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 Village Vanguard. In 1979 the band won a Grammy for their album Live in Munich. Like all of the musicians in the band, it was only a side line. The band became the Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra in 1978, when Thad moved to Denmark. 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 Village Vanguard; today it's known as The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and has released several CDs. Lewis's cymbal work was unique and added qualities to his groups that are hard to describe, but that are recognized immediately and virtually impossible to emulate (Buddy Rich once said that "Mel Lewis doesn't sound like anybody except himself"). He insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, switching from the Zildjian brand later in his career to the Istanbul brand. His setup included a 20-inch ride on his right, an 18-inch crash-ride on his left, and his signature sound, a 22-inch swish "knocker" with rivets on his far right. The dark, overtone-rich sound of these rather lightweight cymbals, combined with the rich, warm sound of his wood-shell drums (he almost exclusively played Gretsch drums) equipped with natural calfskin heads (again, Lewis was a purist) exuded a veritable treasure trove of sound.
Lewis once described his playing philosophy of not "pushing or pulling" but "supporting." "If you watch me, it doesn't look like I'm doing much," he said in an interview, describing his subtle but highly musical style. He could play at a break-neck tempo for lengthy periods and hardly break a sweat. He wasn't flashy or loud—just tasteful, and highly musical. He had fourteen Grammy nominations, authored a drumming book, and taught at the William Patterson State College in New Jersey. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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