Mel Lewis

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Mel Lewis
Mel Lewis performing in 1978
Background information
Birth name Melvin Sokoloff
Born (1929-05-10)May 10, 1929
Buffalo, New York
United States
Died February 2, 1990(1990-02-02) (aged 60)
New York City
United States
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, bandleader
Instruments Drums
Years active 1954–1990
Labels Nimbus Records, Telarc, Atlantic, Solid State Records, A&M, Philadelphia International, VSOP, Blue Note
Associated acts The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman

Mel Lewis (May 10, 1929 – February 2, 1990) was the stage name of an American drummer, jazz musician and bandleader. During his life, Lewis was a prominent solo performer, and a professor at William Paterson University, during which time he also authored a book on the art of drumming. In addition, Lewis extended his talents as session musician. Throughout his life he garnered fourteen Grammy nominations.


Early years[edit]

Lewis was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents Samuel and Mildred Sokoloff. He started playing professionally as a teen, eventually joining Stan Kenton in 1954. His musical career brought him to Los Angeles in 1957 and New York City in 1963.[citation needed]


In 1966 in New York, he teamed up with Thad Jones to lead the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The group started as informal jam sessions with the top studio and jazz musicians of the city, but eventually began performing regularly on Monday nights at the famed venue, the Village Vanguard. In 1979, the band won a Grammy for their album Live in Munich.[1] Like all of the musicians in the band, it was only a sideline. In 1976, he released an album titled Mel Lewis and Friends that featured him leading a smaller sextet that allowed freedom and improvisation.[citation needed]

The band became the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, but when Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, it became known as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. Lewis continued to lead the band, recording and performing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard until shortly before his death from cancer at age 60. The band still performs on most Monday nights at the Village Vanguard; today it's known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and has released several CDs.[citation needed]

Playing style and approach[edit]

Lewis's cymbal work was considered unique among many musicians. Of his style, drummer Buddy Rich had remarked: "Mel Lewis doesn't sound like anybody except himself".[citation needed] Lewis insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, switching from the Zildjian brand later in his career to the Istanbul brand. His setup included a 21-inch ride on his right, an 19-inch crash-ride on his left, and his signature sound, a 22-inch swish "knocker" with rivets on his far right. The rather lightweight cymbals exuded a dark, overtone-rich sound. Lewis' wood-shell drums were considered warm and rich in their sound. He almost exclusively played Gretsch drums, although in later years, played Slingerland drums equipped with natural calfskin top heads. Regular mylar heads were used on the bottom.[citation needed] Lewis described a playing philosophy of not "pushing or pulling" but "supporting". "If you watch me, it doesn't look like I'm doing much", he remarked in an interview.[citation needed]

Declining health and death[edit]

In the late 1980s, Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma. It was identified in his arm, then surfaced in his lungs, and ultimately went to his brain. He died on February 2, 1990, just days before his band was to celebrate its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.


Mel Lewis and the Orchestra[edit]

  • Naturally, 1979, Telarc
  • Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock, 1980, MPS Records/ Pausa
  • Live at the Village Vanguard...Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer, 1980
  • Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, 1982, Finesse
  • 20 Years at the Village Vanguard, 1985, Atlantic
  • The Definitive Thad Jones, Live from The Village Vangard 2CD set, 1988, Nimbus Records
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 1, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 2, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
  • Soft Lights and Hot Music, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
  • To You: A Tribute to Mel Lewis, 1990, Music Masters Jazz

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra[edit]

Video performances[edit]


Jones and Lewis as guests with other orchestras[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Manny Albam

With Chet Baker and Bud Shank

With Bob Brookmeyer

With Kenny Burrell

With Bob Cooper

With Eric Dolphy

  • Live in Germany (Magnetic, 1961 / 1992)

With Maynard Ferguson

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Joe Lovano

With Johnny Mandel

With Herbie Mann

With Jack McDuff

With Gary McFarland

With Jimmy McGriff

With James Moody

With Chico O'Farrill

With Shirley Scott

With Bud Shank

With Sonny Stitt

With Thad Jones/Pepper Adams Quintet

With Gerald Wilson

With Jimmy Witherspoon


Concert performances[edit]

  • 1999 Jazz at the Smithsonian (Kultur Video)
  • 2003 Jazz Casual – Thad Jones & Mel Lewis and Woody Herman (Jazz Casual)
  • 2005 Jazz Masters Series – Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (Shanachie)
  • 2007 Mel Lewis and His Big Band (VIEW)[2]


  1. ^ "'The Envelope' awards database". LA Times. Retrieved April 30, 2008. 
  2. ^ Artist: Lewis, Mel. "VIEW DVD Listing". Retrieved 2011-10-21. 

External links[edit]