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Mel Lewis performing in 1978
Mel Lewis performing in 1978

Melvin Sokoloff (May 10, 1929 – February 2, 1990), known professionally as Mel Lewis, was an American jazz drummer, session musician, professor, and author. He received fourteen Grammy Award nominations.


Lewis was born in Buffalo, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents Samuel and Mildred Sokoloff. He started playing professionally as a teen, eventually joining Stan Kenton in 1954. His musical career brought him to Los Angeles in 1957 and New York City in 1963.[1]

In 1966 in New York, he teamed up with Thad Jones to lead the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The group started as informal jam sessions with the top studio and jazz musicians of the city, but eventually began performing regularly on Monday nights at the famed venue, the Village Vanguard.[1] In 1979, the band won a Grammy for their album Live in Munich.[2] Like all of the musicians in the band, it was only a sideline. In 1976, he released an album titled Mel Lewis and Friends that featured him leading a smaller sextet that allowed freedom and improvisation.[3]

When Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, the band became known as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra.[1] Lewis continued to lead the band, recording and performing every Monday night at the Village Vanguard until shortly before his death from cancer at age 60. The band still performs on most Monday nights at the club. Today, it is known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and has released several CDs.[4]

Playing style and approach

Lewis's cymbal work was considered unique among many musicians.[5] Of his style, drummer Buddy Rich had remarked: "Mel Lewis doesn't sound like anybody else. He sounds like himself."[5]

Lewis insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, switching from the Zildjian Company later in his career to the Istanbul brand.[5] His setup included a 21-inch ride on his right, a 19-inch crash-ride on his left, and his signature sound, a 22-inch swish "knocker" with rivets on his far right. The rather lightweight cymbals exuded a dark, overtone-rich sound. Lewis' wood-shell drums were considered warm and rich in their sound. He almost exclusively played a Gretsch drums set, although in later years, played Slingerland drums equipped with natural calfskin top heads. Regular mylar heads were used on the bottom.[5] Lewis described a playing philosophy of not "pushing or pulling" but "supporting." "If you watch me, it doesn't look like I'm doing much," he remarked in an interview.[6]

Declining health and death

In the late 1980s, Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma. It was identified in his arm, then surfaced in his lungs, and ultimately went to his brain. He died on February 2, 1990, just days before his band was to celebrate its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.[5]


  • Naturally, (Telarc, 1979)
  • Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock, (MPS/Pausa, 1980))
  • Live at the Village Vanguard...Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer, (1980)
  • Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, (Finesse, 1982)
  • 20 Years at the Village Vanguard, (Atlantic, 1985)
  • The Definitive Thad Jones, Live from the Village Vangard, (Nimbus, 1988)
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 1, (MusicMasters, 1988)
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 2, (MusicMasters, 1988)
  • Soft Lights and Hot Music, (MusicMasters, 1988)
  • To You: A Tribute to Mel Lewis, (MusicMasters, 1990)

With Pepper Adams

With Manny Albam

With Chet Baker

With Bob Brookmeyer

With Kenny Burrell

With Benny Carter

With Al Cohn

With Bob Cooper

With Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff

With Eddie Daniels

With Eric Dolphy

  • Live in Germany (Magnetic, 1961 / 1992)

With Maynard Ferguson

With Stan Getz

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Jimmy Hamilton

With Johnny Hodges

With Stan Kenton

With Jimmy Knepper

With Joe Lovano

With Johnny Mandel

With Herbie Mann

With Warne Marsh

With Jack McDuff

With Gary McFarland

With Jimmy McGriff

With James Moody

With Gerry Mulligan

With Anita O'Day

With Chico O'Farrill

With Shorty Rogers

With Pete Rugolo

With Sal Salvador

With Shirley Scott

With Bud Shank

With Sonny Stitt

With Thad Jones/Pepper Adams Quintet

With Gerald Wilson

With Jimmy Witherspoon


  • 1999: Jazz at the Smithsonian (Kultur Video)
  • 2003: Jazz Casual – Thad Jones & Mel Lewis and Woody Herman (Jazz Casual)
  • 2005: Jazz Masters Series – Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (Shanachie)
  • 2007: Mel Lewis and His Big Band (VIEW)[7]


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