The Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Village Vanguard just seem to go together. For one thing, they both represent longevity. The Vanguard is the oldest club in New York City; Mel’s band has one of the longest- running gigs in jazz—19 years of Monday nights at the Vanguard. For another thing, they are both grounded solidly by tradition, but aren’t afraid to look towards the future. The Vanguard’s walls are covered with photographs of the great jazz musicians who have played there—people such as John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thad, Hank and Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus, Roland Kirk, Horace Silver and Tony Williams. Many of these artists continue to play at the Vanguard, but you’ll also hear the new jazz stars, such as Wynton Marsalis. Similarly, Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra can be expected to play some of the same arrangements they’ve played since the days when the band started as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra; they also play new music.
Most important, both the Vanguard and the Jazz Orchestra have strong leaders: Max Cordon and Mel Lewis. Cordon has managed to pull off a difficult balancing act: It’s hard enough to keep a club going in New York without also providing a place where jazz musicians can develop their art without having to compromise for commercial purposes. But the Vanguard is such a place. Go there whenever you want; you’II hear real jazz. Gordon has achieved this by combining a true love for good music with a strong business sense. He doesn’t compromise either of them. Neither does Mel. He knows as well as anyone that musicians have to eat, and he’ll do what he has to in order to make a living. But when it comes to his own band and their music, Mel won’t put up with anything that he feels is inferior, and he will gladly tell you why he thinks something is inferior.
Mel can come across as being rather harsh in his comments and criticisms— especially in print. But when you get to know him, you realize something very important: There is really no malice or hostility in anything he says. Mel is merely calling it the way he sees it. Sometimes, if you look closely, you’II see a twinkle in his eye when his words are seemingly their most cynical. He’s not condemning as much as he’s just trying to provoke people into thinking about what they’re doing, and why they are doing it. Musically, he does the same thing with his band as he occasionally plays unexpected things behind them, forcing them to keep their minds and ears open to what is going on. Mel knows what’s going on. He cares about the music too much not to.
RM: Around 15 or 20 years ago, jazz education hit the schools. It seemed like every school had a jazz program, which usually meant big band. As a bandleader, now that this has gone on for a while, have you noticed a significant improvement in the capabilities of young players, and an increase in the number of capable young players?
ML: Well, there has certainly been an increase in the amount of young players. The only problem has been that, through this whole time, in almost every band that I’ve ever heard, the rhythm sections were the worst part. I noticed that the drummers, except for a few here and there, were caught up in the rock race. They were young and this was the only kind of music they were into. They didn’t have the opportunity to hear most of the major big band drummers,whereas when I came up, I got to hear everybody. There were so many drummers to listen to, and so many varieties of styles, techniques and sounds from the different types of bands. But we eventually got down to such a small amount of bands, leaving Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Jake Hanna and myself as the four major big band drummers around. The tendency was for young drummers to lean towards Buddy, which was a natural thing and I appreciate that. Louie, of course, had another special thing going because he utilized a two bass drum setup. I was the bebopper—the small-group approach, which was another style. Jake came out of the Dave Tough school, which was another good way to play. We all did our thing extremely well, but we weren’t out there as much as we could have been. The opportunities weren’t around for young drummers to hear us.
I noticed that the only things the young drummers could play well were the big band rock arrangements. It seemed like we were going to have a whole barrage of drummers, but nobody coming up who could swing in a real jazz fashion— real big band drumming. However, there were exceptions. Steve Houghton came out of North Texas, went on to Woody’s band and did a great job. Peter Erskine went on to the Kenton band. Then along came a few other people. Danny Gottlieb was down in Miami playing jazz. So here and there, I heard a few people who had potential, but the basic element at the time was wrong. I’m not going to blame the drummers for that; I’m going to blame their teachers for going along with the kids and just playing the rock-oriented music. We have enough rock music going on as it is with the real rock bands. Big bands should have leaned towards training them to play the old arrangements—”Song Of India,” “A Train,” “One O’Clock Jump.”
I recently saw two bands performing on a television show. Both bands were from Indiana University—David Baker’s groups. Each band was alternating two drummers. They were playing arrangements that called for backbeats on quite a bit of stuff, and one guy—one guy—played his backbeat with the traditional grip. He was the only one who swung out of the four drummers. The other three were playing the backbeats with the matched grip and it came out as stiff as a board.
I know there are pros and cons on this traditional and matched grip but matched grip doesn’t work when you’re playing jazz of any kind. You can yell and scream, and argue and argue. The great jazz drummers all know what they’re talking about, and every one of them knows that no drummer is going to swing in a traditional way with matched grip. It just doesn’t work. I know that the reason these young drummers are using matched grip is because they are playing more rock than jazz. They’re working their way through school, they’re playing gigs, and most of the gigs are rock oriented. I can appreciate that. There was a time when I would have said, “Oh, that stinks,” but I won’t say that anymore, because I realize that that’s just the way it is and there is room for everything. But if you’re going to play with a big band for four years in high school, and then go into college and play with the stage band there, then do it right. That means listen to what went before and listen to yourself. Listen to the old guys and wonder, “Why can’t I get a feel like they got? Were they that great?” No, they weren’t that great. It’s just that you’re not doing the right things.
I was astounded to see two good bands and four drummers, and only one of them swung. But it proved a point. Through these last 20 years that you’re talking about, the reason that we’re not producing enough good big band drummers is because somebody is not doing his or her homework—which turns out to be not one somebody but a whole lot of somebodies. Maybe they figure, “Well, there are not that many big bands to play with and I’m going to have to make my living playing rock.” Well, we had to make our livings doing all kinds of things too, including playing rock. And I still say that if you learn the right way it won’t affect anything. I went to see Miles Davis just recently, and I listened to some fine rock drumming with a jazz feel by Al Foster. He was playing traditional grip and it was certainly loud enough, but it was loose and it swung.
I got into something that might not even be answering your question very well, but I’ve heard a lot of college bands lately and there’s just a dearth of big band drummers, even though we’ve had this big stage band movement. So in answer to that part of your question, yes there are a lot more, but brilliant ones, no. There is not enough history in the playing. The young drummers have not spent enough time listening to Papa Jo, Sid Catlett, Dave Tough, Don Lamond, Gene Krupa, and the people who really set the pace.
I feel that, if a big band era started tomorrow and we had about 40 bands to organize, there would be panic among bandleaders. I don’t think we could dig up 40 really decent big band drummers. I don’t understand that, but I know it could be turned around very easily. More and more young students are coming to me to listen and to find out what’s going on. The first thing you have to ask them is, “Who did you listen to? What do you really know?” And the reading thing—they learn to read, but I notice that when I see the concerts, they’re still reading. I ask them, “Why are you still reading? You’ve had dozens of rehearsals.” The drummers should be sitting up there knowing that music inside out. There is no reason to be sitting there reading anything. The reading should have been done at the first rehearsal, maybe the second or third rehearsal, maybe even the fourth rehearsal. After that they shouldn’t even be looking at the music. They should know the part, and they should be just listening and finding the inside of everything. Nobody’s doing that.
I think there’s a shortage of good instruction in the school systems in the rhythm section, and that goes for bass to. The drummers have been relegated to playing with electric bass players instead of upright bass players. They never learn to use their bass drum properly because of that. They never learn to control it because they have a tendency to use rock tuning. They can’t leave their bass drums open and get a nice, big, deep ringing sound, which is very important to the sound of the band. The tendency is to play the bass drum hard, and have it stuffed with a dozen pillows. It sounds good with the rock arrangements, but for the straight 4/4— “One O’Clock Jump” or something of that ilk—it sounds terrible, because there’s no fullness to the sound. There’s no musical tone coming from the drums—the sound that complements the brass and the saxophones. And, of course, drummers are also missing that upright wooden bass that blends with the bass drum—a blend that they cannot get when their drums are tuned to rock tuning.
RM: It seems that most of the books and articles that I’ve seen directed towards big band drumming have focused on how to do little fills to set up figures. If they were going to start those 40 bands, and all 40 drummers were sitting in this room, what is the first thing you would tell them to be aware of in playing with a big band? Would you start them out by teaching them how to set up a figure?
ML: No, I’d start them out by showing them how to keep time, how to hold sections together, and how to control three different lead players who have different conceptions of where the time should be and get them to put the time where the drummer wants it. In other words, the drummer should be working along with the lead trumpet player to set a whole concept for the rest of the sections, so that they will all follow that lead trumpet, who is following the drummer. I would work on that first. They should just keep time, listen, and not worry about the fills and setups until they really know the music. If we had 40 drummers sitting here going into 40 different bands, they would all be going in to play 40 different books and stock fills won’t work. I think drummers should create their own fills based on what they are hearing, instead of the old standard fill before a dotted quarter. Everybody plays “baa, daa, daa, daa, bop.” I never play “baa, daa, daa, daa, bop.” It works, but it’s stock. It’s something that everybody writes, everybody does, it’s predetermined, and you don’t really think about it. It is used 20 times in every arrangement, because that particular figure shows up so much. But drummers can create their own fills based on the music itself—based on what will follow or what preceded.
Also, in many cases, at the point where they would put a drum fill, there is something musical going on underneath, which is a written fill for another section. So the drum fill should, perhaps, reinforce what’s already written. I would tell them to forget everything they’ve learned from books and to forget everything they’ve heard someone else do, because what that drummer did only worked at that point, at that moment, for that particular thing. Drummers are going to have to start becoming more musicians, rather than fillers. Just because there are a few beats, or a beat, or an eighth of a beat, they don’t have to play a fill there. Space is beautiful too—silence, or just a time figure.
So I’d work on the time first, and on learning to sew the unit together, so that the band can work as one. As a drummer, you have to build the band’s confidence in you, so that you can try anything and it won’t bother them. Don’t get them in a habit of waiting for a specific thing that you’re going to do so that they don’t have to count. Be unpredictable, but make them have a lot of confidence in you, so that they won’t worry about it, because they know that no matter what you play, it will be right.
RM: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of matching the colors of the drumset to the colors of the band. Could you be specific?
ML: Oh, sure. The average drummer usually uses two to four cymbals. To have any more than that is totally unnecessary, because where are you going to put them anyway, and how are you going to reach them? They shouldn’t be there just for looks. I notice that most people have crash, crash, splash, ride, and hi-hat. Very few young drummers play on their hi- hats, except in the rock situation where they generally play them closed and they play their 8th-note beat on them. They should learn that the hi- hat is another ride cymbal to be played properly—”ta, da-ka, ta, da-ka, ta,” changing rhythms and all that, open/closed, all open, half open, half closed. There are a lot of effects. To me, the hi-hat is another ride cymbal. Every cymbal I use is a ride cymbal. Every one of my cymbals is also a crash cymbal. I only use three. Three is enough.
I find that all the cymbals should be dark. If you want a high-pitched splash cymbal or crash cymbal, fine. That’s to your own taste. But darker cymbals are more complementary to horns than any other kind of cymbal. High-pitched cymbals have a tendency to obliterate high sounds. So when you hit a high crash cymbal with the brass section while they’re up in that high register, you will knock out half their sound. But if you hit a cymbal that will blend with that section—in other words, if there are four trumpets and the fourth is playing the lowest part, you should be the fifth trumpet, which is lower yet. Now of course, we can’t go that low all the time, but that’s the way I’m thinking musically. Trombones, of course, can go lower than my cymbals can, so I want to be somewhere in the middle register where I don’t obliterate the lead and I don’t destroy the bottom. With the saxophones, you want a roaring sound to envelop, because reeds don’t have the power that the brass has. That’s why I believe that during a sax soli— where you have five saxophone players standing up playing together—nothing sounds better behind them than a Chinese ride cymbal, because there’s a blend. Bass violin players love Chinese cymbals because the low sound and the Oriental type of roar make the bass sound spring forward. That’s why, when we play big ensembles, I’ll go to that cymbal, and you can hear the bass just singing through everything. When you’ve got a whole ensemble, you want a strong, enveloping, low sound with a lot of clarity as far as the beat is concerned. It’s like a picture with a beautiful metal frame around it. It gives tremendous fullness to the sound of the band.
That’s why I prefer the darker sounding cymbals and that is why I tell every drummer, “Every cymbal you have should be a ride cymbal, because you should treat the different sections with a different ride behind it.” There is nothing worse than the monotony of one cymbal going on behind everything. When the band is playing along and they keep hearing the same cymbal sound, it just disappears in their minds. But when you make a change to another ride cymbal, it wakes them up again. Even in my dark sounds there is still a higher sound, a medium sound, and a lower sound. I’ll use the high sound behind a piano. I’ll also use the lowest sound behind a piano. But I won’t use the middle sound behind the piano because it’s too much in the piano’s range. Behind the piano, a flute, or a muted trumpet, I’ll also use the hi-hats or brushes. When I’m playing behind, say, a trumpet solo followed by a tenor solo, and I know that the tenor player is a hard-blower, I’ll use the Chinese cymbal behind the tenor. Now, if it’s just going to be a trumpet solo, or if the tenor player has a lighter sound, I’ll use my normal 20″ ride cymbal. But I’ll always save my Chinese for the hardest blowing soloist. I don’t work it out; it’s just automatic—which cymbal suits which soloist. I want to have a low cymbal behind a soloist who has a harsh, high sound. With a subdued type of player who has a softer edge, I don’t want something that strong, so I go to a lighter, higher sound to complement it. When the band is roaring, for main ensemble work, I would stick with my 20″ ride or I would use my hi-hats and really lay into them, which was the norm in the old days anyway. If it’s an ensemble that keeps building, then when I hit the final loudest point, I’ll go to the Chinese. So I might play three cymbals in the course of an ensemble. If you have three choruses of ensemble— which is rare—the first chorus is not going to be that shouting. It’s going to build to that. The second one is going to be stronger so you change cymbals. Then you go to the roarer for your last one.
Another thing I’ve found is that it’s good to change cymbals on the bridge of tunes and then go back. A bridge is a musical change, so your cymbals should be a musical change also. If it’s the first chorus, I’ll play hi-hats for 16 bars, go to a light ride cymbal for the bridge, and then go back to the hi-hats to finish it out. Then I’ll go to my chosen ride cymbal for the solo. But every cymbal should be a ride cymbal and every cymbal should be a crash cymbal. I’ve been noticing that almost everyone has only one ride cymbal and a million crash cymbals. You don’t need the crash cymbals. You need the ride cymbals, because that’s where your whole thing is coming from. Crash cymbals are only for accents, so you can hit any cymbal for a crash. Also, you should start with a crash and end with a crash. I see drummers ending with a crash cymbal, but then choking it. When you hit that big chord at the end, let it ring. Hit that bass drum and hit that cymbal—”POW” instead of “pop.” That’s exciting. There should be a finality to that final blow, unless it’s a soft ending, of course. Then you don’t even need a cymbal at the end, although I like to hit one softly. But that’s always been a thing of mine: Start with a crash and end with a crash.
The more high-pitched cymbals you have, the more trouble you’re going to give the band. Also, for riding in a big band, 1 think that the pingier a cymbal is and the less overtone and spread it has, the more empty everything will be. It’s important that you have a good, full, fat-sounding cymbal. Finding cymbals like that today seems to be a problem. They are all too heavy. Definition is one thing, but those pings do not cut through. There has to be a little more sound to a cymbal than they’re creating right now. They’ve forgotten how to make ride cymbals with color. They don’t know what dark sound is. That’s why I still like the old K.’s. They’re hard to find, but it seems like they are the only cymbal that was made for music. The old A’s were too—the old ones. But today, they’re thinking in terms of loudness and durability rather than musicality. I know what I’m talking about because I hear the complaints from everybody. I see it in your magazine here. Everybody’s complaining about the cymbals—that they’re all too heavy. Even the famous rock players are complaining that they can’t find enough colors in their cymbals, but that they would really like to find some. And everybody wants to have an old K. There’s a reason for that.
I’ve been playing original K. Zildjian cymbals practically all my life. The early hand-me-downs from my father were all K.’s, because that’s what he used. Then I bought my first A., which I still have to this day. That’s the famous one with the pieces cut out. Buddy Rich says it’s probably the greatest ride cymbal of all time. I feel the same way about it. Everybody seems to know that cymbal. Of course, it’s reached a point in its life where I can only use it occasionally, so I just use it for small-group recordings now, because it’s starting to crack again, but it still has its flavor. That would have been considered a bad A. in its time and it would be considered a horrible A. today because it was low pitch and a real medium weight, but that came from my K. ears. Later on, when I came to New York, I used A.’s for a while. All my A.’s were really considered by most people as not very good. They were all low pitched, but they had definition. Bandleaders I worked for were always complaining about them—that they spread too much and so on—but that was what I liked. You either took me as I was or that was that. When I joined the Kenton band, I needed to use A.’s because they are louder and I needed the volume. So I stayed with the A.’s there for a while. One of my ride cymbals was that famous one, with two rivets in it, which is my trademark. To this day, I’ve been using two rivets in my ride cymbal. Of course, as soon as I left the Kenton band I switched to K.’s completely. That was the end of ’56. With my small-group playing, actually, I was using K.’s all along, but I became a permanent K. player from ’56 on.
Now, they’ve become collector’s items. I have a fine collection, although some of my best ones have been stolen. Things like that happen, but I still have some great K.’s. I thought, “Well, I hope these are going to last me for the rest of my life.” I’m very happy to find out now that this new Istanbul Cymbal Company are the makers of the old cymbal. I found them up at Barry Greenspon’s Drummers World. I tried some of them and said, “My God, they’re back. These are the cymbals.” I’m now using them and endorsing them. So I think my problems are over for the rest of my life. I now have access to what I’ve always lived with.
RM: A lot of people assume that big band means big drums. Your drums aren’t all that big.
ML: No, big band does not mean big drums, and big band does not mean loud drums. Big band means full-sounding drums. That’s achieved just by smart tuning and having a good drum. I played Gretsch for 35 years and I tried a lot of the other brands. When I was a kid, I started out with an old set of Leedy. They had a wonderful sound. The shells were thin, and in those days, Leedy used the reinforcing ring. When I went to Gretsch, Phil Grant proved to me what a beautiful musical instrument a Gretsch drum was.
Of course, I came up in the old school and heard all these marvelous drummers like Jo Jones and Krupa, and everybody had a big sound. They also had big drums, and so did I. I used to have a 26″ bass drum with Boyd Raeburn and Alvino Rey. From ’49 on I went to the 22″, which I used through 1957. It had calf heads on both sides. In the Kenton band, I used a timpani head on the batter side, and as little muffling as possible. I found that you should use the biggest hard felt beater that you can on your bass drum. In those days, they made large beaters. I guess that came out of the old lambswool tradition where the beaters were large, and you couldn’t wait until you wore that thing down to where you had a piece of leather with enough fur around the outside to act as a muffler. You got a beautiful sound with a beater like that. Then hard felt beaters became more popular, but they also were making them large. You want that beater to hit as much in the direct center of the drum as possible to get the clean sound for big band playing. Of course, with a 26″ bass drum, there’s no way you’re going to hit in the center of the drum. But still everybody got great sounds out of their drums. That sound was embedded in my head, my ears, my mind, and my body. As I went from the 26″ to the 22″, I didn’t even notice the difference, because all I did was use the 22″ more open. I put a little less muffling in it, tuned the drum, kept those heads on the looser side and everything was fine. When I got off the road and started lugging my drums around, and as cars were getting smaller, I thought I’d go to the 20″. Well, it worked, and to this day I use a 20″ bass drum in big bands. A 20″ with proper tuning has all you need for big band.
I’m now playing Pearl drums—the Nashville Pearl, as I call them. These shells are 8-ply and are only a quarter of an inch thick. That’s great. I’ve heard everything else and I’ve played on all these drums that are concentrating on thickness. I think they’ve all forgotten how to make drum- shells. But Al Duffy over at Pearl, who was a drum maker himself, knew what it really had to be. You need a thin shell and you need good hardware, but not hardware that stifles the drum. The Pearl setup is perfect. I used Pearl hardware with Gretsch drums for years. As far as I’m concerned, playing Pearl now is like playing the old Gretsch. I get exactly the same sound as I had before. I’ve gone back to using a calfskin timpani head on the batter side and calf on the front. If you really want to get that sound, you have to use calf, especially on the bass drum. On tom-toms it doesn’t matter so much. I’m using calf on the tops of all my drums. I use an 8×12, a 9x 13, and a 16x 16 with the big band and I use a 6 1/2″ snare drum—all maple shells. With a metal snare drum there is a metallic sound, and you have enough metal in the band as it is. All the horns are made out of metal. You need some wood in there, so you have your acoustic bass and wooden drums. A wooden snare drum sounds much better. It’s a deeper, gutsier sound. I really prefer a 6 1/2″ snare drum in a big band. That’s what we played in the old days, and I missed it for a long time while I went to the 5 1/2″. I had it tuned down. Now I can actually play a medium-tight snare drum, and with that extra inch there, I get that depth that I used to get, without having to have the drum slack.
RM: You have a deeper bass drum now too.
ML:I got this 16 x 20 and it sounds like a 26 out front. It’s the same as having a 22, and if tuned right, it should sound like a 26 or 24. So I’ll have to give some credit to the drums, and I’ll have to give some credit to my own ears and my own touch in getting the sound.
Your drums should ring; every drum should be wide open. I don’t put any muffling in the bass or the tom-toms. It’s the same with the snare drum. With the bass drum, I only use a piece of paper napkin with a couple of pieces of tape to the right side of my foot pedal, and that drum has nothing inside at all. I just control it with my foot with the largest possible felt beater I can get. I have a lot of those old Ghost beaters. They’re nice and big and round, and I get a big, fat sound. Of course, being a 20″ it hits right in the center, so I’ve got everything I want. The combination is perfect.
RM: You describe your approach to big band as a small-group approach. Would you elaborate on that?
ML: Yeah, well I started off when I was very young. My first drumming was all trio—mostly piano, drums and a horn—no bass or anything like that. So I actually started out as a small-group drummer. Then, as I was listening to all these big band artists, it seemed that my favorite drummers had all come out of small groups—Dave Tough, Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett—and were adept at both. At the time I loved big band drumming, but yet it seemed to me that it was awfully ponderous. I never had a heavy foot. Maybe it was because we were playing big bass drums with no muffling. We had to really learn to control our bass drums. Also, I started playing jazz basically in the ’40s, and what was coming up at this point was bebop. I was a fan of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and so on. I was playing bebop at weddings and bar mitzvahs with society orchestras. And the leaders liked it. Of course, I had to use taste and discretion, but it worked. In Buffalo, my hometown, we were playing a lot of the standard big band arrangements—the Count Basie series, the Kenton things, and so on. I was so wrapped up in small-group bebop playing that, when I got with a big band, almost unknowingly I was throwing in a lot of offbeat stuff, and people were commenting on the motion it made. Also, I was never a loud drummer and 1 started using the ride cymbal at a point when most big band drummers were still hi-hatting it away. I was giving it the small-group approach, but I wasn’t aware of what I was doing at the time.
Then I went to New York with a band by the name of Lenny Lewis. The Lenny Lewis band was a Basie-type band, but it was modern. The reason it was modern was because we were playing bebop. By that time, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was going, with drummers like Kenny Clarke, Teddy Stewart, and Joe Harris. These were bebop drummers who were playing small group and big band. They were drop- ping bombs all over the place, but they were still basically playing big band drums. There were a lot more offbeats going on—not as much as I was doing, but a lot. So it was being accepted in a little way. Most of the bands were still straight ahead, heavy 4/4, backbeats, hi-hats and just pretty much clumping away, with the idea being to swing. There wasn’t too much in the way of fills; you had to wait for your drum solo, which you did every night. Keeping time was the most important thing because they were dance bands. When I went with Ray Anthony’s band, he started jumping all over me because I was playing loose, modern, small-group style drumming. He liked it, but he didn’t want me to do it. “Play time. I want 4/4. 1 don’t want anything else.” So, naturally, he and I didn’t see eye to eye. I stayed there a long time and we are very good friends today. We can look back now and laugh at that, but back then he insisted that I play heavy time. When I listen to those old records that I made with him, they sound pretty darn good. Every once in a while, I stuck something in, even though I got a glare.
When I went with the Tex Beneke/Glenn Miller orchestra, we had a rhythm section that contained myself and Buddy Clark, who was a good modern bassist. By this time, there were a lot of bebop players in the band. Tex had a very open mind and his bit was, “If you want to play bebop in the band, I like it, but use discretion and do it where it will work.” So when we played these more modern arrangements, I was allowed to play bebop drums. Then, when I joined the Kenton band, I had my chance. I was kicking all over the place and playing exactly the same way that I played with a small group. We came to New York and played our first concert at Carnegie Hall. It was the first time the band was going to be reviewed by the New York critics for downbeat and Metronome and all the magazines then. One of the first reviews that came out said that “not only is the Kenton band swinging, but the new young drummer, Mel Lewis, brings a whole new small-group approach to the feeling of the band.” That was the first time I became aware myself that I had actually created a new thing, although I think Tiny Kahn was doing that type of thing back in the ’40s too. There were a certain amount of modern drummers who could play with a big band that were doing that. But I think I went beyond what they were doing, because I used more left hand, and I started playing lighter. I think that’s the key to the whole idea of a small-group approach. It gives the band more momentum and makes them play in a more flowing way. They get away from that heavy four feeling that most big bands have. Anyway, it worked for the Kenton band. I got a lot of the credit for lightening the band up. If you play just about the way you would play loudly in a small group, and the band is aware of what you are doing, they’ll come down in their volume and the whole thing will swing more. The whole range of dynamics drops down; the softs are really soft, the mediums are really medium, the louds are loud and the real louds are not too loud. Normally it’s either loud or louder, and no band is going to swing when it’s real loud. It just gets ponderous. But this small-group approach keeps it flowing along, and it’s so much easier to work with dynamics that way.
RM: The typical words people use to describe big band drumming are real aggressive words like drive, kick, push.
ML: Yeah, but the real word is not drive or kick; it’s intensity, and intensity can be real soft. The whole thing is motion. I believe in always having some kind of motion, unless you’re playing a real slow ballad with brushes. Then there’s nothing more difficult to do than to space those quarter notes. Elvin Jones is a master at that. You really have to have that nice, wide triplet in your head. If you have a good, even triplet going in your body, you can play a slow four with a mile of space in between each beat. That sounds beautiful, but it’s difficult to do. Most drummers have a tendency to go to double time as soon as it gets too slow. Well, man, that’s cheating. If you can really stretch it so that it lays right where it’s supposed to be, it is a marvelous sound and it swings. No matter how slow it is, it swings. The sound of space with just that swish of the brush before the next beat hits, with the hi-hat hitting right on the bottom of 2 and right on the bottom of 4—that will swing. When it’s right, the swing is there.
RM: You still do more small-group playing than I think a lot of people realize. You just talked about what you got from small groups and took to big bands. How does that work in reverse? What do you think the big band playing has given you that you’ve taken back to the small groups?
ML: Ensemble playing, because in a big band you really have to use your ears a lot. In a small group, the tendency is just to play. A lot of drummers in small groups don’t listen to what’s going on around them. I can almost anticipate where a soloist is going to go. It also helps the ensemble playing with the piano and the bass. If you want to play some riffs or get some ensemble backgrounds going, the big band experience pays off for that. Also, the shading and dynamics in a small group are just as important as in a big band. Learning to play the hi-hat on the first chorus, playing the bridge on a ride cymbal and then going back to the hi-hat—that’s ensemble playing, and I think that comes out of my big band experience.
Of course they say that you’re freer in a small group. Well, I’m just as free in a big band behind a soloist. It’s the same thing. A big band is only a big band while the whole band is playing. When a soloist stands up to blow, that’s a quartet now. So you’re using both anyway. The approach of send-offs, riffs and little things behind the soloist comes from big band. That makes the small-group sound a little more dynamic. You use a little more energy that way and I still believe in the dynamic thing—the principle of when the soloist starts, you don’t come on like gangbusters. You start easy and build it up. That’s where your big band experience comes in.
RM: In the last year or two, you’ve played in a variety of situations. What are the different requirements of playing all these things? What’s the same? How do we know it’s always you?
ML: The last two or three years have been very interesting for me. Since I took over the sole leadership of the band after Thad left, the style of the band started to change—not actually change, but musically we started expanding. I had to start becoming more of a percussionist again. As this all happened, I also had to make a living so I had to take other jobs too. People should understand that with a big band such as I have, which is an artistic type of orchestra, we can’t be working every day. Although we do play dances, and we do play concerts, and we do play at the Village Vanguard and other clubs, those kinds of jobs are just not out there daily, and we’re not a road band per se, although we make tours around the world. So I have to make my living in other ways. I did a tour of Europe with Benny Goodman, and some concerts here in the States. As usual, working for a guy like him is very demanding. He’s very tough on drummers. He doesn’t tell you how to play, but he bothers you. You have to know how to ignore him, which I’m very good at, because, first of all, I’m not afraid of him, and second of all, I don’t need him. He needed me. That’s my attitude. When you call me, you need me. That’s why you called me.
Now, when you go in a band like that, you have to realize it’s Benny Goodman, it’s 1930s, and you’ve got to get back into that groove. So I have to put on my 1935 or 1936 head and find that groove, which means a little heavier on the 4/4, a lot simpler playing, time is of the essence, and I use a lot more hi-hat. So I take a small snare drum, and I use my 13″ hi-hats, which are much easier to get that old sound on, smaller cymbals all the way around, and only one tom-tom for the “Sing, Sing, Sing” thing, because for the rest of it it’s not even necessary. Backbeats are important, and straight ahead 4/4 style brushes—not too much of anything else. You get into that tradition.
I’ve also been doing a lot of trio work with different people, and I’ve been doing some extremely modern avant-garde things with Bob Brookmeyer—small group and chamber-size groups and a symphony, where I had to be a total percussionist. Playing with a symphony is like playing with Cecil Taylor. It’s that kind of a situation. Incidentally, the band is going to be doing something very shortly with Cecil Taylor, and I will be doing a duet with him, as he did with Max Roach not too long ago. I want to do things like that because it’s a challenge, it’s fun, and it’s musically important.
RM: I heard the record that Cecil and Max did, and my only complaint was that it was basically Max meeting Cecil on Cecil’s territory. I’d like to hear Cecil do some of Max’s stuff. What’s your situation going to be?
ML: Well, with us I think it will be more like that, because Cecil comes to hear the band a lot. He knows my playing and we’ve already discussed that there will be a meeting of both of us. Besides, I’m that way anyway. I’ll go his way when I feel that he’s carrying the ball, but then I’ll take the ball myself, because I’m so used to doing that. So I think that’s going to work out. We spend many a Monday night after hours at the Vanguard talking about music, and I don’t think we’ll have any problems.
Another thing I’m doing is working with a guy named Lome Schoenberg who has a band. He uses the old arrangements from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Then I put on my Gene Krupa and Jo Jones hat. We play a lot of Buck Clayton’s arrangements from the early Basie days and early Benny Goodman. That music will only sound good if you play it the way it was originally done. You cannot play today’s style with that music. That’s why I encourage young drummers to listen to those things and get into the history. Those records are all available. Listen to it because when you’re called upon to do it, you should be able to. You don’t have to have been born then. Just absorb it and listen to what it is. I think you’ll have fun trying to do it, because when you do it right, that music comes off great.
In the last few years, the biggest thing I’ve been doing is going over to Europe and appearing with different radio bands. They’re hiring me to be a “featured sideman,” shall we say, but I’m listed as the guest of honor and I’m paid as a guest of honor. I have to try to play with these different style musicians. Every band has a different direction and all their leaders have different ideas. Of course, when I get there they say, “Alright, you’ve got it. You tell us what to do.” Usually what I try to do is say, “Well, let’s do what you want to do, and try to make that better.” So I try to be Mel Lewis in those situations—be myself, but at the same time, don’t go too far beyond where they are. I go to Cologne a lot—twice a year with Bill Holman and twice a year with Bob Brookmeyer. With Brookmeyer, we’re into that more modern thing, and with Holman, it’s more swinging and straight ahead. I can be myself in both cases, but in each case I’ve got to work hard to mold these musicians to make them sound like, say, Bill Holman’s band. Then if I go up to Helsinki, that’s another kind of band. The Fins have a different feeling than the Swedes, and the Swedes feel different than the Germans. It has a lot to do with their environment and their education in music. Some of them are a little stiffer than others. So I have to either make myself fit or make them fit me. In other words, one of us is the sock and the other is the shoe. We try to make it work together on a neutral foot. This is not easy, because in many cases, they know their music and I’m sight-reading, but I do it pretty quickly. I’ll have 20 minutes or half an hour to learn three or four pieces to do a program with, and I have to learn that right away. But it always works. And these are different size big bands. Some are 16 piece, some are 20, some are 25, and so on. Then while I’m over there, I do some quartet or quintet things.
Then I come back home and I’ll still play some club dates. I’ll play wedding jobs with players I like to play with, where we basically can swing. But even though we’re swinging, there are people dancing. Again, you have to think in terms of them. You can’t play bebop while people are trying to dance. I’m playing a wedding this Sunday, using four guys from the band. We’re going to be playing jazz but we’ll be play- ing for dancers. So I’ll keep all the tempos danceable, and I won’t get too funny with the offbeats, and we’ll play swinging dance music for them, because that’s what they want and that’s what we’re going to do. But it’s still important if somebody does come up and ask for a samba or merengue or a tango or a waltz that we can do it in the club-date tradition.
RM: Or “Hava Nagila” or “The Hokey Pokey.”
ML: Yeah. That’s going to come up and we’re going to do it. I know how to do all those things. I learned them in my youth. I’ve been a jazz player all my life, but all the time I was a jazz player, I made a living working in studio orchestras and playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. I played all kinds of weddings—Polish, Greek, Italian—where I had to learn all the different ethnic musics, and I think most jazz musicians did. Every drop of it is good experience. It really makes you a better drummer all the way around and it certainly does not hurt your jazz. The only thing that can hurt your jazz is staying away from it, not listening to it, and not really getting into it. You have to look back into the history of the music, and find out what preceded the stars of today. Today’s drummers are not the people who set this thing up. They are not the people who created it, and you’re never really going to learn from them what you have to know. You have to go back to the masters.
RM: For someone who’s used to listening to modern records, when you go out and buy records by people like Chick Webb and Baby Dodds, a lot of times it’s not real obvious just what it was that they had. You’re not going to hear pyrotechnics and you’re not going to hear very good drum sounds. Sometimes you’re lucky if you can even hear the drums at all. Can you give any hints to somebody who goes out and buys some of these records? What should they be listening for?
ML: What you really should be listening for is the time feeling that they got, the way they supported the band, and the dynamics that they used. Everybody played dynamics in those days, mainly because those were all direct-to-disc recordings. It was monaural recording right onto the track, so all dynamics were created by the musicians themselves. And in those days, the drums weren’t muffled, so you really had to have control. So listen for the control that the drummers had—the way they used their hi-hats, the way they played press rolls on snare drums, the evenness of the time, the little things they played in between. Also, when you listen to them, you should realize that these drummers were creating this. There really wasn’t anybody who came before them that they could listen to. So you’re listening to the creators of the tradition. Listen to Jo Jones in the ’30s, or Chick Webb. Then listen to Gene Krupa, and you’ll say, “Ah, Krupa sounds a little bit like Chick Webb.” Right. You’ll notice that Chick Webb sounds a little like Baby Dodds. Correct. You’ll also notice that early
Buddy Rich sounds a little bit like all of them. Keep moving up, and you’ll find that we all still sound like them, to a point. That’s where we learned. That’s the whole idea of tradition—where certain elements are retained all the way up to today. We’re still playing, “ding, ding-a-ding.” We’re still keeping time—boom, boom, boom—and we still play backbeats. This is what you listen for. Then, when you listen to all the little frills and all the modern drumming that you hear today, you’ll say, “Yeah, I see where that came from.”
I don’t think any of us could do today what we’re doing without that tradition. In most of the young modern drummers coming up now there’s a lot lacking, because they haven’t studied their history. They started with today’s top. You cannot do that, because you won’t understand it. If you really want to be good, do some research. You’ll find that starting with Jo Jones will make you a much better drummer than starting with Elvin Jones, because Elvin is so much more complex. Elvin started with Jo Jones, so that’s how you should do it. You’re not going to be as good as Elvin at all, unless you understand where Elvin came from. He knows where he came from. But if you’re starting with him, you’ve lost 20 years or more of tradition and history, and you’re not going to make it. That’s why I talk about tradition a lot.
RM: When you’re drawing from a lot of different people—the old masters—how do you develop your own identity, as opposed to just imitating what’s come before you?
ML: When you hear somebody that you really like a lot and who really becomes a strong influence on you, there’s a danger there of course, because if you’re into any one drummer too much, you will start copying. All you’re going to be is a poor imitation. So I generally say, don’t ever get hung up on one person. Always keep your mind open and listen to a lot of people. There will always be two, three or four people who will be the heaviest influences on your life. That’s the way it was with me. However, one of the best ways to discover yourself is to listen to yourself. Today it’s very simple being that we all have access to cassettes and you can record yourself anytime. So instead of sitting home and listening all day to your favorite drummer, spend more time listening to cassettes of yourself. In the beginning, you’ll hear things you don’t like. Great. Eliminate those things or make them better. You will hear things you do like. Keep those and improve upon them. After a while, by listening to yourself and believing in your- self, you will start to influence yourself.
It’s the same thing as listening to somebody else too much. You will be influenced by that person. So listen to yourself and you will eventually influence yourself. You will hear your sound or you will hear yourself changing, and before you know it, you will have developed a style of your own. The whole idea is to find yourself, get your own sound, your own feeling, your own ideas, and your own little cliches. Even if some of them are things you’ve heard other people do, by listening to yourself you’ll turn so-and-so’s idea into your idea. Don’t play it the way someone else played it. Add something to it. Change it a little bit. Find your own thing. By listening to yourself a lot, you do become an influence on yourself. Then, of course, once you’ve found yourself, you can start listening to your favorites again, because by this time, you will be so confident in your own thing that they won’t be able to influence you anymore.
RM: Let’s talk a little about the evolution of your band. The Make Me Smile album was a very orchestral, concert, almost classical-type approach. You’ve told me that your next album is going to be all standards. Does that represent a change in directions or is that just a different side of the same group?
ML: No, it’s not going to be a change in direction at all. It’s going to be basically a continuation of what I wanted this band to be in the first place. I’ve always wanted the band to be a band of many faces, but with one concept. In other words, when you hear this band, you know it’s this band. It has a sound and a feel of its own. But I want the band to be able to play in the traditional way; I want it to be able to play hot bebop arrangements, like for the jazz-club circuit; I want it to be able to go into a Carnegie Hall type of place and play orchestral jazz music; and I want it to be able to go into a dance hall and play dance music with the same quality—that same orchestral feeling, except with the power of a dance beat and with the fire and creativity of playing the bebop stuff in a club. So in other words, it’s all jazz and it’s this band’s personality along with my own personality going in all the directions that I can take my particular style. My style is very recognizable, but it’s flexible. When I play Dixieland, you still know it’s me playing Dixieland. When I’m playing orchestral music, you’ll know that it’s Mel. You’ll know it’s Mel playing dance music and you’ll know it’s Mel playing bebop. You’ll also know it’s Mel Lewis’ Jazz Orchestra playing that music—not just me. If Joey Baron is subbing for me—which he does once in a while when I have to go to Europe—you’ll still recognize that band. The quality, the sound, and the feeling will work in any capacity.
In the 19-year history of the band, we’ve mostly done original material. I think that’s been a little mistake on our part. I want to reach that audience who looks for tunes they recognize. I want to be able to have them hear things that they know, without sacrificing one inch of quality and the sound of this band. It will be that sound with a more solid beat—a less fooling around type of thing. I’ll go for swinging more with as much intensity as possible, because that’s what makes people dance—makes them want to snap their fingers to a tune they know—and yet the sound reaching their ears is just as rich, full and pleasant sounding as Make Me Smile is to sit down and listen to, or to hear the band play in a concert. I know it can be done and that’s why I want to do that. That will establish us with a new audience, also. Besides, I think if people had the chance to dance to big bands, they would find out it’s a great experience. The people can participate in what the band is doing. I think it would be a very healthy thing, and for the musicians on the bandstand, it’s a wonderful feeling watching people dance to your music. It’s inspiring, especially when they dance in time. If they do dance in time, it’s basically because you’re laying down something very strong for them.
RM: A lot of jazz musicians, though, seem to have an attitude about playing for a dance.
ML: Well, it’s a bad attitude. Playing for dancing is satisfying. To do that, you have to swing, and swinging is what jazz is about. I also like the challenge of playing a Bob Brookmeyer composition to an audience in a concert hall. You’re reaching a very selective, critical audience. People who really know music are sitting out in that audience and you’re putting on a performance of the highest order. Playing to a dance crowd is another mentality. You’re trying to satisfy people who like to dance. But at the same time, at least half of them are also listeners. They love jazz and they love big bands. You have to satisfy their ears while you’re satisfying their feet— their bodies that won’t sit still in a concert hall. They’re just not into that heavy thing.
Jazz has a small enough audience as it is, but by playing jazz for dancing you can reach a bigger audience if you work it right. That’s where the standard tunes come in. When they hear a familiar tune, that’s all they care about. They don’t care about how it’s surrounded harmonically. They just want to hear a tune they know and feel a beat they can dance to. That gets them on the floor. The other people—who would also come to hear you in a concert hall, and who also have feet that want to move—hear that tune, and also hear the colors in the music. So now they’re hearing the kind of jazz they like to listen to, and they can also move their feet. They don’t have to sit in a chair in a smoky nightclub to hear it. Then you have that other audience, of course, that likes to sit in a smoky nightclub and just sit on top of the band and hear great jazz soloists. They don’t care what the melody is because they just want to hear jazz improvisation. So you can lay all the original stuff on them and they’ll love it.
RM: Technically, how do you combine a dance approach with your bebop approach?
ML: I think more in terms of the time. I’ll get a touch heavier on the 4/4 with my foot. In my case, that’s not a lot because I have such a light touch. So when I add a little more to it, it’s still not going to take over, but it’s going to be a firmer beat. I still throw in an occasional offbeat, but if your bass drum is playing offbeats all the time, it’s going to confuse the dancers, and actually you’re not going to get that feel you’re striving for. I like playing backbeats too, and the shuffle rhythm. It’s fun playing time. I just make up my mind that I’m not going to sit up here to show off how great I can play, but how danceable I can play. It’s just as enjoyable as the other thing, because the swing is still the most important thing.
RM: When I was learning to play, I didn’t live in a place like New York where I could actually hear the drummers live, so everything was coming off records. The way the albums were recorded, the only bass drum I heard was the accents. I didn’t realize how much straight 4/4 was actually being played on the bass drum.
ML: That’s right. When I started recording in ’49, they only used one mic’ on the drums, and that was up above. All those drummers were playing in four, but because they were playing a light four and then hitting accents, the light four was not being picked up. Even to this day, if you don’t mike the bass drum, the light four won’t be picked up.
The great way to mike drums is with ambience-style miking, where there are a couple of mic’s around the drums. This business of putting a mic’ on every drum makes no sense at all. In fact, I get a little depressed. If all these drummers today who are doing all this recording would really sit down and think about it, they should be depressed too, actually, because they rave about their engineers. “Oh, I leave everything up to my engineer.” In the meantime, you don’t know anything. What if it was left up to you? You wouldn’t know what to do. When I go into a studio and they lay all these microphones on me, I say, “Hey, get that stuff away. I don’t want it.” They say, “Well, let’s try it.” I say, “I don’t want them there, man. Get them away. Just put two mic’s over the drums. I don’t want one on the bass drum. When I want it to be heard, it will be heard.” It sounds just like I want it to, because it’s me—not the engineer. Rock drumming, I think, would sound a hell of a lot better if the drums were open.
RM: Did you happen to read the John Bonham article?
ML: Yeah, I read it.
RM: There’s a guy whose sound all the rock drummers are trying to imitate and it came out that he did exactly what you’re talking about.
ML: Right, because he was smart. If drummers only realized that they should be running the show—not the engineer—you could listen and really recognize the different drummers, because they would be getting their own sound. We all got our own sound. It wasn’t just the style; it was the sound. But with rock drumming, everybody sounds alike, because the engineers are making every drummer get that same sound, no matter who it is. So if a drummer does have a little bit of style, it’s hard to pick up because it comes out sounding like some other drummer who was in the studio an hour ago. An engineer will do six sessions in one day, with six different drummers, and they’ll all end up sounding the same because that’s the only sound that engineer knows. Man, a great engineer should be able to reproduce what you want—get six different sounds for six different drummers. I don’t even want to know an engineer who can’t do that. If you can’t get my sound, then you’re not a great engineer.
RM: Speaking of sounds, the album you did on Telarc, Naturally—now there’s a sound!
ML: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. That’s the way to record. Actually, although Make Me Smile was not as strong because it wasn’t done digitally, it was still the same principle. Make Me Smile was done with two mic’s hanging from the center of the Village Vanguard. With the Telarc record, they only used three microphones in front of the band. No mic’s were on anybody and my drums sound absolutely marvelous. Some of the members of the band were not thrilled. They didn’t think that their parts came through and so on, but that was their fault for not moving in a little bit, not playing a little stronger, or not blending in a little bit more. In other words, it was our own inexperience with digital recording. But that’s the way to record—absolutely natural. I’m glad they even titled it Naturally, because it really was, and I’d like to record that way again. That gave me the idea to record the next couple of albums in a similar way. We did and it works fine. On Make Me Smile, I’m 30 feet from those microphones, but you can still hear my brush work. On the digital record the brush work is even more beautiful.
So I don’t understand this situation with layering and booths and all this other crap that the engineers have come up with. The drummers are going to have to wake up and say, “I am the drummer. This is my career you’re messing with.”
A lot of drummers will say, when I tell them about how they should control their own sound in the studio, “Yeah, well you’re Mel Lewis. You can get away with all that.” But I was telling engineers what I wanted when I was a total nobody—when I was a young kid. My first date was Ray Anthony’s band. I walked in and I found the drums to be about 30 feet away from the band. I couldn’t believe it. The engineer said, “Well, you drummers play so loud.” So when we started playing, I played real soft. The band couldn’t hear me and they kept yelling, “We can’t hear the drums.” I kept playing as soft as possible, and they kept moving me closer, until before you knew it I was right in the band. Then I played normal—not too loud. Right then and there, I developed a technique of not playing too loud, and it came through fine on the record. The engineer said, “Hey, it’s alright.” I found that, when 1 was a studio player out in L. A. and then later on in New York back in the late ’50s and all through the ’60s, all the engineers loved when I showed up. They all told me the same thing: “Man, it’s a pleasure to record you.” I never had to say any- thing to them. They would open up the pot, I would play at a reasonable level— never get too loud—and everything I did would come through beautifully.
Then, times changed. Younger engineers were coming up and I played some rock in the early days too. Most people don’t know that I was the drummer on “Alley Oop.” When we got into that kind of thing, the engineers started this routine of stuffing the drums. In New York, every studio seemed to have a wonderful bass drum. All of a sudden, the front heads were gone, all these blankets were going in there, and they were shoving mic’s into the drums. New engineers were coming on and tight miking was starting. I started telling them, “Hey, get that away from me, man. I don’t want it.” They’d say, “Well, that’s what we want.” But I’d tell them, “You’re going to get my sound the way I want it, or you’re no engineer and I’m leaving.” Now if enough drummers would just take that attitude—quit worrying about the money and start thinking about their futures— they would find that they could get more respect in the long run, and we would start hearing records where we could really say, “I know that drummer” without reading the label to find out who it is.
Now they have these machines, and I warned everybody about that at one time. If you could see some of the contracts up at the union right now, you would find out that half the jingles and half the record dates coming out are being done by one person with a synthesizer and a LinnDrum machine. As far as I’m concerned, the LinnDrum company should be blown up. I think it’s a terrible mistake that rock drummers have been made to use these machines or have been talked into it, because they’re being wiped out slowly. Some people will say that I’m nuts or that I’m full of crap, but they’ll see.
You can’t wipe me out. A machine cannot do what I do. You can replay what I played on a record over and over again, but you don’t know what I was going to do on the next take. I can do five takes of one tune, and each one will be different.
RM: When we were talking about all the different situations you play in, you made the comment that you never go too far out. You’re always Mel Lewis. Who is Mel Lewis as you see him?
ML: Well, Mel Lewis, I guess, is a guy who has never known anything in his life except drums and music. I admit I am very opinionated and I really can’t stand people who are mediocre. I can’t even be friends with them. So that might be one of the harshest parts of me, but basically I’m a lover of humanity, and above all, music. 1 love music and I can’t see myself doing any- thing else in this life except playing music. Now, I won’t say there’s no music that 1 don’t like, because my taste in music is pretty well known. I really do not like today’s commercial pop music. To me, it’s not artistic enough. It’s meaningless. It’s to make money with. I think it’s a waste of good talents. There are too many talents going down the drain, and I refuse to be a part of it. I won’t say I didn’t do a few little things in my life where I showed up on a date and was sorry I was there, but I was hired and so I did my job. However, I swore that I would never do it again, and I didn’t. I think Mel Lewis is a person who has made up his mind pretty much that there is going to be great music in this world for as long as there is life, and in his time, he is going to do everything that he can to perpetuate it, even at the cost of the good life.
In having a band of the kind that I have, probably the most important thing to me is that I can actually utilize everything that I have ever learned—any kind of music, from society music, to Dixieland, to show music, to burlesque music, to classical music, to all different ethnic musics. I can use those things any way I want to at any time in this orchestra of mine. I’m probably freer than any other drummer in the world, because we’re a small group, we’re a big band, and we’ve played all kinds of music for everybody and can fit into any kind of situation. Also, my solo opportunities are endless. I don’t have to cater to the masses. I can go in any direction I want and I usually do. I don’t think many other musicians have that freedom, because they haven’t created that for themselves. Even the drummer/bandleaders have bands that are built around what they do best. Mine isn’t built around what I do best. Mine is built around what we want to do at any given time. So it’s a totally flexible thing. If I never played with another band for the rest of my life, I would never get tired of this. I still like to play with other people, but this is the main thing in my life. I think I’m in a very, very unique position at this point in my life, and it doesn’t ever have to change. That’s a point that nobody ever asked me before: “Are you satisfied with your life?” Yes, I am. Of course, there’s always more to learn, but I am basically very, very happy.