In February, 1966, drummer Mel Lewis teamed up with trumpet player and composer Thad Jones to start a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard in New York. 50 years later, with both Mel and Thad gone, the band (now called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) continues the tradition to this day. Realizing such a landmark has arrived, I have been reflecting on my own association with this great orchestra.
Mel and my father, trombonist Dick Nash, were roommates in the Tex Beneke Band in the early fifties. I had met Mel a couple times during family gatherings when I was a kid, too young to fully comprehend (or care) what a swinging drummer he was. When I moved to New York City at age eighteen, one of the first things I did was go to the Village Vanguard and catch the band. I was confused because I couldn’t figure out which one was Thad. I assumed he would be out front leading the band. My confusion was not without reason: Thad had just left the jazz orchestra and Mel was leading the band now.
Mel invited me to hang out at his Upper West Side apartment later that week. When I got there I sat in his living room flipping though old music magazines as he explained on phone in the other room to jazz writer Leonard Feather the “printable” version of how he and Thad had just split, how they felt it was time, that Thad had found a good opportunity in Denmark, that it was amicable, how and Mel was supportive of his decision. When he finished the official story he then said “Okay, off the record…here’s what really happened.” He went on to explain things that were a bit adult and complicated for me to make complete sense out, only hearing two out of every three words as I waited in the next room.
Mel finally ended the call and joined me in his very lived-in living room. He lit up a joint. I was too shy to say no, and in a foggy, self-conscious haze I listened to recordings he had made over the years. “Here’s another one I did with Marty Paich.” It felt like I was there for hours, hearing his stories and music. Mel Lewis wasn’t afraid to talk about himself.
He said I should come down and sub in the band. He let Dick Oatts know, and soon I was called to come in and sightread some of the most challenging saxophone music in existence, with its fast and technically difficult sax solis. Dick was very supportive. I continued to sub on and off for a couple years (the regular second alto player was Steve Coleman at the time).
In 1980 Mel and I performed together at a jazz festival in Orlando. My first record had just been released on Concord Jazz, and I started to get some work under my own name. The festival was set up sort of like mini jam sessions. For one set I played tenor in a band with Mel on drums and a very swinging older bass player who I hadn’t met. His commitment to swinging was so profound and at one point during the set I turned to him and asked his name. “Gorge Morrow” was his reply. THE George Morrow. The guy on the Clifford Brown/Max Roach record with Sonny Rollins, where they played the iconic version of Pent-up House. THAT George Morrow.
At the end of the gig Mel asked me to join his big band. There had just been an opening on one of the tenor chairs. I was ecstatic. Of course…duh, yes, I will join the band. But, when I got back to New York and talked with Dick Oatts he explained that he was moving Gary Pribeck over from baritone to the tenor chair to make room for the great Gary Smulyan to become part of the sax section on the baritone chair, something Dick had wanted to do for some time. Besides, he really liked my alto playing and was anticipating and opening in the alto chair at some point soon. And he was right. Steve left within the year and I joined the band, an association that would last ten years (1981-1991).
When I joined the band Bob Brookmeyer was the musical director. Mel brought him in a couple years after Thad’s departure, and the direction of the band’s music changed quite a bit during that short time. Bob had written modern, through-composed pieces featuring several of the key players in the band. Although the music was great - exploring new textures and harmonies - a few of the band members resisted the new direction, preferring the more traditional repertoire. I would see Bob standing in front of us, trying to engage the full support of the band, and over time feeling dejected. He finally quit. The band went back to playing primarily Thad’s music.
Mel encouraged us to write for the band. Earl McIntyre and Jim McNeely had already been contributing to the repertoire. Ed Neumeister, Kenny Werner and I were the next ones to jump in. Ironically, both Ed’s and Kenny’s writing style came strongly out of Brookmeyer’s.
When the band first performed in the mid-60s it featured groundbreaking arrangements, based in the Basie tradition, but expanding outward on every level. And there was something slightly exotic and appealing about the band’s presentation as well. The fact that one leader was black and the other white spoke very much about how music transcended the racism and segregation that was rampant at that time.
Thad’s and Bob Brookmeyer’s composing and arranging became the new standard and influenced so many great composers who came up after. My first arrangements were written for the band and it was a great opportunity to develop this skill in what was almost a workshop environment. We almost never rehearsed so if you brought down a new chart it was sightread at the club.
Extended solos were another thing that the band featured, as opposed to the short solos of the swing era. My Uncle, Ted Nash, was a featured soloist in the Les Brown Band in the late 1940s and had to get to his shit very quickly. In the Mel Lewis band we often were given several chorusses to develop our solos, for better of worse.
For ten years I sat between Dick Oatts and Joe Lovano, and I can think of no players on alto and tenor I like more. They both had a tremendous influence on the way I play.
I regret to not have had the chance to get to know Thad. I did get to know Mel quite well. He was optimistic, honest, always swinging, very dedicated to the band and the musicians in it. Sitting in the Village Vanguard kitchen between sets would often be an education. Mel would lean back in the creaky, vintage office chair and regale us with stories, sometime about the old days, sometimes about yesterday. Sometime he shared things that really should have been kept to himself. But it was always entertaining. He was like the eccentric uncle that you looked forward to seeing every Thanksgiving but glad you didn’t live with.
I am blessed to have had the opportunity to develop in so many ways as a result of being part of this wonderful orchestra.