The View From The Back Of The Band
The Life and Music of Mel Lewis
By Chris Smith
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2014 Chris Smith
All rights reserved.
Born a Drummer
Mel Lewis loved to sit in his living room at 325 West End Avenue #2C and listen to music. He sat in that room and listened for hundreds of hours, usually in the company of a young musician who intently absorbed his entertaining stories of the music business, life on the road, and the wide range of musicians he had worked with. When relaxing in his favorite lounge chair it was typically the music that encouraged Mel's stories of the past, and more importantly, sparked his excitement for the future. At only fifty-eight-years old Mel was a living jazz legend, one who still played drums every Monday night with his band at the Village Vanguard. He loved to talk about future musical projects, his band's next album, politics, or the New York Giants' upcoming season. However, by 1989 his four-year battle with cancer often forced him to silently reflect on the decades of music that defined his career. Mel cared about his legacy and hoped that his musical accomplishments would not be forgotten. "I'd like to leave a mark. I'd like fifty years from now for people to say that Mel Lewis was a pioneer in a way. I'd like to have had my share of doing something important for music," he said. The desire to preserve his story led him to begin writing a memoir, which he aptly titled "The View from the Back of the Band." Mel was only able to complete several pages before passing away in February of 1990; however, the pages that he did complete offer remarkable insight into his thoughts and memories. There could be no more fitting way to begin this book than printing Mel's unfinished personal memoir for the very first time:
"The View from the Back of the Band" Chapter 1—The Best Little Drummer in Buffalo
I don't remember a time when it wasn't clear to me that I was to be a drummer in a band. My father was a drummer and it never occurred to me that I would do anything else. The final, irreversible decision was probably made when I was about two, when my cousins presented me with my own pair of drumsticks—I remember clearly that they were painted gold.
My first musical triumph was as a cymbal player in the kindergarten rhythm band, followed by my joining the first grade orchestra playing bass drum. First chair as I recall. I soon progressed to snare drum.
I sat in for my father at a Jewish wedding, and from that moment, considered myself a professional musician ready for anything. After that it was just job after job, band after band, record session after record session, until I found myself celebrating 20 years at the Village Vanguard. It all seems to have happened so fast—but I've never for a minute regretted that decision I made when I saw those gold drumsticks.
During the decades between 1890 and 1910 a remarkable wave of immigrants arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe, mostly Czarist Russia. Among the mostly penniless travelers, usually speaking little or no English, were Irving Berlin, Sam Goldwyn, and all four of my grandparents.
[Begins a new untitled chapter]
A jazz drummer generally sits at the rear of the bandstand or stage on a high stool called a throne. It provides a higher-than-normal seat, putting its occupant in a sort of half sitting, half standing position. From this stance, the drummer can operate both a bass drum pedal and a pedal-actuated cymbal. He can also reach and play on a 180-degree array of drums and tom-toms, perhaps six or eight cymbals, triangles, wood blocks or other tools of his unique trade.
Although he is often required to read music as carefully as other members of the band, he is sometimes called on to just play "time," counting measures almost subconsciously while he observes his surroundings.
He sees, first, the other musicians. From the dance floor, the audience sees smiles and shiny horns, freshly painted music stands, perhaps a pretty girl singer in a thousand dollar dress. The view from the drummer's throne is a little different, and surely closer to reality. The musicians, in fact, are often sweating and their tuxes don't often match. The floor around the players is cluttered with mic chords and spider boxes, empty cases and discarded reeds. And, if the lights are right, he can glimpse the singer's naked legs silhouetted through the thin fabric of the expensive gown.
Beyond the musicians, in the front of the bandstand, he sees the audience; the dancers, the drinkers, the listeners. Most of the time, the audience is a pretty accurate sample of society. From the throne the drummer sees class and beauty, priceless jewelry, attentive followers of the music, flirts and grumps, plus the usual variety of jerks, drunks, and hustlers. He sees Americans of all sorts in settings from Presidential inaugurations to Elk dances, from high school proms to basement jazz clubs.
Beyond the musicians and singers, the dancers, the drunks, the barroom fighters, this drummer has been privileged to see almost fifty years of music parade before the throne. In those fifty years jazz has grown from a private and almost secret art, passed on from player to player, to a skill taught in most American high schools. The record business, which began as an effort to preserve the very best of all kinds of music, has in those fifty years become little more than a very sophisticated way to market carloads of vinyl plastic. Radio, fifty years ago a vigorous and imaginative youngster, has gown virtually before my eyes, into a powerful and cynical handmaiden of the record business. Television, the great hope of all of us, has lost almost all contact with real American music.
My drums have played along or led—I hope, inspired—some of the greatest geniuses this nation has produced over the past century. Some are among the most famous names in music, honored by Presidential medals or Kennedy Center honors, or glorified by a six-foot shelf of biographies in every library. Some have gone from a saloon piano player to successful arranger to fabulously wealthy composer. Others have gone from saloon piano player to shoe salesman to nowhere close to the music business.
Some met and were captured by dope, or booze, or gambling, or their own personal demons before their talents could fully develop. No matter what their fate, many were authentic geniuses and I was privileged to be part of their world.
The view from the drummer's throne in the back of the band is a unique one. It'll be mostly fun, sometimes sad, sometimes inspiring; I think always useful to recall some of the sights and surely the sounds. —Mel Lewis
Great musicians can discover their love of music at different stages in life. Some musicians are in their thirties before it is clear to them that music is their true passion, yet to others, music seems to choose them before they ever have the chance to decide.
Music chose Mel Lewis at a young age. He gladly accepted and devoted his next sixty years to a life through music.
I don't remember ever not playing drums. I can't remember any time in my life when I didn't play them, let alone want to be one. I don't even recall wanting, all I recall is doing, even as a very little baby!
Mel Lewis was born on May 10, 1929, as Melvin Sokoloff and was raised in Buffalo, New York. His mother Mildred and father Samuel Sokoloff were of Russian Jewish decent and many of the family's beliefs and customs were deeply rooted in their Jewish ancestry. Music, being one of these customs, was an important part of life in the Sokoloff household. Sam Sokoloff was a professional drummer who played regularly at Buffalo's famous Palace Burlesque Theater. As a result, many of Mel's earliest childhood memories involved watching his father play the drums. During a 1982 interview Mel spoke of what a great drummer his father had been:
He was a pit drummer and a show drummer. He was an excellent snare drummer, you know, he played Baby Dodd's style press rolls and was very good at it. He had impeccable time and impeccable taste, and was very much liked by an awful lot of dancers that came through the town. Most outstandingly, Bill Robinson, the famous Bo Jangles once told me, "I always look forward to getting to Buffalo because I know I am going to play with Sam."
As two-year-old Mel discovered the drums, his father guided him through the snare drum rudiments and taught him the art of playing a press roll. While other children his age were playing sports or attending summer camp, Mel was dreaming of playing drums in his own band:
I always wanted to be me. I used to draw pictures on cardboard, you know those shirt cardboards? I used to draw my band, my band Socky Brown, because Socky was my father's nickname. All the guys called him Socky, S-O-C-K-Y, rather than Sucky, because he wouldn't have appreciated that. All right, so Socky they called him, and I was little socky ... Every musician in town knew me, I mean, since I was a baby.
Thanks to his father, Mel's first experience on a bandstand occurred in 1935 during a cousin's wedding celebration. His father was playing drums during the party and decided to get up and dance so he called over to six-year-old Mel to take over the drumming duties. Having to stand, because he was too short to sit and play the bass drum, Mel's drumming propelled the dancers during the entire thirty-five-minute Jewish Hora (a traditional Jewish celebration dance). When his time on the bandstand was over, Mel recalled his father saying, "That's it, he's going to be a drummer." After that moment Mel eagerly sought other performance opportunities in Buffalo, and did so by sitting in whenever and wherever possible.
I used to sit in at all these wedding jobs, I sat in from six on, I mean talk about sitting in! I used to walk into any temple or church in the area, or I'd go on my bike, and no matter what union band was playing there, the drummer always let me sit in because he knew me. I sat in with everybody. Only regular dance music, on these little three-piece drum sets. Because there was no bass on these jobs, they were generally three men: drums, piano, and a horn, sometimes two horns. So, I didn't even know what it was like to play with a bass violin until I was grown up, you know, 'till I was a full-blown teenager.
In addition to sitting in with bands, Mel also performed throughout town in amateur shows presented by Bob Smith, a local bandleader and entertainer. Bob Smith became a lifelong friend to Mel; children across the country would later know Smith as Buffalo Bob from The Howdy Doody Show television show.
Buffalo, New York, in the 1930s was a major road stop for touring musicians going to and coming from New York City. The interaction that Mel had with these touring musicians was an important aspect of his early musical development. In 1935, when he was only six years old, he went with his father to see a performance by the Benny Goodman Trio. The performance featured Gene Krupa on drums and left a deep impression on the young drummer. Mel remembered the evening clearly stating, "I did not meet him that night, but I saw him and that became very big with me. Two years later I met Gene and we remained great friends the rest of his life." Throughout his childhood, Mel had the unique opportunity to witness and meet some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time as they traveled through town. Few had as much influence on Mel's career and drumming as Krupa.
Mel not only experienced music in Buffalo's clubs, but also at PS 74 elementary school in Buffalo. The same month he played drums at his cousin's wedding, he joined the elementary school orchestra. First grade students were usually not members of the school orchestra, but Sam Sokoloff pleaded for a special exception and his son was allowed to join his first band. During his first years playing with the eighty-four-piece orchestra Mel moved from playing the bass drum and cymbals to playing the snare drum. Finally, in the seventh grade, Mel showed so much musical potential that Mrs. Bert, his music teacher, put him on a drumset and let him be the one-man percussion section for the entire group. Years later Mel jokingly said, "Thanks to Mrs. Bert, the eighty-four piece ... school orchestra was my first big band gig."
Mel began high school in 1943 and attended East High, notorious for having the best music department in town. Even though he had been playing drums for over ten years, initially he was not allowed to the join the high school orchestra because he could not read music. Mr. Reshay, the East High music teacher, offered to teach Mel how to read music by playing the baritone horn. Mel's first weeks of school were diligently spent practicing the baritone; after just two months, he reached a satisfactory level of reading competency. Mel joined the high school orchestra percussion section, forever putting aside the baritone horn.
During this period in Mel's life, he began to work professionally as a drummer throughout Buffalo. The start of World War II in 1939 had caused many local musicians to leave town as they either joined or were drafted into the military. This resulted in much of the musical work to be picked up by older musicians or, as was the case with Mel, younger musicians. By 1942, World War II was at its height and thirteen-year-old Mel played any gig that came his way. "I played a Polish wedding and was paid $3, which was pretty good. A big band gig was 75 cents, and a great gig paid $10. That's when a quart of milk cost 10 cents," he recalled.
In the early 1940s, dancing and big bands were popular forms of entertainment, and most of Mel's early professional gigs involved playing music for people to dance to. He described his early work as "Mostly just dance jobs, trio, quartets, whatever. And I was involved in little big bands, rehearsal bands, and things like that. I played a Polish dance here or there, and Italian dance, a Jewish dance, that's mostly where your work came out of, the churches and temples. Non-union naturally." Through steady work in these local dance and society bands, he began crafting his personal style of jazz drumming.
In the fall of 1943, at the age of fourteen, Mel found himself with the opportunity to play with the Bob Seib Band. The Bob Seib Band was a local Buffalo big band that played dances in the Northern New York region. As Mel stated, "The band wasn't one of the best dance bands in town," but they did work often and the experience proved to be an important opportunity for him. One Friday night, Bob Seib's usual drummer broke his leg in a high school football game. When Mel's friend Tom Breach, who was the band's bassist, found out that the band needed a replacement drummer for the job that evening he recommended Mel. Rushing to St. Vincent's, the hall where the Bob Seib Band regularly played, Mel arrived with his worn and unimpressive looking drums, a contrast to the usual drummer's white marine pearl drums. As he unloaded his equipment he was met with skeptical looks from many of the band members. Mel recalled the situation saying,
So they called me frantically to come to St. Vinnie's. And they were all disappointed at my set of drums cause it was so beat-up and old, and their usual guy had a white pearl set you know. He couldn't play it, but he had it. But I had pieces of junk that I could play. They brought me in there and I was supposed to join the band temporarily and I ended up staying with the band.
He did not have a nice set of drums in 1943, but Mel, the lifelong cymbal connoisseur, always had an ear for cymbals. It was only months after his first gig with Bob Seib that he acquired his famous 20-inch Zildjian ride cymbal that eventually had two sections cut out of it. That particular cymbal was so impressive that Buddy Rich proclaimed it to be the best cymbal ever made.
Mel's initial appearance worried the older musicians, but on stage his musical feel and energetic drumming won over the members of the band before the night was over. Due in part to a high school football player's broken leg, fourteen-year-old Mel Lewis proved his musicianship and became a steady working musician in Buffalo.
Through his work with Seib, Mel's drumming was heard by an increasing number of local musicians. Many of Buffalo's Italian bandleaders such as Joe Gaglioni, Lou Powers, and Buddy Mack began to hire Mel in their bands. As a result of several higher profile gigs with Buddy Mack, Mel became a member of the local musician's union at the age of fifteen. As a member of the musician's union, he had access to the better paying union jobs. Beginning in 1945, his professional work in Buffalo rapidly increased.
Late in the summer of 1946, Mel was asked to go on a four-month tour of the Midwest with a band led by Bernie Burns. Though it meant he would miss the first several weeks of school, Mel's parents approved of the tour and he headed out on the road. This was a pivotal point in his life, not only because it was his first chance to tour with a band, but also because he would never return to finish his high school education. Mel Lewis was living his dream; he was a jazz musician making music out on the road. After his tour with Burns, Mel returned to Buffalo to pursue a fulltime career as a drummer. (Continues...)
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