On Mel Lewis
I’m doing my homework on Mel Lewis today, as I am meditating on how to best teach swing concepts to beginning and intermediate drummers, and I thought I’d share some thoughts with anyone out there who may be interested.
In college, my music professor always defined Mel Lewis as being “more of a timekeeper”, who kept the comping tasteful and minimal, and kept time right where it needed to be without a lot of superfluous extras. When we’d be learning a chart and I’d get too busy, he’d always look at me and say “Mel Lewis”, and that was all I needed to hear; it was my cue to back it off a few notches and simplify what I was doing in order to support the band more and leave them with no doubt about the time being kept.
I’ve been watching lots of video of Mel Lewis, and listening to recordings and reading articles to try and gain an understanding of the man himself, his approach to playing, and why his sound was so unique. In my research, I found a great interview with Mel from a 1985 issue of Modern Drummer Magazine. It’s a really interesting read, and the quotes in this note come directly from that article.
I really love what Mel himself had to say about voicing cymbals on the kit (when playing jazz):
“I find that all the cymbals should be dark. Darker cymbals are more complementary to horns. When you hit a high crash cymbal with the brass section, you will knock out half their sound. If there are four trumpets and the fourth is playing the lowest part, your ride cymbal should be the fifth trumpet, which is lower yet. Trombones, of course, can go lower than my cymbals can, so I want to be somewhere in the middle register where I don’t obliterate the lead and I don’t destroy the bottom.”
Thinking of cymbals in terms of colors and melodic range is a concept that is often completely lost on drummers who are new to the jazz idiom (it was for me when I was starting out, at least), and definitely something that is worth discussing and noting when teaching jazz drumset.
I didn’t really realize it until this morning, too, but he pioneered the way that I (and so many other jazz players) set up our kits, with a crash/ride on the left and right of a rack tom, and then a large China with rivets to the right of the floor tom. Many of my heroes use this exact setup (Jeff Hamilton, to name one), so it’s neat to see that Mel kind of lead that trend, for the most part.
(Take a break from reading – check out this video of Mel Lewis playing with Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra. Check those dynamics! The bass player is the epitome of swing, and Mel keeps sublime time.)
It’s also interesting to note that Mel Lewis is regarded as being a drummer who doesn’t “push or pull” the time, but rather “supports” it. I’ve heard Jeff Hamilton use that phrase before; the connection between “Hammer” and Lewis is undeniable in the research I’ve been doing.
In the Modern Drummer article, author Rick Mattingly asked Mel to evaluate himself and make a statement; this is how Mel described himself:
“Mel Lewis, I guess, is a guy who has never known anything in his life except drums and music,” he replied. “I admit I am very opinionated and I really can’t stand people who are mediocre. So that might be one of the harshest parts of me, but basically I’m a lover of humanity and, above all, music. I can’t see myself doing anything else in this life except playing music.”
My ability to relate to this statement is off the charts; like Mel, I don’t like to listen to excuses as to why people didn’t practice, why they can’t play a lick when they’ve had plenty of time to work on it, or why they weren’t prepared for a gig. I really want everyone who plays music to get the most joy out of the experience, and that doesn’t happen until you get serious and really dig into things fully.
Also, like Mel, I find that I am opinionated - very often to a fault – and yet if people want honest critique about something, I occasionally find myself holding my tongue in order to spare their feelings and keep the mood light (that’s the “lover of humanity” side of things kicking in), which maybe I shouldn’t do. That said, I am always willing to trade blow for blow, and I always welcome very sharp critique of my playing – how else would someone improve if they didn’t have the honest truth about what needs work? (This, of course, assumes that the person giving the critique is qualified to do so. Anybody can say “you suck”; it takes a real musician to say “you suck because…” and list some good reasons.) :D
There’s definitely something to be said for that “Mel Lewis sound”, too: the dry warmth of his cymbals, and the warm, calf skin tone of his drums. Nothing too clean or crisp (except maybe a hi-hat accent here or there), none of the effects or processing or triggers of today’s music – just pure, unadulterated, smooth sound.
While my homework on Mel Lewis has come rather late in my drumming career, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him through the archives of audio/visual and written information that is available, and hopefully some of the lessons learned in my research here will slowly seep into my playing and teaching in the years to come.