Mel Lewis

Straight Ahead

By Scott Kevin Fish

mel lewis 1The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra has been going strong for some thirteen years now, consistent poll winners, and the hit of almost every jazz festival they perform at. All the more reason for my shock when drummer co-leader Mel Lewis informed me that, “there haven’t been any profits yet; the profits have all been in the music making — and in the fun and pleasure.”

Spending the better part of an afternoon at his plush New York City apartment, we listened first to a tape of the 1955 Stan Kenton band, the vehicle which brought the distinctive Mel Lewis brand of drumming to the attention of all who respect and admire him today. Later we listened to a Jones-Lewis Orchestra concert taped live a short time ago in France. In this relaxed and cordial atmosphere, we settled back for an afternoon of conversation where Mel spoke openly about drumming, and about the state of the art to which he’s dedicated practically all of his adult life.

Later — in transcribing his comments — I realized that some of what Mel said could easily be misinterpreted as egotistical. Not so. To know thyself is a virtue, and Mel Lewis might very well be the most honest person I’ve ever met. He spoke as an artist dedicated to “pure jazz,” with its roots firmly imbedded in bop.

His style of playing hasn’t changed all that much since he first gained recognition with the Kenton band, and this is not to slight him. It’s just that Mel Lewis has been an excellent drummer for a long time.

mel lewis 2SF: During the fifties and sixties you were one of the most in demand studio drummers in New York. Do you still do much studio work? What sort of knowledge did a studio drummer have to have in those years?

ML: I do very little studio work now. I guess it’s a combination of my own doing, and of the changeover. I’ve been sort of phased out of the studio’s because of style. The average studio drummer today is basically a rock drummer, and most of them don’t know how to do a damm thing. I’m not a rock drummer — although frankly — I think I play better rock than the whole lot of them. But it’s not legitimate — what they call the “real rock.” I think I play it better and with more feeling. I’m not a pounder and I’m not a cymbal breaker.

When I was really heavy into studio work, I’ll have to admit the music was pretty damm good and a lot of good writers were involved. I’d perform in a studio daily with anywhere from two guys, to one-hundred piece symphony orchestras. The music was good, and it was challenging. A studio drummer had to know everything. You have to be a good reader, and you had to have good time, or tempo actually, because time to me is really “feeling.”

When I was doing jingles they didn’t use click tracks. I had a secret, a way of playing with a click track where I wouldn’t sound metronomic. The secret was not to play with the track, but play around it. Keep it relative but don’t keep it exact, otherwise you sound like a metronome.

You needed a knowledge of all styles of music. In the course of one day you’d be playing ragtime, or music from the twenties and thirties. You had to know the Goodman style of swing, and early Basie. You had to know how to play a show. You had to know Dixieland, and in my case, I was called upon to play avant-garde and bop which is my main thing. That’s where my roots are and that’s where my heart is. To me, bop is the most complex music of all.

SF: How did you learn all of those styles of drumming?

ML: Ears. By listening to bands on records and in person, and I never slighted anyone. When I first came to New York in the forties, my evenings weren’t all spent at the Royal Roost listening to Max, Kenny Clarke and Shelly Manne. I made sure I heard Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, George Wettling and Morey Feld. I listened to them all.

My father was my first influence. He was a pit drummer, a show drummer, and also a good wedding and bar mitzvah drummer. I knew his style backwards. He could read anything and he had excellent time. Bill Robinson (Mr. Bojangles) was crazy about his feel. He was also a very tasty drummer, and I think I was blessed with his time and taste.

My favorite drummers in the thirties were Gene Krupa and Jo Jones. Max made a big impression on me in the forties, and then it was Roy Haynes. I heard Roy talking about things in the forties that Elvin was talking about later. Roy was one of the first “out” drummers.

I was lucky enough to be in what was considered a famous Kenton band between 1954-55. Critics and jazz fans alike say that was probably the most swinging band he ever had. That’s where I made my name. I was with a slew of commercial dance bands prior to that. I’ve been playing with big bands since I was thirteen or fourteen years old.

SF: What’s your opinion of stuffing drums for recording purposes, and the trend towards making all studio drummers sound alike?

ML: Actually, you hear a drummer playing on his drums, but the sound you hear is the engineers. I’m against all that. No engineer is going to do that to me. You get my sound or forget it, man. I will not take my front head off. I won’t stick something in there. Both heads all the time. No muffling on the outside head of the bass drum. Just a thin felt strip and a Gretsch bass drum tone control on the batter head. That’s all I still use.

SF: No mufflers on your snare drum?

ML: No mufflers. Tom-toms either. Everything is off, everything open. If I play a rock date where I gotta get that dry sound I throw my wallet or a date book on the drum head. When I used to smoke, I’d throw my pack of cigarettes down there.

SF: Would you do a studio rock date?

ML: Oh sure, I’ll do it if they let me do it the way I do it. But, not if they want me to sound like the latest hit record. I don’t want to sound like Steve Gadd. To me, he’s fine. I think he’s one of the best. I’ve heard his work enough and I know he’s probably the busiest studio drummer around, but he doesn’t have to do all the things we had to do. He does all the stuff that’s done in rock style, most of it. I can’t stand that sound. I don’t like the sound of Steve’s drums at all because it’s a rock sound. A dead sound. But, I think Steve does a helluva good job.

SF: I remember reading in the liner notes to a Jones-Lewis composition called Ahunk Ahunk, that you used stuffed drums for that “now sound.”

ML: I used the studio bass drum — a stuffed drum — but I didn’t take the front head off. I loosened my toms and I didn’t take any heads off them either. I put the mufflers on. I used one of my Ludwig & Ludwig snares and I put my wallet on it. That was it.

SF: You’re the only drummer I can think of still using calfskin heads. Do you use them on all your drums?

ML: No, just the top of the snare, and the bass drum batter. Plastic on the bottom. I’ve been doing that for years. I’ve tried plastic, but with brushes, none of them make it. Only calf. It’s a little hard to use them in California. There’s something about the weather out there that makes it pretty rough. I like it damp though, I prefer a little moisture in the head, not bone dry. Then they’re too tight.

SF: How frequently do you have to tune them?

ML: Maybe twice a night. Sometimes it’s perfectly alright when I sit down, and that’s the way they stay all night. I don’t like tight drumheads, but if a drummer likes a tight sound he can certainly get it with calf. But, he’s got to remember that he’d better not leave it that way. The tighter you make a calf head, the more it stretches. The head will probably go dead a lot sooner than if you kept it medium. You have to remember to change tension at the end of the night. There’s something about the feeling and sound of calf. Plastic doesn’t feel right to me. Plastic heads on the toms are alright. I’m not thrilled with the sound, but I don’t have time to mess with them. You hit the toms so hard and get all those dents in them, that gives you an idea of why it’s basically dangerous to use calf on tom-toms. I don’t hit a snare drum as hard as I hit a tom for some reason or another. When I want volume from a snare, it’s usually with a rim shot.

SF: Do you tune your drums in any specific way?

ML: The tuning of my drums isn’t exact. As long as the sound is right, I don’t care. I start out trying to be exact but it never ends up that way. I don’t always have time to finish tuning, so sometimes everything is sitting there a little crooked. Nothing’s perfect, but I get my sound. I strive for a full sound. I try to make my drums sound like a fat sounding trumpet. I like to get a big sound.

SF: Are you still using the Gretsch wooden snare?

ML: I use mostly wood, but I own a couple of metal snare drums built back around 1928. I have a Leedy & Ludwig, and a Ludwig & Ludwig. They were the best snare drums ever made.

SF: Have you used them on any of your recordings?

ML: I used them on the vocal albums where I played a lot of back beats, and on the Central Park North album. On all the other live albums I’ve used the wooden snare. I’m going to start using the metal snares live with the band, because the snare drums aren’t coming off too good today. I’ve been using Gretsch drums for thirtyone years and I’ll be using them another thirty-one years — if I’m playing that long — but they’re gonna have to get something going on the snare drums. As far as I’m concerned there isn’t anybody putting out a good snare. They all sound like boxes — wooden or metal. I still prefer the Gretsch wooden snare drum, but I’m unhappy with some of the workmanship. I’m using calfheads and I’m not getting a fit. They’re only worrying about plastic heads. In the old days we all played calfskin and never had those troubles. Why should there be trouble now? We used to tuck the heads ourselves. Some of us did lousy jobs but they still worked. The drum still sounded. Why should it be any different today? The strainers were better too. I think they all make rotten strainers today, all of them. A strainer has a lot to do with the sound of a drum.

SF: You once made reference to your playing as being strong, but not loud. Can you explain the difference?

ML: What counts is the intensity. Volume doesn’t mean a damm thing. There’s a volume you can play at that’s sensible. To me, piano to mezzo forte is enough volume for normal playing in a big band. This way the whole band can play that way and you’ll have better feeling and better intonation. When you get loud, you go to a forte or a double forte. Triplefortes are not necessary. And when you go from piano to pianissimo or softer, you can really tell. That’s why the guys in our band can hear me. If I play louder, they’re going to play louder and before you know it, it’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in volume to create excitement. I believe in intensity. I control the band no matter what. The drummer is in control of that volume.

SF: When Thad writes something for the band, do you write your own charts?

ML: No, he writes them. But I’ll memorize everything usually the second or third time through and that’s it! I put the part away — never to be looked at again. If it’s going to be recorded right away, Thad will really write things out. If it’s something that we have time to work on, then it’s not necessary. Thad’s first choruses usually have a lot of rhythm section figures, and he’ll write those out. That means top line, bottom line, middle line, whatever. He uses different instruments for different sounds too, and I’ll play those. The rest he knows I’m going to hear, so he doesn’t bother.

Most arrangers don’t know how to write for rhythm. That’s because so many drummers in the old days didn’t read. A lot of drummers can’t read that stuff today, either.

SF: Have you ever thought about writing a book?

ML: I’m writing a book right now, with Clem DeRosa. You know, I agree drum books are very important, but I sure wish the writers would write something that young drummers could really use on the job. All these exercise books are nothing but exercises. There’s so many guys who can read the hell out of those books. Then you put a simple chart in front of them and they can’t play it! My book will be a textbook type of thing, but the exercises will definitely be things you can use on the job. The book is aimed at playing drums, and not wishing that I knew more than I know.

SF: Would you still recommend that a drummer have as much of a background in all styles of playing as you did?

ML: There is no phase of the business I would tell a guy to avoid. I think a young drummer should occasionally go to a Broadway show, and if possible get a front row seat so he can listen to the drummer. Watch him, and see how he sets up. Follow some of the music. I think teachers active in this type of work should take their students on the job with them whenever they can. I did all that, and I consider myself very lucky.

SF: Do you believe a drummer should expect to make a living just playing jazz?

ML: I think anybody who wants to be that good, can make a living at it. It’s a matter of being that good. Everybody that starts out to be a drummer isn’t going to be a great drummer. An outstanding player will always work. How do you become an outstanding player? Hard work! A lot of talent is involved, and a lot of listening and studying. I think anybody can become great at what they do, if they put the time in. Somebody who doesn’t have it will usually find out pretty early.

Now, I’ve seen guys that are great players walking around with no jobs, but you’ve got to look into their lifestyle a little bit. A lot of them are undependable. They walk around with chips on their shoulders, or they’ve got some bad habits. That’s the reason they’re not working. Not because of their playing.

SF: Are you involved in teaching?

ML: Actually, I’m doing more coaching than teaching. I let my students show me what they can do, and tell me what they want to do. I’ll either show them an easier way, or the right way, and certainly let them know what they’re doing wrong. I explain all about life and playing in general. I fill their heads with knowledge, not actual playing. I feel they’ve got to do their own playing. I want them to develop themselves. I don’t want a whole bunch of guys playing like Mel Lewis. First of all, they can’t do it — no more than I could play like Buddy. That’s why I had no interest in playing like Buddy. I admire him for what he does, and that’s the way it should be. I feel sorry for a whole bunch of Buddy Rich imitators. They’ve been failures as far as I’m concerned.


I’ve seen a whole lot of my imitators fall by the wayside. If you like my playing that much, absorb and be influenced, but take it and change it around a little bit. Turn it into your own thing. Use it, use me, use others. Use it in some kind of way — but not deliberately. When you get deliberate — when you actually try to copy note for note, lick for lick — you’re not doing anything to help yourself. If you like my sound, and you know you’re not getting a sound as nice as mine, make it a point to get a better sound. Ask me, or somebody else; “What can I do to get a better sound?” Be influenced by the fact that I have a good sound, but you don’t have to get my sound. You can’t get my sound. My touch has to do with my sound, and nobody has my touch except me. I don’t have anybody else’s touch either. Get your sound. You’ll know about it because people will complement you for your sound.

SF: I would like to know about your conception of drum soloing.

ML: You know it’s funny. Nobody ever thought I could play solos because my solo’s were never visual. When a drummer makes a name for himself as a soloist, the solo is very visual. Gene, Buddy, Louis and Joe Morello come to mind as the top solo drummers — visually speaking. Of course those four guys happen to be great drummers, but I’ve watched them all play and their solos were also visual. I’m from the other school. Mr. Long Stoneface. I’m serious and I smile, sometimes. If you like what I’m doing, you just as soon don’t watch me. I do everything easy. All these things are happening but it looks as though I’m doing nothing. That’s the way I want it. I have a very limited technique. I work all this stuff out of this little amount of technique. I can’t play fast single strokes. I’m basically a double stroker, and lots of press rolls. I make sounds. Whatever I hear, I do. I don’t even know how, I just do it. I know what I do isn’t easy.

I did some soloing on my new small group album, Mel Lewis and Friends. Horizon Records, probably more than I’ve ever done in my whole life on record. I thought they were pretty good. They’re sure different. I’ve been getting a lot of complements from young drummers. They ask me; “How do you think like that?” I think like a horn player. I like to cross bar lines, to think meters without thinking anything other than 4/4. I sort of think like Thad. He’ll start phrases in the middle of nowhere, continue them on through and end up where you’re supposed to. You really have to have a very good awareness of where you are.

SF: Do you practice that?

ML: No, I don’t practice anything. I’ll have to be honest. I stopped practicing when I started working, at about thirteen years of age. I’m not condoning it. I’m not saying that’s what everybody should do. When I was young, I played every day. I played in school dance band and orchestra, and on the weekends I was working with non-union dance bands. I touched the drum every day of the week, almost.

SF: How important is it for a drummer to listen to the other members of the band?

ML: It’s all important. Listening is the whole thing. I’ll tell you exactly how I play. My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don’t listen to myself play. I’m not aware of myself because I’m too busy listening to everything going on around me. All my body is doing is reacting to that. Sometimes I’m forcing things, making things happen another way, but I’m reacting to everything I hear. The composition I’m creating as I play is because of what I’m hearing. How can you work out how you’re going to accompany somebody? You can’t! You’re supposed to be complementing and accompanying. Everything depends on your ears. If I’m busy listening to me, then I’m not hearing the rest of the band.

When the band is playing as an ensemble, I’m a part of that ensemble. I’ve been told another reason I’m not noticed so much in our band is because I’m heard as part of that ensemble in its entirety — which is exactly what I’m striving for. The rhythm is a section of three individual instruments. We’re the only section of that sort. You’ve got four trumpets, five saxes, and four trombones, basically. All those horns are playing together to get one big beautiful sound of harmony. Nobody sticks out. As a listener you can isolate if you want to hear the drums. But, when you hear the whole band and say; “Man, that’s one big sound,” that’s when it’s right.

SF: Have you ever been given advice from musicians who were not drummers which helped you in your playing?

ML: I’ve been given good advice and bad advice. Nobody offers you advice unless they think they can help you. When a guy comes over and really wants to talk intelligently and offer something like; “You know, maybe if you laid out once in a while, or if you changed sound, or if you went to brushes, it might be a little more effective,” that cat’s trying to help you. Try it. Listen to the guy. We all had to learn at one time. Somebody’s always gonna like somebody else better than you, or this one likes you and this one doesn’t. You’ve got to be strong enough to hold them all together whether they like you or not.

When I was a sideman with other people, it was very important for me to have the respect of as many of the guys as possible. In my own band, I try to make everybody feel that if you don’t like something, speak up. I’m not the show. We’re all working on that stand together. Don’t be afraid to tell me something you don’t like, and don’t be afraid to pat me on the back when you do like it.

SF: What are your feelings on the problems of leading a big jazz band within the current music scene?

ML: Basie and us are the only pure bands out. Maybe Thad and I are wrong, but I don’t think so. Somebody in this world has to remain an artist and try to lead the way. We believe in the good old American tradition of swinging. The kids don’t know about it. It’s brand new to them. It’s harder to play than rock. The basics are always a little harder, but we’re pretty complex basics. Most young drummers we hear coming up can’t play 4/4 worth a damm. It’s all a straight eighth note feel, all this shit they’re doing. 4/4 is triplets, you’ve got to get that triplet feel, and they can’t do it.

Fusion music is alright, but I’m against it. The people who used it to make money drew a lot of kids over to jazz, and when they got them there, they should have showed them what jazz was really like. The kids will listen to them. Chick Corea, Joe Zawinal, Herbie Hancock and others like that are great musicians who’ve been plowing and playing that other shit continuously. There’s nothing new happening. They could take their following and say; “Hey, here’s what we used to do. Here’s what we really like to do.”

Thad and I are friends with all those musicians, and we know damm well that they’d like to be doing what we’re doing. But, they started making money. Sure, they deserve the money, but they should be making it playing what they originally played, because they were fine jazz players.

SF: Who do you consider to be the good big band drummers of today and yesterday?

ML: John Von Ohlen is one, and Ronnie Zito. He could do it. Ed Soph is a very good big band drummer. Frank Dunlop who was with Maynard, and who I’d like to hear with Basie’s band. I liked Ron Davis in Al Porcino’s band. Joe LaBarbera could do it, and I still like Harold Jones. There’s only been a handful of expert big band drummers. Probably only fifteen or twenty, really first rate. Jo Jones, Buddy, Davey Tough, Don Lamond, Krupa, Tiny Kahn, Jake Hanna, Sonny Payne and Gus Johnson. Shadow Wilson was one of my all time favorite drummers. Sam Woodyard with Ellington, and Sonny Greer was a lovely player. A lot of people thought he was corny, but he was a very musical player. Of course, Louis Bellson, Irv Cottier and Shelly Manne. I suppose if you wanted to cut it down to just the absolute greatest, it would take a little time. I would have to be very honest and leave myself out, although I would love to put myself in that category. I’ll have to leave that up to somebody else.

I know I’m good, but I’m not gonna ever say I’m the greatest. I’m not the greatest. I am my own favorite drummer. When you’re good, you should always be your favorite. You don’t have to walk around with a big head, but you should feel that you’re as good as anybody. You should never feel inferior to another drummer. If you feel inferior then you haven’t made it. There has got to be a point where you feel confident that there’s nothing you cannot do. Not to the point where you have no more to learn, but where you can handle any job thrown in front of you. When everybody hires you for work, you’re recording, doing all the gigs, your name is in print, you know that people admire you. When you’re known by musicians around the world, at that point you should be your own favorite drummer. You should feel that there’s nobody better than you are — but by the same token — that you’re not better than anybody else.