Jazz Professional               

Mel Lewis

lt’s unlike any other big band ever. . .

says lead trumpet EARL GARDNER

Two lucky guys
Our happy band
Happier than ever
Cliff Weather
Earl Gardner
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1973

This book (The Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra) is gruelling in a lot of respects, but it doesn’t compare to the books of Buddy Rich or Woody Herman—they’re different style books. I mean, I don’t think I could have played all the lead on those bands; there were a whole lot of other things that had been established.

Like when Jon Faddis is playing the lead with Thad and Mel—I can’t do what Jon does; not too many people can. With Woody, Dave Stahl was another great lead player, and I couldn’t do what he does either. As for Buddy’s band, they had so many different cats going through the band—I’m not one of those kind of lead men, that scream up around double C and do that all night. I stay in a certain range, and I can pound for a while.

Yes, it is a demanding book—but there are spaces in charts. The funny thing about the book. . . in certain spots. . . when we come in on an ensemble thing, you’re pumping, and blowing your brains out for thirty–two bars; then you’ll get a break, where at least you get some blood back in your chops, till you come back in on the next thirty–two bars. Thad’s charts are usually like that—they give you a little bit of space here and there. Whereas the way Brookmeyer writes—his are constant, and there’s not much place to stretch out; everything’s pretty much more structured.

So there’s all kinds of different things in the book involving differ-ent ways of playing. It’s demanding but it’s fun. Sometimes Mel says: “Let’s call an easy set.” We sit there saying: “That’s impossible—there is no easy set on this band!” He says: “We’ll give you a break—we won’t call anything hard.” Well, I’d defy him to make up a set of tunes that aren’t hard. What he thinks isn’t hard—it’s still hard. “Let’s do this one—this isn’t too hard on you is it?” “Not as hard as some, but it still kills me. It’s hard to keep your chops up for this gig—for me, anyway. Because I’m the kind of player that has to play—I’m not a big practicer or anything. When I have the time off, I don’t sit around and practise. Besides, practice chops are different from gig chops. If I practised for three hours a day, I could get to a certain level, but it’s still not like playing a gig until I’ve done that.

I had a month when Mel had gone to Europe and the band wasn’t playing at all. I’d sit there and practise—put in an hour or two hours every day. After a month, you get to the gig, and your chops feel great for maybe two or three tunes; then, all of a sudden—“But they felt great—what happened?” You have to, like, get your sea legs.

It’s like when we come out on the road. The first couple of days on the road, your chops will feel all right; then, as it goes on, they start feeling stronger and stronger. By the end of the tour—or not even that long; maybe after about four days or so—they’re feeling great, and you feel like you can play anything.

Then the tour’s over, you go back to New York, and hopefully you’re doing some gigs and stuff. So you’re still playing, but it’s not nearly the same thing; it’s falling short. I play third trumpet on this Broadway show—it’s got nothing to do with this thing. But it’s playing—it’s better than sitting at home doing nothing.

Sure, I’d love to do more with Mel. Not so much on the road, but just in general. It’d be great if this band could work three or four times a week in town or something, you know. But I guess it’s a pipe dream—unless Mel opens up a club of his own! The problem time was after Thad left—of course, we had always been known as the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra. For a couple of years, you’d see people and they’d say: “I heard the band broke up.” “I don’t know, but we’re still playing at the Vanguard on Monday.” It was kind of rough; Monday nights would be really slow, because people didn’t think the band was still together. But Mel kept it going, and made the band the focal point. He was not out front; he was laying it down and swinging, and we were just riding on top of him. He was going with us, and we were going with him just playing, having a good time, and the band developed.

This band as it is now has basically been the same personnel for about five years. As you know, there’s always a big turnover in bands. It speaks for Mel and for the music—it’s a musicians’ band. The public—they like the band, but they don’t understand the stuff as much, maybe, as the musicians. They all say: “Hey, I’d like to sub on the band some time. “ It’s different—it’s like a family really. I’ve been on the band for twelve years; our lead alto, Dick Oatts, and another saxophone player, Richie Perry, got on the band about a year after me. As for lead trombone John Mosca, he’s been on around fourteen years; Earl McIntyre, the bass trombonist, has been there for fifteen or sixteen—he and Mosca are the two senior members of the band at this point. Yes, it’s a family band; it’s unlike any other big band ever, I think.

All Mel wants to do is play drums and swing. He’s always going to be a sideman—he’s a rotten leader! He’s one of the guys—that’s it. Which is great, but when it comes down to business it’s not that great! It was just the same way with him and Thad—both of them were rotten at business. All they cared about was playing. Meanwhile, whoever was handling the business didn’t know what they were doing. When you get to a town, and there’s no hotel reservations for the band, that’s not so good! But the band’s great, and it’s fun to play—sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but it is.

Getting it on to a record is another thing. The live ones at the Vanguard come closest, but, even so, it’s hard to do that. The only way is: you’ve got to hear the band live; you have to see the band in action—up there acting crazy, jumping around, and just enjoying it most of the time. You don’t really capture the band on records; it’s not the same—it’s not really recording the band. When we record, the band sound good, but it’s not that feel, that energy. The best place to hear the band is at the Vanguard on Monday nights, when everybody’s loose and relaxed, and we haven’t played together for a week; so we get in there, and just scream and wail. Or on the road, after we’ve been out for a few days. To capture the essence, you’ve got to hear the band in person.

When you’re recording, if something messes up, you stop and fix it here, fix it there, change the balance—and it loses the impact, the spontaneity. I haven’t really listened to any of the albums we’ve done. I listen to them once—like, after we get a tape or something—and then I won’t listen to it again, because it just isn’t the same.

This band lives with its charts; after we learn them and develop them they sound totally different.We did this live album in Montreux—Don Menza did all these Herbie Hancock tunes, and we only got the charts maybe two weeks before we recorded the album. If you listen to the album and then go and hear the band play the same charts now, we play them quite differently now. Because we learned it, we know how the chart goes, and the phrasing’s different. If I listened to the record now, I would point out a lot of spots: “Oh, we don’t play this like that any more.” You’ve got to live with a chart for a while.

The last album we did, we had pretty much played the charts for a few months before we recorded them; so they’re much more together. Even so, there are still little changes here and there that we’ve made: “Let’s do it this way now.” So, from a record, it’s hard to know what the band sound like.

Most of the music I play away from the band is not inferior—it’s just different. It’s programme music; it serves its purpose, and you play it.

There’s nothing that compares to playing this music, although you can come close—you can have a good time. I did a week at the Blue Note with Gene Harris Big Band that was fun, because he had done this great “Tribute To Basie” album. I’d never heard of Gene Harris. They were saying: “He played with the Three Sounds”—I never heard of them either.

I was playing lead—it was supposed to be me and Faddis, Laurie Frink and Glenn Drewes. We did the rehearsal, and Faddis was out of town; he wasn’t going to make it for the first couple of days, and I played lead. As I said, it was all Basie stuff, and Basie’s—like, that’s the hand.

And from the first tune we hit, it was just great. That was the closest band I’ve played with to this—I had almost as much fun playing wise. Musically, it was nothing complicated or anything just straight–ahead stuff.

Frank Wess had done the charts, and it was very enjoyable.

But playing a Broadway show, you’re not going to swing. You’re playing music behind whatever’s happening up onstage. The orchestra is an important part of it, but it’s not the featured thing. They don’t want you to out–front too much; so you can only get into it in a limited way. It’s just a different style.

I do a TV show in New York, Saturday Night Live—it’s like a rock ‘n’ roll band. It’s one trumpet, three saxes and one trombone—a great band, considering. With Steve Turre on trombone and Alex Foster on alto, it’s like a small jazz band also. Anyhow, I’m into pop music—I like: funk and stuff like that; it’s not like I’m just a total jazz freak. I grew up on Tower Of Power and Blood, Sweat And Tears . In fact, I probably knew more about that than jazz at that time. When I first started playing with the band, I was like a fish out of water, because I’d never listened to that much jazz per se. It was pretty much split up, and more towards rock and funk than the jazz thing. I said to myself: “I think you should start learning a little bit more about this stuff.” Musically, jazz is more com-plicated and more intricate, but the other stuff is fun to play. And I mean, it’s good—Blood, Sweat and Tears was a great band, with good arrangements that were demanding in their own respect. I’m into all kinds of stuff. I can get into some of the rap stuff even—I can listen to it for maybe five minutes, and that’s enough already. Basically, if it’s good, that’s all I care about—if it’s not bull. . . I can’t listen to bull. I have an open mind—I’ll listen, check it out and see what happens.

Sure, Quincy Jones has written some great stuff. For a while, he got into the funk thing, and started put-ting out stuff like “Body Heat” and “The Dude”. It was simple, but the music was great—I wore out a bunch of his tapes. It swings, in its way; you can still get that two and four in there. You can still hear it, if you don’t just close off and say: “Oh, this isn’t jazz—so I don’t want to hear it. “ Just groove on it; don’t try and analyse it, because it’s all feel. If it feels good, then—cool. Repetitive? Oh, yeah—that’s what it’s about, though. It’s about that hook—that’s what gets it over.

It serves its purpose: you go to a party and people want to dance and just groove—you can’t dance to “Cherry Juice”, but you can dance to “The Dude”. It just depends upon the situation.

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.