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Due to his huge presence on the New York Jazz scene beginning around 1960 with Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band and following with his long association with the big band he co-led with trumpeter and arranger Thad Jones which then culminated as the leader of his own big band until his death in 1990, many Jazz fans are less familiar with Mel Lewis’ development as a big band drummer from 1948 - 1958.
These formative years found Mel evolving his own style of big band drumming while occupying the drum chair for bands led by Boyd Raeburn, Ray Anthony, Tex Beneke, Stan Kenton and Bill Holman.
But perhaps the most important stint where it all came together for Mel behind the big band kit were the three years he spent in Hollywood driving what has come to be known as The Dream Band led by vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.
With each chair in the band occupied by a member of the Los Angeles studio elite and arrangements by a Who’s Who of orchestrators including Bill Holman, Al Cohn, Marty Paich, Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Albam, Shorty Rogers, Sy Johnson, Med Flory and Lennie Niehaus, Mel was surrounded by a bevy of swingas and cookers and he made sure that “all the pots were on” by booting things along from the Dream Band’s drum chair. [BTW - during its existence from circa 1958-1962, Terry’s orchestra was not referred to as “The Dream Band.” This appellation was given to it in retrospect.]
Because of the studio commitments of the band’s personnel, the band met in Hollywood locations on the “off night” [usually Mondays and/or Tuesdays] and because owners and waitresses who were tolerant of aspiring, young Jazz musicians like myself [I never knew I could nurse one Coca Cola for so long!] this allowed me to take a ringside seat and watch and listen to the clinic in big band Jazz that Terry and the boys in the band conducted on each tune they played.
Tune after tune, the band’s driving performances left you breathless and exhilarated. Mel’s hands moved almost invisibly across the drums, dropping bombs, crashing cymbals and putting in fills and kicks, all of which served to drive the band forward irresistibly and irrepressibly.
The man was the personification of swing.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mel was being scouted by Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry Mulligan as the latter was in the conceptual stages of what would become his Concert Jazz Band [CJB].
Gerry went to The Left Coast in the late 1950s appearing in some movies and Brookmeyer, when not arranging for the Dream Band, also had other musical and personal reasons to be out among the southern California palm trees. And they both caught Terry’s Dream Band and focused on Mel’s distinctive big band drumming.
When the CJB first got going, Larry Bunker would dep for Mel in the drum chair while he was in New York and when Mel would fly back to The Left Coast, not only was he playing once again with Terry’s big band but he also became the drummer in Gerald Wilson’s fledgling big band as can be heard on that band’s initial recordings for the Pacific Jazz label.
Every big band wanted Mel behind the drum kit.
Chad Smith describes Mel's association with Terry and what would come to be known as The Dream Band in his The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis biography on Mel.
“Terry Gibbs and The Tailor"
“Mel first met vibraphonist Terry Gibbs in 1948 while both men were living in New York City. Gibbs remembered his initial encounters with Mel:
‘Mel was with Tex Beneke, and he used to try to find me all the time because he loved Tiny Kahn's drumming. He knew that I grew up with Tiny, and had all of these things I could tell him about Tiny. So he would find me and we'd talk a little bit, but we never really got to know each other until I moved out to the West Coast.
When I moved out to the West Coast and wanted to start a band, that's when we got really tight. Mel was looking for a band to play with, and even though he had Bill Holman's rehearsal band and Med Flory's band, all they did was rehearse and my band ended up as a working band almost immediately.’
The two men first recorded together in September of 1957 on an album titled Jazz Band Ball—Second Set (Mode).2 It was during that session that Gibbs famously gave Mel his nickname, "The Tailor." Gibbs recalled the exact reason:
‘I named him "The Tailor!" He was funny because he would tell people that I named him the tailor because I said he was tailor-made for the drums, but that wasn't the case at all. I named him "The Tailor" because there was a little Jewish tailor in my Brooklyn neighborhood, who had bunions on his feet, and never lifted his feet when he walked. Well, Mel shuffled his feet when he walked too. So I nicknamed him "The Tailor," and it stuck with him.’
Gibbs and Mel recorded together again in November of 1958, resulting in the album Terry Gibbs: More Vibes on Velvet (EmArcy). While their first album together featured a small group, More Vibes on Velvet featured Gibbs accompanied by a rhythm section and full saxophone section. The arrangements by Pete Rugolo allowed Mel to showcase his small group playing behind the soloing of Gibbs, and also his ability to support the saxophone section throughout the written arrangements.
It was also during that fall that Gibbs decided to form a big band on the West Coast. Traditionally, Gibbs had recorded an annual big band album while living on the East Coast, and to continue the tradition he formed a new band in Los Angeles. In January of 1959 the Terry Gibbs Big Band rehearsed for the first time and prepared material for their upcoming recording in February. In addition to Mel on drums, Gibbs hired many of the best jazz players in Los Angeles including Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Pete Jolly, and Joe Maini. It was through his new band that Gibbs accidently fell into the most successful era of his career. In a 1962 Down Beat article, Gibbs recalled the making of his West Coast big band:
‘A movie columnist friend of mine, named Eve Starr, called me one day in 1959. She told me about this club in Hollywood, a place called the Seville. She said the place was dying and the owner wanted to change the policy. He didn't really know whether he wanted jazz; he wanted anything that would bring customers into the joint. Eve suggested I go talk to him. His name was Harry Schiller.
Initially Gibbs signed a contract with Schiller to play the Seville with his quartet. Gibbs's quartet had always been his most commercially successful group and was the main source of his income. It was only because of his love of big band music that Gibbs recorded his yearly big band album. Journalist John Tynan explained the situation in a 1962 Down Beat article titled "Vamp Till Ready—Terry Gibbs' Big Band":
‘It was a nice musical arrangement for Gibbs; he could record and work nightclubs with his quartet, commanding top money, and then, for kicks, he could cut loose and indulge his real love for big band jazz.’
Shortly after he signed his quartet contract with the Seville, Gibbs ran into a major hurdle with his upcoming big band recording. The Los Angeles Musicians Union rules prohibited any unpaid rehearsals for a recording, but permitted a band to rehearse unpaid for a nightclub job. This meant that Gibbs couldn't rehearse for the recording, unless they were also rehearsing for an upcoming gig. Gibbs would have loved to pay the musicians for the
rehearsals, but that was not financially possible. This left him with only one option; get the big band a gig:
‘I made Schiller a proposition, I asked him if he'd let me take the big band into the club on Tuesday night only for the same amount of money as the quartet was getting. Schiller said it was okay with him if the quartet did business. If the quartet brought in some customers, he said, he didn't care if I brought in a band of apes on Tuesday. So we were set.’
With the Tuesday night confirmed, Gibbs began preparing for the big band's opening night. He made a guest appearance on the Steve Allen Show to promote his new big band and their upcoming Seville performance. In addition to the publicity from Steve Allen, word of mouth quickly spread that the band's show on Tuesday night was going to be one of the best jazz events of the year. By 1959, big bands, especially in Los Angeles, were not popular entertainment and did not even gain much attention from the music community. The Los Angeles big bands of Bill Holman and Med Flory were the most popular amongst musicians, but both were mainly rehearsal bands that released studio albums every year but did not perform live on a consistent basis. Mel played drums in both Holman's and Flory's bands during 1958 and 1959, but according to Gibbs, Mel really missed having the opportunity to play a steady live gig with a big band.
While excitement for the band's debut was mounting, no one knew if the band would attract much of a crowd. But to Gibbs and the other members, it didn't really matter. They hoped to draw a crowd, but in reality they were still just rehearsing for their upcoming studio recording. They didn't have their sights set on being a steady working big band, but after opening night at the Seville their plans quickly changed.
Opening night was a huge success and bigger than Gibbs or anyone could have ever imagined. In the packed club sat not only lovers of big band music, but also a remarkable mix of musicians and celebrities. By the end of the evening, Gibbs and Schiller decided that the group would perform again at the club the next Tuesday. The turnout for the band's second week was just as successful as the first, and Gibbs found himself, and his band, the hottest event in Los Angeles:
‘The gigs were like a party. It was like a freak thing, and all of a sudden that band became the stars of Hollywood. You couldn't get in the club; there would be three hundred people packed inside, with a line full of movie stars waiting to get in. We were making fifteen dollars a night, the band was, and I was making nineteen dollars. Well, actually I made eleven dollars after I paid the band boy. See, we were making no money at all; we were just having fun. Everybody was so happy in that band because the music was so good. It didn't have anything to do with money, we just wanted to play that music together. We played twice a week most of the time, and sometimes we'd even play five days a week. The band was ecstatic because all the lead players in the band were the greatest lead players, but didn't have a place to play except in studios.’
As the band's popularity grew, composers and band members submitted their arrangements to Gibbs for use with the band. Bill Holman was playing tenor in the band and contributed several arrangements that he had previously recorded with his own group. As Holman noted, it was a great opportunity to have his arrangements played on a weekly basis to a large and enthusiastic audience:
‘I didn't have a band; the records I made I had gotten a band together specifically for that. So I didn't have a band of my own that I was trying to promote, so having my music performed by a band that was working was beneficial for me. It was no sacrifice on my part.’
On February 17 and 18, several weeks after their first engagement at the Seville, the band went into the studio to record their first album. Terry Gibbs and His Orchestra: Launching a New Sound in Music (Mercury) featured the arrangements of Bill Holman ("Stardust" and "Begin the Beguine"), Marty Paich ("Opus #l" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You"), Al Cohn ("Cotton Tail" and "Prelude to a Kiss"), Manny Albam ("Moten Swing" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside"), Bob Brookmeyer ("Let's Dance" and "Don't Be That Way"), and Med Flory ("Midnight Sun" and "Flying Home"). While the recording was well received by fans and critics, it was not a complete representation of the excitement that the band produced during their live performances.
The packed crowds followed the Terry Gibbs Big Band for a total of nine weeks at the Seville and three weeks after that at the Cloister Club. The band then found a steady home at the Sundown Club on Sunset Boulevard. The band performed every Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday there for eighteen months. During that time the venue was sold to a new owner and renamed the Summit. The band's incredible live run from 1959 through 1961 was one of the most successful and longest-running steady gigs of any big band after the swing era. More importantly, the gigs allowed Mel to play continually in a contemporary big band setting. When many other jazz drummers no longer played regularly with a big band, or performed the same material night after night, Mel had the opportunity to learn and perform new arrangements on a weekly basis, rapidly developing his concept of drumming within a big band.
It was the live performances of Terry Gibbs's Band in 1959, 1960, and 1961 that resulted in many of Mel's most well-known recordings. Gibbs knew that the band was at its peak during their live performances and that only a live recording would do his band justice. As a result, weeks after their debut at the Seville, Gibbs contacted Wally Heider about recording the band live.
In 1959, Heider was a mildly successful lawyer in Eugene, Oregon, who was more interested in his hobby of recording music than his law profession. (You may recall that Heider also recorded Mel with Kenton's Orchestra in November of 1956.) After speaking with Gibbs, Heider drove his customized U-Haul trailer of recording equipment to Los Angeles and began recording the band at the Seville for much of 1959. In 1960, the excitement of recording led Heider to quit his job as a lawyer and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a fulltime recording engineer.
Heider became one of the most famous recording engineers of all time. In addition to his long career recording jazz music, he eventually relocated to San Francisco and recorded legendary pop and rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana. He is responsible for what was known as the "San Francisco Sound."
Throughout 1959, 1960 and 1961, Heider continued to record the Gibbs Big Band during their weekly gigs. At the Sundown/Summit Club, he improvised a control booth in a small back room where he operated all of the recording equipment without being able to see the band. His two-track, direct-to-tape masters had no EQ or post editing, but sounded absolutely incredible. The Exciting Terry Gibbs Big Band (Verve) and Explosion: Terry Gibbs and His Exciting Big Band (Mercury) were released in 1961 and evidence of Heider's ability to record the band hitting on all cylinders. Most importantly, the albums finally gave listeners throughout the country a chance to hear the band in a live setting.
In addition to the material on those albums, hours upon hours of Heider's recordings were not commercially released. Through the years these unreleased recordings became something of a legend in the jazz community. For twenty-six years, only the truly lucky heard them as they stayed in Gibbs's personal possession. It wasn't until 1986 that Gibbs finally began releasing the recordings on the Contemporary label. Contemporary released all six volumes on digital compact disc under the name "Terry Gibbs Dream Band." This was the first time that Gibbs's band was called anything except the "Terry Gibbs Big Band" or "Terry Gibbs and His Orchestra." Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 1, Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 2—The Sundown Sessions, Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 3—Flying Home, and Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 6—One More Time featured previously unreleased Heider recordings, many from the band's 1959 run at the Seville. By 1986 the LP versions of The Exciting Terry Gibbs Big Band and Explosion: Terry Gibbs and His Exciting Big Band had been out of print for nearly a quarter century and were reissued as Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 4—Main Stem and Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 5—The Big Cat.
The "Dream Band" recordings are a testament to the greatness of that band and feature some of Mel's finest drumming. In 1986, when asked about the release of Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 1 Mel responded,
‘This recording brings back a memory of probably the best big band of its time. I was so proud to be a part of it. Everybody was a real jazz professional, and Terry evoked so much spirit. I think it was some of my best playing in my entire career also. I don't think there was ever a better band than this one, including my own. Different, but not better.’
Similar to Mel's recordings with Kenton, the "Dream Band" recordings display his ability to subtly take control of a band and make it his own. In a completely unselfish manner he was the greatest musical influence on Gibbs's band. Mel realized his influence:
‘I am a unique drummer. I have a style that nobody else has. I make music happen. I make bands do things that no other band can do. Any time I've played, any band I've played in, that band has become mine. Now, I didn't do it on purpose... it just happened.’