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Lewis, Mel, 1929-1990



  • Existence: May 10, 1929 - February 2, 1990


Mel Lewis (May 10, 1929-February 2, 1990) was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York, to Russian immigrant parents. His father was a drummer in the Buffalo area who inspired his son to follow in his footsteps from an early age. Still in his mid teens, Lewis played with nationally known jazz musicians Harold Austin and Lenny Lewis. Early credits also include stints with Bernie Burns (1946), Boyd Raeburn (1948), Alvino Rey (1948-9), Ray Anthony (1949-50, 1953-54), and Tex Beneke (1950-53). In 1954 he joined Stan Kenton's band, playing alongside such musicians as Jimmy Giuffre, Maynard Ferguson, Laurindo Almeida, Vido Musso, and vocalist June Christy. During his three-year tenure with Kenton, Lewis also worked and recorded with the Frank Rosolino quintet and the Hampton Hawes Trio.

In 1957, Lewis settled in Los Angeles where he led a quintet with another ex-Kenton sideman, saxophonist Bill Holman. He worked with the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Terry Gibbs, recording with the latter from 1959-62. The early 1960s saw Lewis in New York with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, in Europe with Dizzy Gillespie, and in Russia with Benny Goodman. Lewis moved to New York in 1963 and formed a big band with trumpeter Thad Jones two years later. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra performed and recorded extensively, garnering rave reviews and awards. Their performance on the album Live in Munich earned them a Grammy Award in 1979.

After twelve productive years, Jones left for Europe and Lewis assumed sole leadership of the band. With the departure of Jones, Kansas City-born trombonist/pianist/arranger Bob Brookmeyer assisted in the musical direction of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Lewis established a residency at the prestigious Village Vanguard that spanned over two decades, where he performed up until one month prior to his death in 1990. The orchestra continued to tour and record albums, as well as to perform every Monday night at the Village Vanguard under the moniker, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Lewis, best known for his small group approach to big band drumming, was one of the first drummers to vary the ride cymbal beat, giving the music a loose and swinging feel. His commanding presence never dominated the spotlight and always stressed the interplay between the band members. "How much you stick in depends on how much you can hear," Lewis explained during a 1989 radio broadcast on the history of jazz drumming, "and if you're really hearing, you'll put in only what's necessary." This multi-part broadcast for New York's 89.9 FM WKCR may be listened to in the Marr Sound Archives upon request.

Mel Lewis was the recipient of numerous awards, including fourteen Grammy nominations from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Lewis authored It's Time for the Big Band Drummer (Kendor Music Co, 1978), a drumming method book, and taught workshops on jazz drumming at William Patterson State College in New Jersey.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Mel Lewis Collection

Identifier: MS-0008
Scope and Contents The Mel Lewis Collection was donated to the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City by Doris Sokoloff in 1996. The collection consists of material related to Lewis’ life and career and dates from the 1940s to the 1990s.Housed in LaBudde Special Collections, the manuscript materials include biographical information, correspondence, business records, programs, datebooks, publications, clippings, awards, music scores, miscellaneous ephemera and memorabilia,...
Dates: 1940 - 1996