Friday, March 29, 2019

Mel Lewis - A "Signature Drummer" - An Interview with Loren Schoenberg

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

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: Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, the Terry Gibbs Big Band, the Bill Holman Big Band, the Marty Paich Tentette [recording sessions], the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.

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 for 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, Mel lit a fire under the band! But how?
- the editorial staff at JazzProfiles

All Jazz musicians come from someone. The concept is usually stated as Louis “Pops” Armstrong came from “King” Joe Oliver or Billie Holiday came from “Pops” or Dizzy Gillespie came from Pops and Roy Eldridge or Jackie McLean came from Bird.

Whether it was in the context of Stan Kenton’s Orchestra or the Terry Gibbs Dream Band or Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band or the band he co-led with Thad Jones, Mel Lewis big band drumming seem to come fully formed in a manner that traced back to someone, but who?

Of course, some drummers deduced that the answer was as simple - “Tiny Kahn” - but Mel would always explain that he really never knew Tiny and that while he watched Tiny with and even replaced him in the Boyd Raeburn band, that they developed their similar approaches in parallel: “Like Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker,” he would say.

Who was Tiny Kahn and what did his drumming sound like?

Weighing over 300 pounds and suffering from the diabetes that may have caused the heart attack that killed him before the age of 30, Tiny Kahn [1923-1953] was a drummer, vibraphonist and composer arranger who worked with the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Georgie Auld, Chubby Jackson, Charlie Barnet and Elliott Lawrence.

These bands performed primarily in New York and along the middle Atlantic states, a fact that enabled Tiny to travel to their gigs by automobile since his girth was too large for him to travel comfortably by bus, plane or train.

As a result, during the most active years of his career - 1948-1953 - Tiny was known to a relatively limited audience.

Mel Lewis describes the details of what Tiny’s sound on drums and what made their approach to drums so similar in the following excerpt from an interview that he gave to Loren Schoenberg on April 8, 1990.

I have to tell you that after listening to this interview [the spoken version is interspersed with recordings featuring Tiny’s drumming that Mel and Loren comment on], I had the feeling that Mel was protesting a little too much.

Or, to put it another way, I think that one could easily say that Mel came from Tiny even though Mel is reluctant to say it quite so directly.

Mel Lewis: “It’s tough, it’s not easy at all being a leader, period, no matter what instrument you play.  Especially drums. Because your front lines [lead trumpet and lead alto sax players] are very important, you know, and they have to agree with what you as a drummer are doing, especially if you are a “signature drummer.”

In case people don’t understand what I mean by that, that’s a word I picked up from Buddy Rich and it means people who have their own unique sound and feel and are recognizable the minute you hear them have what you call a “signature.”

They are few and far between. That’s something that everyone would like to develop and it is developed on drums the same way that Lester Young, Coltrane, Miles and all these other people did on their horns.

It’s not as easy on drums because you're still an accompanist and to get a different sound from other drummers utilizing your feel. We all have to play “ding-a-ling” or “spang-a-lang” because that’s our job as drummers, but it’s how we do it and what we do that makes it different. Remember, the drummer is still in the background, you are not out front. A drummer that puts himself out front is not a great drummer. It’s not smart, it’s stupid and, if you are gonna do that you might as well play solo.  Your group is in front of you but you have to play behind them and inspire them by being so good that you reflect your personality.

[Drummer] Tiny Kahn came out of a Brooklyn-based school of musicians back in the 1940s.

First of all he was an excellent musician. He played with extreme taste. He could swing his butt off which was a big butt that why they called him “Tiny.” He was a huge man: tall, funny and with a great sense of humor, but he was a wonderful musician including being self-taught as an arranger. He wrote some of the best music around at that time.

But as big as he was he had a light touch on the drums. And a lot of guys compare me to him and say that I carried on and brought it to another level to where I am today.

That’s possibly true except for one thing - I never really knew Tiny. He was in New York and I was in Buffalo. And when I came to New York, he was the drummer in Boyd Raeburn’s Band. And when I heard him for the first time at a free concert in Central Park I noticed that we played pretty similar.

I open the next night at the Savoy Ballroom with Lenny Lewis’ band and Tiny came up to hear me. He said the same thing - we both played very similar. And it turned out that we became very good friends and shared with each other that our influences and ideas were almost identical. We both did a lot of small group playing and when we played in a big band we both brought that small group feeling with us at a time when nobody else was doing that in the New York area.

Because of his size, Tiny never got out of New York much. He couldn’t travel on buses. Through him, I got on the Boyd Raeburn band after Lenny Lewis band folded.

Tiny, and singer Dave Lambert and Buddy Stewart and trombonist Kai Winding, pianist George Wallington and bassist Curly Russell were offered a gig at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street.

Tiny couldn’t even get on a bus - in the old days the buses were a lot smaller - so he mentioned my name to Raeburn. - by the way, Maynard Ferguson was already on the band. - and I took his place with Boyd while he made the Three Deuces gig.

I fit right in with Boyd because Tiny and I were very similar in our approach. But it was like playing with 5 pieces in a 17 piece band.

Tiny had this big ride cymbal and that same cymbal when I went on the band in 1948 had a big crack in it, kind of like a cut-out. Tiny used 15” hi-hat cymbals, which was normal for that time [later, drummers switched to 14” and 13” hi-hats which produced more of a “chick” sound that really accented the 2nd and 4th beats], but if you notice he played them really loose and he treated them like a ride cymbal.

He used a 20” [in diameter] bass drum, which was small for that time, and he played it and the other drums in a very relaxed manner. When you watched him play, here’s this big guy sitting up there hardly moving, using the wrists and the fingers to play, but not the arms. That’s why he could play the up tempos so well because he was so relaxed and not using a lot of extra body movement.

It’s a combination - like you heard me doing on the Terry Gibbs things that you played earlier - of a small group very and yet playing strong. The fills are not the same thing you’d play in a small group but basically they are coming out of Sonny Greer and Jo Jones who sort of led the way in filling up the holes a certain way.

The important thing when you play a fill is that you have to lead the band into their next note - the band can’t miss because you are overplaying the fills. Tiny was an expert at this - he’s making rhythm but he’s also making fire and making the band shout.

A good drummer can really inspire a band.

In the earlier days, bands just played ensemble and the drummer just went along playing time and might hit a rim shot here and there.

But to make this fire happen and propel the band, you really have to think like Art Blakey and Max Roach did when they played in their small groups. You play small group licks but you play them stronger on drums that are tuned deeper.

And you gotta remember that most of the drummers back in those days were playing on calf skin heads which creates a totally different sound than plastic and which blended better.

Tiny’s not making all the figures with the band he making them in between what the band is playing. I mean he’s popping some beats but he’s letting a lot of stuff float by because you should. You can’t play everything that they are playing because then you overplay and it becomes ridiculous. But Tiny’s playing was always cooking all the way and he got a great sound out of that bass drum. I mean it was constant motion.

He had that “rub-a-dub” feel which I use to because it makes the band move. It’s a shuffle beat but not a regular shuffle. It’s more like a feeling of twelve; it’s what makes a band move ahead and inspires it. And you don’t have to get on top of the beat to do it. Tiny is just sitting back there, laying back there using light sticks. All that power is coming out of light sticks and you know he’s not playing as loud as you think he is. It’s light playing even though it is still intense.

[As an aside, pencil drum sticks became all the rage on the West Coast in the late 1950s and one of the early adopters of this model was none other than - you guessed it - Mel Lewis!]

The heaviest thing he’s hitting is the bass drum and it sounds so good, who cares? It’s a beautiful, leathery sound that’s why I think all drummers, even if you have plastic heads on the rest of your drums, should have calfskin on the bass drum. You just can’t get that “thud” out of plastic. With the right size beater ball and hitting right in the middle of a 20” bass drum - there’s nothing like it.

A 20” bass drum is just the right size for most bass pedals to reach right in the center of the head. The beater ball has the best balance there to hit directly into the center of the drum.

A bigger bass drums make the beater go off center and get a boomier sound.

You can’t play a snare drum in the center because there is a feeling of resistance in the middle of the head. Most drummers including myself will play more toward the edges; you can get more ring to the snare drum there, too.

The snare center is dead, you get very little response there.  But in a bass drum, you get that hearty “thud” right in the center that just great for accents and fills.

Tiny was a very refreshing drummer. He was in that same scene when Max [Roach] was coming up and Shelly [Manne] and other New York drummer like Shadow Wilson and Denzil Best; these guys were playing in small groups around the city while the big bands were on the road in the late 1940s.

When the big band drummers would come to town [NYC], they would go to the Royal Roost and the other small, Jazz clubs on 52nd Street to hear what’s happening. It was really exciting for the guys on the road to catch up to the latest and to trying and figure out how they were going to get into that [the latest trends in Jazz drumming].

The only way you can was to stay in New York and to start playing with small groups.

That’s why for myself, I am thankful that I got so much small group playing done in the 1940s before the time that I started playing with big bands.

There was a period from 1949-1953 when I was working with dance bands that I had to go looking for jam sessions to keep my small groups chops up. Finally, many of the guys in the bigger bands started our own jam sessions so we could play more Jazz.”


  1. Thank you for this. Mel Lewis was a beautiful guy, a great drummer and a total inspiration.

  2. Loren Schoenberg used to have a radio program on the Columbia University station, WKCR. It was once a week and three hours long. He did four or five programs with Mel Lewis, where Mel analyzed various drummers, making technical observations such as those about Tiny Kahn excerpted here. This handful of broadcasts was spectacular radio and incredibly insightful. Have the Schoenberg-Lewis broadcasts been archived somewhere on the internet?

  3. Mr.Schoenberg: If you've never published a full book on music, please do!


Please leave your comments here. Thank you.