There are no bad notes, just bad organization.

Thad Jones

This week, we’re looking back at a great big band that helped pave the way for the CJO and many other similar groups.

Formed in New York City in 1965 was the famous Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The group started to perform at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights, which soon attracted NYC’s leading players–Monday nights are typically dead nights for musicians and for the theatre, so it was easy to get the best. This band, now known as the Village Vanguard Big Band, has been a staple there on Mondays ever since (until COVID), and the music and charts created by Jones, with Lewis driving the ship, are woven into the fabric of jazz history.

In an era where only established big bands like those Ellington, Basie, Herman, and Kenton were surviving and touring, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was an anomaly in several ways. First of all, this was one of the few big bands able to become established internationally, during the late 60’s and 70’s, along with the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Jazz Orchestra and Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. Small groups and fusion ruled the day during this time, and many big bands either folded or failed to grasp the greater public’s attention. Secondly, this band was unique in that it really existed solely on recordings and during their Monday night gigs. While the band’s membership was filled with the finest NYC session and gigging players, and they were highly devoted to the ensemble (some are still members of the Vanguard band fifty-five years later!), the personnel could change slightly from week to week. Also, this band integrated musicians during a time when racial tensions were high. Over time, many amazing musicians joined this ensemble for various lengths of time. One of the original members was trumpeter Snooky Young; Dee Dee Bridgewater spent some time as the lead singer; valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer spent some time with the band, and became its leader in 1979; and some of the other folks that joined in include Bob Mintzer, Joe Williams, Slide Hampton and Charlie Haden.

Let’s learn a little more about the two men that started this phenomenon.

Thad Jones (1923 – 1986)

Composer, bandleader, and trumpet player Thad Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan to a very musical family. Jones was not the only jazz musician to come from this family of ten–his older brother Hank Jones recorded sixty albums on piano under his name and was on Cannonball Adderley’s Something Else. And, John Coltrane’s legacy is due in part to the drumming of Thad’s younger brother Elvin Jones.

Thad Jones began gigging with Hank at age sixteen, and then served for three years in the military in WWII. After this time, he performed with Charles Mingus before joining the Basie band from 1954-1963. Jones began to write for the Basie band, and also the Harry James Orchestra, and contributed over two dozen charts to that library. He was also recorded on Thelonious Monk’s 5 by Monk by 5 album during this span.

He left the Basie band for NYC, and formed the big band with drummer Mel Lewis in 1965, and they started performing a year later at the Village Vanguard with their wide array of talent. Having such fine players at his disposal enabled Jones to really get to work and experiment with big band writing. The albums released in the 1970’s by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra were the finest in the medium offered during this time, and the charts from these albums are staples in any scholastic or professional big band’s libraries, revered by jazz players for their unique harmonies and new voicings that float over some of the more soulful and swinging grooves in the big band repertoire. Some of the music is gorgeous, like “A Child is Born;” some really challenging “Fingers”; and others downright churchy, like “Don’t Get Sassy.”

Jones left the band in 1978 to lead a big band in Denmark and stayed in Europe for most of the rest of his life, except for some time leading the Basie band shortly after the leader’s passing.

If only recognized for his trumpet playing, Thad would have had lasting fame–there are his solos heard on such Count Basie classics as “April in Paris,” (his “Pop Goes the Weasel” quote on the solo break is perhaps the most famous quote in the genre), “Corner Pocket,” and “Shiny Stockings.” But he left behind an even more lasting legacy of music.

 

Mel Lewis (1929 – 1990)

Drummer and bandleader Mel Lewis was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York. Lewis began his fame as a member of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1954. After living in L.A. in the late 50’s doing sideman projects with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Pete Rugolo, Bob Brookmeyer, and Sonny Stitt, Lewis moved to NYC in 1963.

In 1965, he and trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones began having their big band jam sessions on Monday nights, which became the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. After Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, the band continued under Lewis’ leadership until his passing. Over time, the group received 14 Grammy nominations, and many of their albums are must haves for lovers of the big band medium.

As for Lewis’ drumming–it wasn’t flashy, but was always tasteful no matter the style or tempo. His cymbal choices and playing on that part of the kit were singular sonic experiences that were difficult to imitate–Buddy Rich once said “Mel doesn’t sound like anyone but himself.”

Before we go, we’ll leave you with one more tune, “The Groove Merchant”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZLvqXFddu0