Mel Lewis: Interview 2
Mel Lewis: Interview 3

Mel Lewis (1929–1990)

Mel Lewis was a big band jazz drummer, educator and author, who was known for his unique cymbal style, dynamic range, and controlled playing. He also played as a sideman to a wide range of jazz greats during the 1950s and 1960s.

Born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Lewis started playing professionally at 15 when he joined Stan Kenton’s band. Three years later in 1957 he moved to Los Angeles to work with a range of bands and smaller combos and as a recording session artist.

Lewis moved back to New York in the early 1960s, and formed the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra with trumpeter Jones in 1965. The band toured and recorded for many years and although Jones left when Lewis moved to Denmark in the late 1970s, Lewis kept the group going as the Mel Lewis Orchestra.

Lewis received 14 Grammy Award nominations in his career, and received an Award in 1978 for the album ‘Live in Munich’ with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

He taught briefly at the New School for Social Research in New York, but in the late 1980s Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma, which resulted in the need for various treatments over the remaining years until his death in 1990.

Biography by John Rosie


Drummers and drumming today

In this third interview recorded in 1983, Mel Lewis discusses with Les Tomkins his views on rock drumming and the way drumming has progressed. 

See also the joint interview with Thad Jones.


Don Lusher: Interview 1

Mel Lewis: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1983
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Mel
Surname Lewis
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Drumming is becoming more and more important today. Only one thing is bad—I've been screaming about that for years. People say: "Oh, you hate rock". Why, sure—I don't like rock; I don't like rock drumming. I think it's the most monotonous, boring, loud beating; to me it really means nothing. I never heard a great rock drummer—they all claim these great rock drummers, but who are they? I don't consider 'em to be good; I mean, I don't consider it drumming. People will write in letters and call me names and put me down. So call me names and put me down—I still think I'm right.

I've heard better drumming in marching bands, and that's where it all comes from. There's no imagination involved—it's the engineer running the show there. A lot of superficial technique and as loud as you can bang and break things—it's stupid. It's not drumming—it's beating.

There's no dynamics; it's not percussion. Drumming has become very complex now; it's a lot more fun, but you have to have a lot of knowledge—you have to really know. You have to be a musician—and we're missing that.

But there are some young drummers who are going the right way—and they're playing very interesting drums. And even the older drummers are thinking more—they're finding it more interesting and more pleasurable. The reading of music and having this kind of full background is becoming more and more important now. ' Also, we now have more drums. I'm playing a five— piece set, which I've been doing for a long time now—I think that's important.

I left my previous company because they got too deep into the rock field. So I switched to Slingerland, and I've enjoyed playing them—they're making a beautiful drum. I'm not sure about their new hardware, though. They have a habit of pushing superstars, and I didn't even want to be a superstar—I don't like that style of life; to me it has nothing to do with music or drumming. But I have very nice drums—I love them.

Of course, I make them sound too. I still use calf skin heads on all the drums—tom— toms, everything—except the bottoms; I use Remo and Ambassador heads on the bottom of everything. I have plenty of calf; everybody says: "Where can you get 'em?"—I got 'em. I got more than enough—and I can get more. I can't see any other way of playing. But a rock drummer can't play on calf—he'll burst 'em all up pretty quick.

See, I still believe in the old lightweight concept. When you put a cymbal on a heavy cymbal stand, that muffles the cymbal—it really kills the sound. The old flush— base— type stands are still the best. Now, no company wants to hear that, because they're all trying to sell this other junk. But who are they selling 'em to? Prices are getting so high on airplanes and all that, it's getting to the point now where that scene with all the roadies working for the rock bands is steadily disappearing. And they don't make cases big enough for any of that stuff, anyway—that stuff is heavy. But the worst part of it is that it destroys the sound of the cymbal; once it's on that big, heavy stand the sound is lost. Now all the companies are making their cymbals heavier, because everybody's breaking them. I don't believe in any of that; I think it's all foolishness.

We have to get back to medium— weight cymbals that are medium; a thin cymbal should be thin, and medium— thin is medium— thin—I mean, they've lost all that.

I still think the K Zildjian is the best cymbal there ever was.

However, Avedis Zildjian is now starting to make a K; the new ones coming out look pretty good, and, with practice, I think they're going to turn out okay. I'll be using them; I haven't gotten any yet, but I heard Elvin Jones has some, and he's happy with them. But I don't use the A—except for my Chinese— style, that they call "the knocker". That's my cymbal, though—the one I modified. A lot of guys say: "Well, I can't get one like yours" —I say: "That's true".

I would prefer dye— cast hoops on all my drums too—which you don't get at Slingerland. I understand you can get them on all the Pearl drums now. And that's an awfully good drum—the American— made wooden ones. They also have some good people, and they always make good hardware. Slingerland give you a good choice of hardware—that's really why I play them.

But getting back to drummers—I haven't been hearing too many good drummers coming up.

There's something missing. I'm hoping that if I can get out to do enough clinics, maybe I can help them along. There seems to be a lot more interest in my style of playing; I'm happy about that, because maybe, with a little help, I can turn a few guys to think my way. Which actually is what I call a small group approach to playing in a big band, It's actually being a lot more flexible, and forgetting about the 'forties.

We're not in the 'forties any more.

There's only one Buddy Rich in this world, and there's one Louis Bellson. They are not the same; they both play great, and they play their style the way they play—and nobody can play it better. But I have a feeling that my approach is a little more flexible, and could be used a lot more. You can't copy me, and you shouldn't even try—but you can think the way I do. Louie has been talking about my way of playing; he doesn't play that way, but he likes the way I do it, and he tells people that that's the way you should play in a band—which I'm very thankful to him for.

He and Buddy seem to like what I do. We're all good friends, and I respect them enormously; I think they're both absolutely great.

I really get mad at the imitators. Only a fool would try to imitate Buddy Rich —you can't. Only he can do what he does—nobody else can do it. Nobody ever did; nobody ever will. When they get with a band and try to play like that, it doesn't come off. They don't know what he's doing, and they shouldn't try.

But what I'm doing—basically, I'm a percussionist within a band. The style of playing is for the band. Even in my own band, I don't stand out in front, although I'm the leader—but I've got total control anyway. The idea is that it's an undercurrent; I sit under the band, and it works fine.

When it comes to clinics, a Joe Morello or a Louie Bellson or a Roy Burns or an Eddie Shaughnessy will do one, and three hundred people will show up. I do a clinic, and three people show up—but those three people will say: "I learned more today than I ever learned at any other clinic". I'm not putting down the other clinics—but they came to learn, and they found out something new. I believe in what I do, and I think it's something we need. But like I emphasise: don't do what I do—do it your way. Think like a musician—realise that every piece of music you play has to be approached in a different way. You can't make everything be the same.

I look back on my career, and other bands that I played with. I've played with so many different people in my life; I'm very proud of that, and I realise that the reason is because I gave each person what he should have—at least, pretty much what I thought he should have. And yet I always sounded like me while I was doing it; I didn't suppress myself either, but I made what I do fit that man. The object was to make him happy, rather than try to say: "Hey, I'm here—listen to me".

Yes, a lot of drummers nowadays are on ego trips, with their enlarged kits and all. They enlarged the kits, but they didn't add any more arms on to your body! You've still only got two hands, and you can only hit one thing at a time. As for the open bass drums—ridiculous.

That's again for the engineers. You take that front head off a bass drum—you just took off your sound.

There is no more sound—now you need an engineer. It's a very stupid thing.

However, there are some nice young drummers coming up that I like. A fusion drummer that I like very much is Danny Gottlieb. I like Victor Lewis. I like young Kenny Washington—he's finally starting to loosen up now; he's getting better as he gets older. Two other new guys: John Riley and Adam Nussbaum.

Maybe you haven't heard of some of these guys, but they're darn good drummers. And they're musical—every one of 'em I'm naming is a musical drummer. They can read music, they understand music, and they're flexible.

No, I didn't mention Steve Gadd. I think he's a great drummer, without a doubt. He's probably the best in his field, but that's his field.

I'll tell you—a guy I used to yell at all the time, who I put down in print a long time ago, is Peter Erskine—because I've never heard him play jazz. But I heard him with Steps recently, and he sounded real good; it's the first time I heard him play actual jazz with an acoustic group, and I'll say that the man's sounding a lot better as a jazz drummer to me than he did before. I heard him with Stan Kenton, but not playing out— and— out jazz; they were playing either rock— style or Latin arrangements. It's a funny thing, but it's true—I never happened to hear never happened to hear him play a straight— ahead jazz arrangement with the band. Definitely, he's grown now.

But I still can't call Steve Gadd a jazz drummer. I've heard him play with a few groups, I've heard him on record, but nothing to make me say he's a jazz player. He's a darn good commercial drummer, though—he must be the best studio drummer in New York. That's what he is—a studio drummer. He can do anything he's called on to do on those record dates—he comes up with ideas, and he does everything right. Jazz? No, I'm sorry. You can argue with me all over the place; anybody can. You show me him sitting back, on an open set of drums, playing nice and loose and musical behind a real jazz artist—I haven't heard him do it yet. When he does it, and I hear it, and it sounds like it should, then I'll say: "Fine". But I'll give him credit for what he does do—he deserves a lot of credit for that, definitely. He's not an Art Blakey, a Max Roach or a Mel Lewis—he doesn't belong there yet; he hasn't earned those dues.

I hope he'll develop, but it depends on how he thinks. He'll have to say goodbye to good money—when he does that, maybe that's when it'll happen. That's a sad part of it: if you want to play, you have to forget the big money. It's too bad, but that's the way it is. I'll tell you something—it's worth it. It's a drag, but it's worth it. I've done it, and if I had to live my life all over again, I would just do it that way again. I would rather play jazz for less money than make all the money in the world playing commercial music.

It doesn't matter.

Oh, I did some studio work, but that was good stuff—I never had to play straight eights and all that garbage. Well, a couple of times—that's when I found out I didn't like it, and I didn't really want to get into it at all. Of course, that's when I had to say goodbye to the studio. But I'm not sorry one bit—not at all; I'm very happy with the way things have gone. I'm not rich, but I'm rich in a lot of other ways. I feel good—I feel young and happy.

I'm going to stay with this band as long as they'll let me—that means keeping my health, of course, as well as my integrity. As long as the guys will stick with me, and as long as somebody wants to hear us, we're going to keep it going. I intend to do this till I die; whenever that'll be, I'll still be having the band. I hope it'll be a long time.

Copyright © 1983, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.