Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Peripatetic Mel Lewis [From the Archives]

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

Drummers make or break big bands.

Along with the lead trumpet and first alto sax, drummers help guide the band through its arrangements.

The drummer also drives the band; provides it with the power, the force and the pulse that keeps the music flowing.

No big band drummer ever did the job better than Mel Lewis.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has featured Mel on these pages on a number of occasions and you can search out these pieces in the blog archives.

The following article by John Tynan, who, at the time he wrote it was the West Coast editor of Downbeat magazine, captures Mel at mid-career as he was making the transition from being based in Los Angeles where he performed with the big bands led by Stan Kenton Marty Paich, Terry Gibbs, Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers and Gerald Wilson before taking up residence in New York where he was to become a featured member of Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band and then embarking on co-leading an orchestra with Thad Jones and ultimately leading his own big band.

I can think of no other drummer who has had such a rich and varied experience in a big band setting.


“MEL (THE TAILOR) LEWIS has logged so many air miles since the end of 1960 he recently acquired a second sobriquet, Sky King.

The drummer's travels—all on business—have taken him virtually all over Western Europe and across the United States so many times he is thinking of publishing his own Atlas for Drummers.

In November, 1960, he made his second trip to Europe with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band (his first was with Stan Kenton in March, 1956), and last November he flew the Atlantic a third time with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet.

Between transoceanic jaunts, he commutes steadily to New York City from his Van Nuys, Calif., home for recording dates with a variety of bands. Touring the country on one-nighters is no novelty to him; his most recent tour was with the now inactive Mulligan band.

The Tailor, a nickname bestowed on Lewis by Terry Gibbs because, the whimsical vibist noted, "he walks like my tailor," has lived in southern California since shortly after he joined the Kenton Band in 1954.

He spent most of the ensuing 2l/2 years on the road with Kenton. By early 1957 he had decided to settle down in the San Fernando Valley, where he established his wife and two daughters. In spring of 1960 Lewis, who will be 33 in May, resigned a staff job with the American Broadcasting Co. Hollywood studio orchestra to join the Mulligan band.

In Hollywood recently, Lewis sat still long enough for a personal commentary on, among other subjects, including himself, the varied and changing styles of European jazz drummers since his first trip with Kenton six years ago, a tour that included England, France, West Germany, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden.

"That first 'time," Lewis recalled, "those drummers I heard included Allan Ganley, Tony Kinsey, Phil Seamen, Jack Parnell, and Kenny Clare. They all sounded to me like a combination of Buddy Rich and Don Lamond — and all wrapped up in technique. Technique for its own sake. Their playing was all tight, loud, and stiff. Very sad. Seamen was the only one who seemed to have any swing in his playing."

"But," he cautioned, "these are all good musicians capable of playing all kinds of jobs — big bands, small groups, shows, the whole thing.

"On the Continent I didn't hear anything of interest. The playing was all sloppy and stiff. And that includes Sweden."

Back on the Continent 4 1/2 years later for three weeks with the Mulligan band (England was not on this itinerary but he revisited the other countries), Lewis eagerly listened for improvements or new U.S. influences on European drummers. He found only disappointment.

"Things hadn't changed too much," he said. "They still sounded the same as before. I didn't hear one good rhythm section. In fact, the rhythm section accompanying Bud Powell in Paris was quite sad.

"The best thing I heard on that trip was a little drummer who played with George Gruntz' band in Switzerland." [Probably referring to Daniel Humair.]

The tour last November with Gillespie in a package also featuring the John Coltrane Quintet afforded Lewis an opportunity to hear British drummers in person once more. He discerned a marked improvement, he said.

"In England I was able to hear several drummers, mostly in the London area," he related. "This was in Ronnie Scott's club, which is a nice room with good atmosphere.

"I noticed immediately that things have loosened up considerably. Just as here in the U.S., the Philly Joe Jones influence has taken over, except for a few exceptions."

THE GILLESPIE - COLTRANE tour brought along a bonus for drum-conscious European listeners. In Lewis and in Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones, they could appreciate representatives of widely varying styles. Lewis with his emphasis on more orthodox rhythmic conception and concentration on laying down the time; Jones with his independent, individualistic innovations and rhythmic experimentation.

"Now that they've all had a chance to hear Elvin," Lewis mused, "I wonder what the British drummers  are doing since. Elvin is so fantastic, he  must have turned  them  all  around. There could — should — be only one of him!"

Turning his attention to this country, Lewis said, "Over here, you hardly hear anybody with a style of his own anymore. That's bad for the future. The one thing I'm extremely sorry about is, what has happened to the big-band drummer? There aren't any.

"Of course, there are really no big bands to serve as training grounds. But there's a great need for the big-band drummer — for recording purposes, for example—and he's become a rare commodity. Today, there are only five or six in the whole country." Reverting to his resignation from the ABC staff orchestra to join the Mulligan band, Lewis noted philosophically, "The security of it didn't mean that much on the job if I couldn't get to play. Then, along came Bob Brookmeyer who got me to come with Gerry's band. The decision really wasn't as difficult as you may think. I'd been working semi-regularly with Terry Gibbs' big band, but that was only maybe one night a week."

Between tours with Mulligan, Lewis played a lot with Gibbs. "This was very good experience for me," he declared. "The variety of music in both bands necessitated that I take a different approach with each one. And this has made a better drummer of me.

"Actually, the past year has been one of the most musically rewarding I've ever spent."

Capping 1961 for him came the four weeks with Dizzy Gillespie when the trumpeter's previous drummer, Chuck Lampkin, was recalled into the Army. Gillespie needed a new drummer in a hurry, a musician who could learn the quintet's not uncomplex book quickly. He called Lewis. "Fortunately, I was able to get the book down without too much trouble," Lewis said.

"Those four weeks," he said gratefully, "were worth a year in training. I learned so much from Diz."

Lewis returned from Europe to another steady job on a staff orchestra — at the National Broadcasting Co. Hollywood television studios.

"This gives me more time," he commented, "to put to good use all I've learned during the past few months." "That    is," he added cautiously, "whenever and wherever possible."

Will not steady studio work affect his jazz prowess adversely? Lewis denies this vigorously.

"Why should it?' he asked. "It seems to me that too many young drummers seem to believe this. I'll just say this to them  — and to anyone else who believes studio work hurts a jazz musician: "Studio work will hurt a man's jazz playing only if he lets it. Just look at Clark Terry!""                                

Down Beat magazine

May 10 1962

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