Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mel Lewis - "The Tailor" [From The Archives]

It's almost impossible to understand Jazz big band drumming in the second half of the 20th century without a consideration of the huge influence Mel Lewis had on it.

Never flashy,he just kicked the heck out of any band he ever played with.

Given the magnitude of his influence, it's also pretty difficult to select one example of his playing to use in a video tribute to conclude this piece, so we decided to reach back to his earlier work with the Terry Gibbs Dream Band in Hollywood, CA before he moved to NYC to become part of Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band in the early 1960's.

Mel would later form a band with trumpeter Thad Jones and eventually lead his own band for many years when Thad left to go to Europe. The legacy of these bands lives on in the current version of the Monday Night Village Vanguard Orchestra.

I can't think of a better way to end this week long Drummers Rule feature on JazzProfiles than with a retrospective of Mel Lewis' drumming.

Man, could he ever drive a big band.

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

“Every time I hear him I am amazed at the influence he has on the sound and performance of a band.  I've got LP's of him in a small group too and he's just as influential despite the restraint.”
 – Brian Hope, CambridgeEngland

“One thing about Dave Tough: he always was Dave Tough, just as Buddy Rich always was what he was. Tough realized we are what we are. The important thing is to be put into a musical situation where what you are can ‘happen.’ Tough found his place with Woody Herman.”
- Mel Lewis

“Mel and I first worked together years ago in Boyd Raeburn’s Band. His playing might seem laid back, but the time is always going on underneath, like a drone – it’s fantastic.”
- Eddie Bert, trombonist

“The one drumming intangible that no teacher can give to a pupil, regardless of investment, is time. This oft-misunderstood term is the fundamental standard by which musicians judge the quality of a drummer, and without it much of the studied rudiments are for naught. … Because of his innate time sense, Mel Lewis is one of the most over-worked drummers in the country.”
- Joe Quinn

“He is the antithesis of flamboyance and unnecessary aggres­sion. He plays what is necessary and relevant, adding an edge of adventure and individuality. Lewis allows the music and his gifts to couple in the most loving way possible."
- Burt Korall, author of Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz

Over the years, I’ve seen and heard Mel Lewis play in a variety of settings.

Night after night, I’d run around town to listen to him play drums in an assortment of big bands: the Terry Gibbs Big Band, the Marty Paich Tentette [recording sessions], and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. And, although I never saw him in-person with Bill Holman's big band, Med Flory's big band or Stan Kenton's Orchestra, I memorized all of his performances on their recordings.

And when he wasn’t playing in big bands, I’d go hear him in small groups like the one he co-lead for a while with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, or the quintet he co-led with Bill Holman or as a member of pianist Claude Williamson’s trio.

In 1963, when he permanently moved to New York to continue as a member Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, I caught him in concert in The Big Apple with Gerry’s marvelous band. Thereafter, I heard him play with the orchestra he co-led with Thad Jones. And when Thad left to go to Europe and Mel headed up his own orchestra until his death in 1990, I also checked out that band on a number of occasions.

During each of his performances, I’d stare a lot trying to figure out how he did it what he did.

But he “did” so little that while watching him all I actually saw was the minimalist action of his hands barely moving above the drums while he popped the accents, dropped bombs and drove the band mercilessly in what drummer Kenny Washington once described as Mel’s “rub-a-dub style.”

There was no flurry of technique on display in his drumming, no aggravated animation in the motion he used in getting round the drums, no complicated fills, kicks and solos.

Watching Mel as closely as I did for as long as I did, I came away with the same impression as the one that Burt Korall formed in the following description after seeing Davey Tough with the Woody Herman band perform its famous arrangement of Apple Honey at New York City’s Paramount Theater, in 1945:

“He went about his business with little of the grace of a Krupa and Jones, and none of the fireworks of Rich. But the excitement built as Tough, without physically giving the impression of strength, manipulated the band much as an animal trainer would a beautiful hard-to-control beast, making it respond to him. He cracked the whip under the ensemble and brass solo passages adding juice and muscle to the pulse and accents. Each soloist got individual treatment – a stroke here, an accent there, a fill further on, all perfectly placed.

He moved the band from one plateau to another, higher and higher. By the time the band was about to go into the final segment, the audience was totally captured. There was a point during this last section when it felt as though the band would take us through the roof.

When the piece came to an end with four rapid bass drum strokes, I couldn’t figure out what he had done. He had been in the foreground only once during a four bar break, …, otherwise his was the least self-serving performance I had ever witnessed. I turned to my friend. ‘He has no chops. How’d he do it? What happened?’

He smiled, not quite as puzzled as 
I. ‘It might not have seemed like much,’ he said. ‘But whatever he did, he sure lit a fire under that band.’”

That’s it, he lit a fire under the band!

But how’d Mel [and Davey] do it?

Mel played on an ordinary blue pearl set of Leedy drums and one of his A-Zildjan cymbals even had a huge chunk missing from it!

[Like most drummers, Mel was always looking for ways to cut down the overtones of his cymbals, but few of us were willing to go this far to cut down on their ringing qualities, i.e., overtones. Actually, I think the reason for the cut was to keep a crack in the cymbal from spreading]]

Usually, his “big” drum ending was a snare drum roll and a cymbal crash, but what he had done before this simple ending was to kick, shove and drive the band to levels of excitement that took the listener’s breath-away.

It never seemed like much, but whatever Mel Lewis did, he lit a fire under every band he ever worked with or, as Brian Hope phrased it: ““Every time I hear him I am amazed at the influence he has on the sound and performance of a band.”

Away from the drums, you’d never guess that Mel was such an extraordinary drummer.  He had none of the sparkle and the flair of a Gene Krupa or a Buddy Rich.

His appearance was so commonplace  that vibraphonist and bandleader Terry Gibbs once gave him the nickname – The Tailor – because as Jack Tracy, the late editor of Downbeat, explains:

“Vibraphonist and band leader Terry Gibbs used to call him ‘Mel The Tailor’ because ‘I had this old Jewish tailor in Brooklyn who had bunions and walked funny. Mel walked just like him, so I called him The Tailor and it stuck. In later years Mel would tell people that he got that nickname because he played ‘tailor-made drums,’ but many of us knew better.”

Irrespective of his unusual walk and his dressed-down look, put Mel behind a set of drums, especially in a big band setting, and he was the epitome of style and grace.

We thought we’d turn to three writers, two of whom are themselves drummers and all of whom knew him well to see if somewhere in their written observations about him, there was an explanation of how Mel created his magic.

© -Loren Schoenburg, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Mel Lewis, it should come as no surprise to you, is a consummate artist with im­peccable taste. This is attested to by the tremendous range of musicians who have vied for his services over the years: Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Hank Jones, Ben­ny Goodman, Count Basie, Gary McFarland, Eddie Sauter, Lionel Hampton, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Hodges, and Bob Brookmeyer, to name just a few. It's a little-known fact that both Duke Ellington (in 1960 and '63) and Count Basie (in 1948) tried to get Mel, but it never worked out.

The amazing thing is that Mel is not a chameleon who sounds different with each group, but a drummer with such a universal conception, so that if the group is any good, Mel will fit it like a glove. Mel has a way of doing all the right things so subtly that you hardly notice them, until, that is, you have to play with someone else! As one musician remarked after struggling through an evening with a plodding drum­mer, "Mel Lewis never sounded better than he did tonight!" …

When Mel plays, the effect on the soloist and the ensemble is almost indescribable.”

Mel personified the ultimate in style.’ "Less is more’ is an oft-repeated saying that is directly applicable to Mel's drumming. Is ‘drumming’ an adequate description of what Mel did? I don't think so. He gave the music more than just a beat. In fact, the beat, itself a rather abstract concept, was just the most tangible element of his input.

Why did his presence make musicians feel like playing? In an interview done for The New York Times in October 1989, he said that he couldn't smile and play drums at the same time. While this put his concentrated demeanor in perspective, it was only partially true. Inside, he was doing much more than smiling. He was animating his very existence, and ours at the same time.”

Burt Korall, author of Drummin’ Men, The Heartbeat of Jazz: The Bebop Years [New YorkOxford, 2002] was a friend of Mel’s for thirty-five [35] years. Here are some excerpts from his chapter on Mel.

© -Burt Korall/Oxford University Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Lewis learned the most valuable lessons of all from his father: to think as a musician, to do what was called for. Because of [Ben] Sokoloff [Mel’s Dad] and drummers he met as a youngster—e.g., Gene Krupa and Jo Jones—Lewis came to realize how important it is to know about the history of jazz and the instrument you play.

Krupa and Jones spoke to him about significant drummers and instru­mentalists of the past and present. They made the youngster aware of the basic necessities for playing jazz. And they advised him to get to know about music and drums from the inside—as a player.

Lewis: Dad took me to see and hear Krupa for the first time in 1934. The Benny Goodman band appeared at the Cinderella Ball, which was held in the Armory in Buffalo. I was five or six years old. Krupa ruined me. I loved what he did. The next time I saw him was in 1938, just before he left Goodman. Again my dad took me. Two years later, at ten, I cemented my relationship with Krupa. By that time, he had his own band. I played for him and we talked about drums and how they related to music.

From then on, I was "his man" in Buffalo. Every time Krupa was in the area, I was there. I traveled by bike, no matter how far away it happened to be. Sometimes it was as much as twenty-five miles.

"That Ace Drummer Man" and "Red" from Buffalo became so close that Krupa would call Mrs. Sokoloff for permission to take her son on the band bus to bookings in and around Buffalo.

Lewis was insatiable. He heard all the great bands that came though. He quizzed the drummers on just about everything. One evening, he became so involved with Jo Jones that the Basie star missed a date with a lovely lady of the chorus who danced at the Palace Theater, the local burlesque house. Sam Sokoloff played drums in the pit band there.

Lewis: Gene Krupa made me aware how important musicality and simplicity were. He had a lot of technique, but he was really the simplest. His playing was easy to understand. That's why so many of the older musicians liked him. Though he kept training and studying with a lot of people, he never attempted to do impossible things. He was into music and what fit, not speed and facility for their own sake.

As much as I admired Gene, his taste and all-around ability, I didn't want to play like him. I was more attracted to people like Jo, Dave Tough, and Sid Catlett and what they did for music.

Lewis sensed his future would not be built around technique. He was more interested in becoming an integral part of a big or small band's sound and thrust. The kind of drummer that appealed to him most as a youngster remained interesting to him at the end of his life. He favored understated yet strong and intense players of the instrument, those who mixed pulsation with pertinent coloration and gave music dimension. …

Sal Salvador: Mel and I were rooming together in New York. I'd been on the Stan Kenton hand for two years. Mel had been after the job with Stan for quite a while. Stan Levey was about to leave. He had some major disagree­ments with Kenton. Mel was doing the Ray Anthony TV show in town and waiting to get word from Kenton. Then the band broke up—and rapidly re­formed. Mel went through a lot of emotional turmoil before Stan called and hired him. Maynard had recommended him. Mel felt it was his main chance.

I had an opportunity to see and hear Lewis on one of Kenton's first concert dates with the newly revised band, at a large Seattle auditorium in September of 1954. He didn't seem to be in full control of the band or comfortable in the job.

Lewis: I remember that date in Seattle. I had just joined the band. Kenton was headlining a package tour. Shelly Manne and Sonny Igoe were the drum­mers with the other groups.

Lewis: Shelly gave me some great advice. I've always been grateful to him for telling me what had to be done. He said my cymbal beat was not what it should be. "You're not bringing out enough of the ‘1's’ and 3's’. The ‘2’s' and ‘4’s' are there. But the ‘1’s' and ‘3’s' have to be more prominent to control this band." This was very constructive criticism from someone who knew all about Kenton and how the music should be played. Many people heavily into ego might say: "Sure, man, thanks. Gee, I really appreciate it," then fluff the guy off. I acted on what Shelly told me. I believe you have to listen to people who have the experience and are trying to help you.

Sonny Igoe: Mel wasn't doing so well at first. He was lucky he stayed with the band long enough to become brilliant. Stan was going to let him go. As a matter of fact, after the tour was over, Stan asked me: "Are you going to stay with Charlie [Ventura]?" And I replied: "Charlie isn't sure what he's going to do." Stan posed a question: "How would you like to come with the band?" I said: "What are you going to do with Mel?" Stan felt it wasn't working out. I suggested: "Give it a chance; it'll work!" and it did. I was glad for Mel that he settled in and the situation righted itself.

It more than righted itself. Lewis felt he had to make everything work. He concentrated as never before. He took advice. He relaxed, allowing his imagination to float free, his talent to take hold. The band began swinging and Lewis gave it increasing impetus. His small band rhythmic approach to this colossus had a major effect on how the band moved and felt. His ability to play softly with more than an indication of muscle restructured the band's rhythmic identity. How he handled dynamics and fed the time line to the band had a telling effect on the players and all those who favored a Kenton turn away from mountains of sound and pomposity.

Bob Brookmeyer: The Kenton experience set him free. I heard the band at Birdland. Mel was all over the place, just playing so many interesting, provocative things behind the soloists and the band. He was outrageous.

What was growing apparent in the Kenton band burst forth during the last years of the 19505. Mel Lewis had gotten his stuff together in such a way that he couldn't be ignored. With Woody Herman at the Monterey Jazz Festival, he played so well it literally blew everyone away. His time was highly motivating. His sound on the instrument, the way he mixed, blended ideas, and burned, how he structured his performances, mingling intelli­gence and instinct—it was stunning.

There were various levels of intensity in his playing. On the Monterey opener, "Monterey Apple Tree," a revamp of "Apple Honey"(Woody Herman's Big New Herd At the Monterey Jazz Festival, Atlantic), Lewis sets the tree on fire. He pushes and provokes, hitting hard on the bass drum where the figures demand it. He puts together snare-bass drum patterns that enhance the rhythmic flow. All the while, the hi-hat is snapping on "2" and "4," and the side cymbal sound seduces everyone. The effect is so strong, you wonder why it had not been done exactly that way before.

Two other big band albums, both done during this significant phase of his career, The Fabulous Bill Holman (Coral) and Jazz Wave—Med Flory and His Orchestra (Jubilee), also show how far Mel had traveled since those trio gigs in Buffalo. Two tracks, Holman's view of Sonny Rollins's " Airegin" and Flory's original "Jazz Wave"—one at medium tempo, the other a little faster—are almost perfect performances.

Everything seems to fall in the right places, and the pulsation is undeni­able. The drums are just tight enough, tuned low, the bass drum open but controlled. These performances lift you up; both bands, which employed many of the same excellent Hollywood-based players—Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, Stu Williamson, Bill Perkins, Charlie Kennedy—are very much on the money.

Stylistically they mingle swing and bebop, to grand effect. Lewis has a lot to do with stirring things up to a level where the musicians can do nothing but respond. The section and ensemble work is dauntingly precise, swinging, and natural. Lewis struts and shuffles, smoothly moving the time forward. After you listen, the rhythm remains in your body—a happy presence, a good feeling that causes involuntary tapping and patting of your feet after the room has become silent.

Five CDs by Terry Gibbs's Dream Band (Contemporary), taped live in Hollywood clubs, 1959-61, tell the same story. The band is a killer. It had become what it was because of an enthusiastic leader, great musicians who shared the same concept about music—and Mel Lewis.

"Seventeen Swingers" is Gibbs's most frequently used, rapid-fire descrip­tion of his Dream Band. Listen to the recordings and you will hear delight­fully crafted, deeply felt, pulsating music—standards and originals arranged and/or composed by Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Albam, Bill Holman, Al Cohn, Med Flory, Marty Paich, Lennie Niehaus, and Sy Johnson.

Lewis never plays too hard or too loud. A vocal minority accused him of laying back, not digging in deeply enough. I don't hear that. The drummer plays as well as he always told me he did, giving the band what it needed— the ingredients that made it explosive and engrossing. …

Bob Brookmeyer: When Mulligan's first Concert Jazz Band was in California, I went to a Terry Gibbs band rehearsal. I'd been writing some things for Terry and hadn't heard them performed. The band was just outrageous! Mel was fantastic, and all those guys were so strong. In comparison, Mulligan's band sounded like a bunch of amateurs.

So I said: "We've got to get this feeling!" I was staying with Mel and asked him to join the band. He said yes. I hired Buddy Clark and Conte Candoli as well. They all came back East. Mel commuted until 1963. He lived with me for a while and then with Richie Kamuca. He flew to New York in July of 1960 to make a record with us and returned in late August when the band played the Village Vanguard before we all went to Europe for a tour.

Mel did just what I expected. I remember the first night at the Vanguard. I We were playing Gerry's "Bweebida Bobbida." I looked over at him the first chance I had—and just grinned because it felt so good.

Mel remained with Mulligan until 1964, ….

Musically, the CJB was a major experience. Smaller and more compact than most bands—twelve pieces plus Gerry—it often sounded and felt like a small band with added instruments. Mulligan, Brookmeyer and the other writers—Gary McFarland, John Carisi, Bill Holman, George Russell, Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel—retained in their charts the light, fluid feeling so typical of Mulligan. The soloists—Mulligan, Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Conte Candoli, Nick Travis, Gene Quill—brought distinctive character to the essentially linear material and diversified the flavor of the band.

The CJB wasn't a burly, shouting ensemble. It had class, quality, and subtlety and swung more quietly than most bands. Lewis enhanced the good feeling of the rhythm. He was controlled yet intense, dropping in supportive ideas as the band moved ahead. But his ideas blended in with the CJB's sound. He was always there, keeping the motor well oiled..

The way he tuned his drums and entered into each chart, becoming a part of it, made a vast difference in how the music sounded and felt. As he always had, Lewis adjusted to the quiet and the dynamically more forceful music. You could hear various facets of his playing personality, ranging from a almost reserved "2" and "4" accents on the snare, reminiscent of Sam Woodyard with Ellington, to a Basie’/Jo Jones flow. But mostly it was Mel Lewis doing what he felt, keeping the parts and the whole picture in mind. He was very sensitive, very swinging.....

Bill Holman: Mel had a fantastic understanding of music. I knew that. But I realized it all the more when he and Bob [Brookmeyer], Jim [McNeely], and I worked in Cologne. We'd go in with at least an hour of new music, and he would get right to the meat of every chart—not necessarily like a drummer but like a complete musician, maybe even a conductor.

He'd hear everything that was happening and knew what to do—when to change color, when to do this and that. He certainly made my job easier. One or two times through the pieces and he knew them as well as I did, if not better. Mel could deal with all kinds of time and the atmospheric things that are part of my work.

Jim McNeely: Mel could make any band sound better by virtue of what and how he played. He liked variety, getting into new things. It was his simplicity and elegance that made his playing immediately identifiable. And he could play with anyone. As a writer, all you had to do was give him information about the music and he'd play what was needed. His gifts: great ears, psych­ing out forms, giving music shape and direction. It was his innate musical sense and that fat ride beat that made him so popular among musicians.

I think of him a lot. When I'm at the top of the stairs at the Vanguard, I miss the sound of his bass drum coming up to meet me. …

It also was part of Mel’s nature to take young drummers in hand and help and advise them. Kenny Washington, Danny Gottlieb, Jeff Hamilton, John Von Ohlen and Jay Cummings—the last drummer to play with the Stan Kenton band—among others, benefited by their association with him. Lewis knew about the music, about drumming, the history of the instrument, and equipment—and freely offered information to those who needed it.

Bob Brookmeyer: When Mel died, it was one of the biggest losses the music ever had. People all over the world suffered. And they'll never recover. We were sitting in Cologne, a key producer and I. We said, "Mel," and were silent for five minutes—because there's no replacement.

All of the bands, big and small, amateur and professional, that he made sound good have to feel a terrible, terrible loss. There will never be another like him. Mel was one of the greatest drummers of all. I'd stake my life on that.

What was he all about? I want to add a final comment, from a piece I wrote for International Musician about a year before he left: "Mel Lewis has a near perfect relationship with the beat. His time, a natural phenomenon, is firm when necessary, pliant if the music calls for it, buoyant, bubbling or quietly persuasive—but always swinging. He plays so he can be felt and serve as a guide and a source of inspiration for the musicians with whom he is engaged. Most important his time is never forced and builds upon its own flow and energy. He is the antithesis of flamboyance and unnecessary aggres­sion. He plays what is necessary and relevant, adding an edge of adventure and individuality. Lewis allows the music and his gifts to couple in the most loving way possible."

His legacy is on the records.”

And here are Kenny Washington’s reminiscences about Mel. Kenny is one of the best drummers on today’s Jazz scene and was the subject of an earlier feature on JazzProfiles which you can locate by going here.

© -Gene Lees/Da Capo Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As told to Gene Lees in Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White [New York: Da Capo, 2000, pp. 174-176].

“... When Mel started getting sick, I used to sub in the band for him. ...

"And I met Mel through Lee Konitz. Lee said, 'Gee, Mel, I’ve got this young drummer, man, he can play.' I was working this place called Stryker's Pub. Lee said, 'He can really play, but he plays too loud. Maybe you can come down and sort of give him some advice? So then Mel came down, right? I didn't know he was there. We were all hanging out outside, because it was warm. Lee said, 'Okay, time to play. Mel Lewis came in to check you out.'

"I played a set. First thing Mel said: 'I don't like your cymbals. I don't like those cymbals at all. And you're playing too goddamn loud! You could bust out the windows in this place!'"

We laughed. I said, "Mel was never exactly tactful."

"Oh buddy! Man. I knew he had a lot of hip cymbals."

"Yeah, you know where he got that big crash cymbal, I'm sure. Dizzy gave it to him."

"That Chinese cymbal," Kenny said. "That cracked, though, man. That broke. 'Cause
I asked him about that cymbal. What I said to Mel, not out of disrespect, man, or being a wise guy, was, Well look, Mel, do you have any extra cymbals you could lay on me, or I could buy from you?' He looked at me. He wrote down his number. He said, 'Come on over to my house.'

"He was living right across the street from Ron Carter—74th or 75th, something like that. I get up to his place. Doris, his wife, lets me in. Mel's sitting there. He says, 'Have a seat.' He says, 'How old are you?' I told him. I was about twenty.

"He said, 'Are you married?'


"He said, 'Good! Stay that way! Because, man, you can really play, and I've seen that kind of thing mess up a whole lot of potentially great musi­cians.'"

I said, "Since you knew Mel so well, I'll tell you a story. The other day Connie Kay said to me that he thought Mel was maybe the best big-band drummer he ever heard. I mentioned this last night to Roger Kellaway, who worked with Mel a lot, and he said, 'Yeah, and if Mel were still alive, he'd be the first to tell you."*

"That's right!" Kenny said, laughing.

"Modesty was not his style."

"Oh man! But Mel was just great for me. We sat and talked. He says, 'But you play too goddamn loud. And another thing, you young drummers, you never use your bass drum. Now if it was a funk record, and there was no bass drum, you'd think something was wrong, now wouldn't you? And you play too loud. The band doesn't come up to the drummer, the drummer adjusts to the band.' He says, 'You remember that, man.' And so from then on, man, I used to come and hang around with him, and listen to the band. Or he'd come around where I was working to check me out. He'd come down any old time, unannounced. One time, I was working the Vanguard or somewhere and Mel says to me, 'Damn, Wash! Those drums sound like shit! Man, tune 'em, damn it, tune 'em.' Next night he comes back. He taps on my drums, he says, That's much better. Man, I knew you could tune your drums better than that?

"And about the bass drum. One of the last times that I saw him, I was working up at Bradley’s. So I'm playing. I'm sitting up there playing. I don't see him walk in. I'm looking someplace else, looking straight ahead. And all of sudden I see Mel! He's down there under the piano! All of a sudden he pops up his head. He says, 'Yeah, man, you're using that bass drum.' He was down there listening to see if he could hear the bass drum or not.

"Mel was beautiful to me."

"Dizzy makes that same point," I said, "about young players not using the bass drum."

"Mel was great. I used to come and play when he couldn't make it or if he had another gig. Or when he got sick. Especially during his last year. I used to come down and sub for him. I used to watch him. He was incredible.

"When he was going through chemotherapy, they had a big tribute concert, the American Jazz Orchestra. I used to play in that band. When Mel couldn't make it, he'd send me in as a sub for the concerts at CooperUnion. They decided to do a tribute to Mel. They played all his music, a retrospective of his career. They got a Johnny Mandel thing that Mel did with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band back in the '60s. They got some Terry Gibbs things. Some Stan Kenton stuff, all kinds of pieces. Mel was worried about whether he was going to be able to remember all that stuff, because of the chemotherapy and what it does to your brain. By then he was completely bald.

"I came in. I said, 'Man, can I sit behind you so I can read the charts?'

"He said, 'Sure, man.' They called this tune off quicker than he could get the music out. He just started playing. There was this place where the band stopped and started, and he was catching everything. Bam, bam! And he hadn't played this, man, in thirty years. There was a place where he came in on the down beat instead of on the and, a half a beat off. He said, 'Damn, Wash. I don't remember this stuff.' And he was, bap, bap, bap-di-bap-bap, swingin' his ass off. And so after the tune was over, I said, 'Right, Mel. Right! You don't remember this stuff! You came in a half a beat early a couple of times, and you don't remember the stuff. Riiiight, Mel.' And the band started cracking up.

"I had never seen anything like that. He was an amazing cat, man. The best thing for me is, like, he was able and willing to show me anything I wanted. Just to be able to sit there and talk to him. That first night at his house, I sat there from seven in the evening until three in the morning. He was playing all these different records he had made, showing off his own talent and what he had done all these years. But! I learned a whole lot. He was showing me about adaptability. He said, 'Listen to what I played on the Barbra Streisand record Color Me Barbra? He fit into every one of those situations. I learned a lot that night.

"Any situation Mel was in, big band or small band, he took care of business. He didn't make any bad records. At all. Period."

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