey Alan Grant, who, among other activities, was broadcasting live from the Half Note (at Spring and Hudson in the West Village) on Friday nights. One of those broadcasts had fea­tured the Thad Jones-Pepper Adams Quintet with Mel Lewis. After attending a rehearsal of the orchestra, Grant went to Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, and urged Gordon to book the band for some Monday nights.

New York's jazz clubs at that time were in economic doldrums. Birdland had recently closed for good, and some clubs were reverting to a weekends-only policy. The Vanguard was running Monday night jam sessions that sometimes were hosted by Roland Kirk (pre-Rahsaan). Probably the highlight of those sessions was the night when a 20-year-old Keith Jarrett sat in and dazzled everyone in the audience — including Art Blakey, who hired him.


Grant persuaded Gordon to book the Jones/Lewis band for two Mondays in February. To make the band financially affordable for the club, the musicians agreed to work for very little money. Each sideman's salary was $17; admis­sion at the door was $2.50. As much as can be pieced together, the probable personnel of the band that night was: Thad Jones, conductor, cornet or flugelhorn (he alternated between the two instruments during his years with the band); Snooky Young, Bill Berry, Jimmy Nottingham, Jimmy Owens, trumpets; Bob Brookmeyer, Garnett Brown, Jack Rains, Cliff Heather, trombones; Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion, Joe Farrell, Eddie Daniels, Marvin Holladay, reeds; Hank Jones, piano; Sam Herman, guitar; Richard Davis, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

The club was packed, the acclaim was instantaneous, and The Jazz Band (as it was then billed) was off and run­ning. Max Gordon extended the band's run indefinitely, and the sidemen's salaries were increased to $18. In March, the band played a concert at Hunter College in New York City, and in May, it began its recording career.

What was its impact? Of the big bands that emerged in the early-to-mid-sixties (the others being those of Quincy Jones, Terry Gibbs, Maynard Ferguson, Gerry Mulligan, Gerald Wilson, Buddy Rich, Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland, and Don Ellis), the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band was, in this writer's view, the most influential. The Quincy Jones and Mulligan ensembles, though in more conservative ways prophetic of the Jones-Lewis approach, were relatively short-lived. Wilson's and Gibbs's groups were rarely heard outside of California except on records, and the same was true of Clarke-Boland in Europe. Rich, Ferguson and Ellis pose a different consideration: though they all led consis­tently well-drilled bands that were capable of fine performances, their groups were built around their leaders' flamboyant personalities more than on enduring music.

Thad Jones and Mel Lewis were, first of all, two of the most esteemed "musician's musicians" of their time. Neither was a "star," but both were unique instrumentalists whose skills were valued by leaders ranging from Basie, Kenton and Goodman to Gillespie, Monk and Mingus. They therefore had no trouble in assembling a band full of New York's finest jazz-oriented players, all of whom were first-rate ensemble performers and most, in addition, good to exceptional soloists.

As a composer-arranger, Jones perhaps more than any­one else in the sixties revitalized conventional big band writing; this is with due respect given to such contempo­raries as Oliver Nelson and Gerald Wilson. ("Conventional," by the way, refers to the standard trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and rhythm section instrumentation, thereby removing the work of Gil Evans from this discussion. Evans's methods and instrumentations were considerably less orthodox — for one thing, he eliminated the saxo­phone section from his writing.) Jones certainly drew from his long experience with Basie, but he had an affinity for the dense cluster harmonies of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn as well. Combining these influences with the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of bebop, a profound melodic gift, and a subtle sense of humor, Jones rose in a few years from relative obscurity to a position as a preeminent jazz writer.


Above all, what made this band unique among big bands was its rhythm section. Richard Davis and Mel Lewis were highly in demand in New York recording cir­cles for all kinds of projects. Arranger-conductor Peter Matz, for example, used them on several Barbra Streisand albums and on numerous pre-recorded segments for televi­sion shows such as THE KRAFT MUSIC HALL and HULLABALOO. ("We were a team," Davis recalled emphatically.) Obviously, the empathy between these two was enormous, and com­bined with such pianistic wizards as Hank Jones and his successor Roland Hanna (and occasional "subs" such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Albert Dailey), the section coupled the precision of the best big band rhythm foundations with the inventiveness and flexibility of the best small groups. What Davis in particular did could be highly unorthodox ("Richard Davis would have been fired from any other big band for playing like that," a prominent jazz bassist once remarked admiringly). Yet everything he played worked, and even Jones's more conventional pieces took on a unique flavor.

In the beginning, of course, the rhythm section included a Freddie Green-style guitarist, Sam Herman, who was also the band's music copyist. As the band developed and the rhythm section became more daring, Herman played less guitar and more shaker (which, by the way, ain't easy). Eventually, the guitar was phased out, though Barry Galbraith, Sam Brown and David Spinozza were later brought in for studio sessions.

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra lasted thirteen years, becoming for many listeners the most admired big band of its time. It never became a full-time entity in the sense of the Ellington, Basie, Herman and Kenton ensem­bles, but the band nonetheless did a substantial amount of touring, including numerous trips to Europe and Japan and a triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1972. By that year, most of the early members had departed, though Roland Hanna, Pepper Adams and Jerry Dodgion remained until 1974, '77 and '78, respectively. The replacements included veterans of the caliber of Quentin "Butter" Jackson, Frank Foster and Walter Morris, as well as such outstanding young players as Jon Faddis, George Mraz, Gregory Herbert, Harold Danko, and Dick Oatts.

By the time the orchestra parted ways with Solid State (which was then being phased into the Blue Note fold) in 1970, they'd done the three studio albums and two live Village Vanguard sessions included in this set. They also backed up Joe Williams and Ruth Brown for the label and participated in a European all-star tour that yielded a double album for Blue Note called ja/z wave ltd.

The band recorded sporadically in the seventies for Philadelphia International (POTPOURRI), Nippon Columbia (Live in Tokyo and for A & M (SUITE FOR POPS, NEW LIFE and LIVE IN MUNICH). On a for-hire basis, they also recorded Thad Jones-arranged albums by Jimmy Smith (Portuguese Soul), organist Rhoda Scott and vocalist Monica Zutterland.

Thad and Mel also led the Finnish UMO Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Jazz Group on several recordings. They also worked frequently as a quartet, making one album for Artists House, later reissued on A & M.

In January 1979, Thad Jones, by all accounts without warning or explanation, left the band and moved to Copenhagen to lead the Danish Radio Orchestra. Mel Lewis, more than a little embittered, assumed sole leadership and proceeded to build a new library with contributions from alumni Bob Brookmeyer, Jerry Dodgion and Bob Mintzer, members such as Jim McNeely, Kenny Werner, Ed Neumeister, Earl Mclntyre, and Ted Nash, and other contributors (Bill Holman, Bill Finegan, Mike Abene, Rich DeRosa, Mike Crotty). Mel continued to play Thad's music; he even acquired the new charts that Thad was sending back to the U.S. to be published.

After a few years, Jones and Lewis achieved a grudging kind of reconciliation. One incidence of this occurred in 1985, when Jones returned to the States for a short time to lead the Count Basic Orchestra. In New York on a Monday night, Thad paid a visit to the Vanguard to see his former band. He went up to Mel and gave him a big bear hug; Mel's arms remained at his sides.

Thad Jones returned to Copenhagen, where he died of cancer on August 19, 1986 at age 63. On September 2, a memorial service was held at St. Peter's Church in New York City. Mel was asked to speak and gave a moving impromptu talk about his former partner. He couldn't resist quipping: "Thad left without saying goodbye — that's twice.”

Mel Lewis died in New York on February 2, 1990 at age 60 after a long battle with melanoma. Fittingly, his last gig was with his orchestra only three weeks before he died.


The band, now a cooperative called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, continues the Monday night tradition estab­lished a generation ago. It's a tradition unlike any in the entire history of jazz. But then, it was supposed to be different.”

The band traveled to Rotterdam in September, 1969 and was filmed on Dutch NPS television performing Jerome Richardson’s arrangement of his composition – Groove Merchant.