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Mel Lewis Biography

Mel Lewis, the man who helped make Monday night at New York’s Village Vanguard a required event, was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, NY in 1929. Mel Started playing professionally in teens, performing with Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, and Tex Beneke, but it wasn’t until he was hired to play for Stan Kenton that he began to secure his fame by adapting his “small group approach to Big Band music” to Kenton’s ensemble, and earning credit as the best, and more famously the most swinging, drummer in the history of Kenton’s group.   
Lewis moved to L.A. to play with Terry Gibbs, where he also became an in-demand studio drummer, before moving east to N.Y.C. to play for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. He toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie and the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman in the early 1960s. When he returned from his time abroad, Lewis and trumpeter Thad Jones formed the big band that would become an unforgettable part of the Jazz narrative and ensure their status with the jazz elite. Started from informal jam sessions, The Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Big Band would grow into one of top big bands of all-time, most famously playing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. The band remained intact until 1978, when Jones surprised the Jazz world and his band alike by moving to Denmark. Mel Lewis took sole control of the band, renaming it the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra in 1978, and continued the Vanguard tradition until his death in 1990, two weeks before their 24th anniversary at the famous club.

Lewis is regarded for his ability to make a big band swing like a Bebop quartet, often joking that they were a big band when playing in unison and a large quartet when while soloing. He is further credited with creating an innovative big band approach that allowed his players a creative and expansive freedom to solo. Despite Lewis’ hesitation to solo himself, his innate sense of timing and dynamic cymbal work seamlessly complimented soloists without overwhelming them. The consummate professional, Lewis garnered 14 Grammy nominations, played with a sensitivity and feeling that propelled him into one of the Jazz world’s best, and faithfully transformed Monday nights into a Jazz requisite.