Monday, November 28, 2016

Chris Smith on Mel Lewis: "The View From the Back of the Band"

Today's post features an interview with Chris Smith, the author of the book "The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis" (UNT Press).

I can say with authority that I've read a lot of books about Jazz drummers and Jazz drumming over the years and that this book, in particular, is one of the best. Smith really did his research, spoke to right people and asked all the right questions. This book is a very informative and well written testament to the life, style and contributions of one of Jazz drumming's greatest proponents. Furthermore, Smith is a very accomplished drummer himself, so his writing offers a great balance between biographical material and Jazz drumming-specific technical details. I really learned a lot about Mel Lewis from reading this (and expect to re-read this a few times in the future as well...)

Chris was kind (and patient enough!) to answer a few questions about this important book. He also sent me some rare photos, videos and a couple of great transcriptions, all of which I'll attempt to post later this week.

Now go over and purchase a copy of Smith's book for yourself:

Here's what Chris has to say about this very important piece of literature, written about one of Jazz drumming's most important figures:
1) Why did you choose Mel Lewis as the subject for your book/research?

This book began as a dissertation while a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado. Honestly I never imagined writing a full academic dissertation. So in 2010, completely freaked out, I wrote the following questions as I searched for a topic:

A) Most importantly, what topic will positively impact my drumming?

B) What topic/musician deserves wider recognition?

C) What topic will cultivate relationships with my musical heroes?

Years prior I played a jury at Manhattan School of Music and Dick Oatts’ commented that I should explore the legato side of drumming. For the longest time I didn’t know what that meant or how it translated to the drums. So as I began studying with Jim White at Northern Colorado and continued learning from my teacher John Riley, Mel Lewis’ name kept coming up again and again. Mel’s cymbal beat, legato sound, and Rub-A-Dub sticking became a fixation. Sitting down and closely listening to Mel clarified Oatts’ legato comment, I could finally hear it! All this to say that after years of checking out Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Art Blakey, my drumming was in need of Mel and he quickly became the focus of my research.

There had been no academic research done on Mel so that made the decision easy. Also my existing friendships with Dick Oatts, John Riley, and Jeff Hamilton allowed me to get in touch with pretty much anyone needed for the project.

As for the dissertation becoming a book – after graduating with my doctorate I edited, added to, and changed the manuscript into the book I had dreamt. The dissertation doesn’t have many of the more colorful Mel quotes, contains no transcriptions, and is a shell of the book. The process from finished dissertation to book publication took an additional 2 years, so all in all I worked on this project for about 4 years.

2) What did you learn from all of this (and interesting facts you were surprised to learn after the fact?)

Interesting Facts:

- Mel was hired by Duke Ellington.

- Mel was hired by Count Basie twice.

- Mel never graduated high school because he went on the road his senior year.

- Mel’s last name is Sokoloff, not Lewis.

- Mel recorded over 600 albums.

- Mel said anything that was on his mind, he was almost honest to a fault.

- Mel was on hundreds of radio and TV jingles, everything from underwear to ketchup ads.

It was interesting to learn how cultural events and technology helped shape Mel’s career. Two examples being how he missed his chance to join Ellington because of the JFK assassination, and how his lively hood (like most jazz drummers) changed with the evolution of Rock and Roll and the use of electronics in recording studios.

Lastly, one of the most important takeaways from this project was the reaffirming that if you immerse yourself in something it becomes a part of you. Was it luck or a freak accident that a Jewish redhead from Buffalo was one of the most swinging drummers ever? NO! Mel Lewis lived and breathed swing. He spent his entire life listening to and playing swinging jazz music. As a result, swing was a part of his DNA and came out naturally. His “musical diet” consisted of straight ahead jazz and if more drummer’s these days had Mel’s “diet” there would be more swinging drummers, period. I know the same can be said about the “diets” of Sam Woodyard, Billy Higgins, Art Taylor…. the list goes on and on. What goes in, comes out. Mel was a prime example.

4) How has Mel's drumming influenced your own playing?

I try to never “set-up” big band figures by playing the same stock ideas. Using Mel’s example, I listen to the ensemble, keep the subdivision steady, and try to organically play what the music requires. That is a totally different concept than playing some rehearsed “fill”. Other ways Mel has influenced me include:

- Finding simple ways to change textures behind each soloist

- Using sweeping lateral motions while playing with brushes (check Jeff Hamilton for modern example)

- Tuning my bass drum lower and continuing to work on feathering at various tempos

- Playing my hi-hats slightly open as a ride cymbal option

- Relaxing my feet and playing my hi-hat with my heel down

- Using buzz stokes on the snare and toms to create legato notes

5) Why should a drummer check out and study Mel Lewis?

Mel was a magician at the drums, so subtle and tasteful. Everything Mel played seemed like the perfect thing for each musical moment. To support the music on that level should be the goal of every jazz drummer. That being said, if you don’t listen closely to what Mel’s playing it's easy to gloss over and not realize the great musical contributions he made. When Mel played with an ensemble, whether an octet, big band, or quartet, he matched pitches and articulations with the written music. It seems simple, it seems easy, but it's not. He was amazing at it and came out of him unconsciously. The ensemble played a short note; Mel played a short sound. The ensemble played a long note; Mel played a roll on the tom or plays an open hi-hat creating a legato sound. If he set up a low brass figure, he often played on his floor tom. If he played a counter line with the saxophones, he usually played it on the snare drum to match the timbre of the saxophone. He was constantly orchestrating. It is unbelievable how somebody could play that musically— it had to have been unconscious. There's no way he could be up there thinking or memorizing—like, in bar thirteen, the bass trombone plays the and of three, so I'm going to play on the floor tom. He internalized the music after hearing it once or twice and his interaction and orchestration in real time became part of the arrangement. A good example of this is Mel’s simple fills during the shout chorus of Bill Holman’s arrangement of “Stomping at the Savoy”. It’s nearly impossible to sing that shout chorus and not sing Mel’s fills. His playing became a part of the arrangement.

Mel often made simple decisions that resulted in powerful musical shifts. In the book one example I pointed out was Mel playing on Joe Lovano's album Tones, Shapes, and Colors. There's a song titled "Chess Mates" where Mel accompanies Lovano's intense solo for about three minutes, and at the point where most drummers would overplay, hit too hard, or get bad sounds out of the drums, Mel simply moved from his main ride cymbal to his Chinese cymbal and changed the intensity and vibe immediately. At that moment it sounds like the music got shot out of a cannon. To think on that level and have that much sensibility about what's happening in the music, that's what we should all be striving for.

Finally, Mel’s cymbal beat goes down as one of the best of all time. Listen to the feel of his quarter notes and the consistency of where he put his skip beat. Mel’s ride cymbal beat is swing, period. There's always a debate on what's swing and what's jazz. Well all I know is that when I hear Mel Lewis play his ride cymbal beat that's swing and that's jazz. There's nobody that's going to tell me otherwise.

6) What do you hope people and/or other drummers that read your book will take away from this?

I hope that readers come away with a much greater respect for Mel Lewis.

I also hope that reading this book leads to checking out Mel recordings they have never heard and inspires a closer listening to records they have heard hundreds of times. To sit down and closely listen to Mel on the shout chorus of “Three and One” provides such insight into his playing and the role of a big band drummer. Lastly, I hope that readers share this book with a young jazz drummer. This isn’t a Jack DeJohnette transcription book! Mel’s musical concepts, and the transcriptions included in this book, are achievable and immediately applicable to drummers of all levels, from middle school to professional.

7) What are your favorite recordings of Mel Lewis?

Impossible to narrow down, but here’s a list of several favorites:

Bill Holman: The Fabulous Bill Holman

Pepper Adams: Critics’ Choice

Don Fagerquist Octet: Eight by Eight

Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Swings Lightly

Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 1-6

Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster

Witherspoon, Mulligan, Webster at the Renaissance

Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley

Sylvia Syms: The Fabulous Sylvia Syms

Jimmy Ricks: Vibrations (Arranged and Conducted by Don Sebesky)

Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra

The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis featuring Miss Ruth Brown

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra: Paris 1969 – Volume 1

Chet Baker: Once Upon a Summertime

Pete Malinverni: Don’t Be Shy

Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra: Soft Lights and Hot Music

Mel Lewis Sextet: The Lost Art

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