WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: The Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra

Me Lewis Playdate Matt Wilson

WBGO's Playdate presents the second of three web extras for show #1. To stream the entire episode and explore more web extras from show #1, click here.

By Becca Pulliam

The winter of 1986 marked the 20th anniversary of a charismatic big band playing Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. What started as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra had become Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. They played Mondays because theaters were dark and the best musicians available.

I was assigned to do an NPR story about the anniversary. Jones had recently been named the new leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, and he was in town. We met on a Sunday afternoon in the Edison Hotel where he was settling in to watch a football game. Interviewing Thad Jones was a marvelous experience! Most of all, I remember his wrap-up, as he told me how much he loved to lead a big band: "The more you give," he said, "the more you receive."

I saw it happen at a CBO performance in an old hall on East 14th Street – his charisma, moves, steps, smiles and sly expressions, total engagement as though he were driving the band up a curving, swooping highway and dramatizing every turn. It was a reunion of sorts, as Thad had been a Basie trumpeter from 1954-63.

But my NPR editor, Thurston Briscoe, said I couldn't do the piece until I'd interviewed both Thad and Mel. Coincidentally, I'd seen Mel Lewis one afternoon at a rehearsal studio (upstairs at 79th and Broadway?) playing the drums with the Kit McClure Band, an all-woman band. He lived on West End Avenue, and we talked in his living room, each in a Barcalounger, side by side. Had I talked to Thad, he asked, because he had not. The split between them had come about eight years earlier. It was still painful.

My editor said I needed one more interview. So I met Max Gordon in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard. The rotary phone on his desk was as central to the operation as any smart phone today. Unlike Thad or Mel, Max was a small, elderly man. He told me about the State Department trip he and the band made to the Soviet Union – meaningful as Max was born in Vilna in 1903 and came to the US in the 1920s. Wikipedia is succinct on his background: "Defying his parents' wishes that he become a lawyer, he moved to New York and eventually opened the Vanguard in 1935.”

While back in the USSR, Max had become separated from the orchestra and traveled alone for a full day (or night) by train to catch up. To imagine these jazz men with their antic and artistic personalities having adventures behind the Iron Curtain just tickled me. Gordon invited me to come back to the Vanguard any time, saying "Be my guest."

After Mel Lewis died, the group re-organized as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Besides the 1986 Jazzathon, the VJO played live from a street party in Newark for WBGO’s 25th anniversary. We’ve aired them several times on JazzSet; Dee Dee Bridgewater started to sing in New York  with the band. Most recently, they were on WBGO’s Live At The Village Vanguard. Now approaching a golden anniversary, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Vanguard Jazz Orchestra deserves to be the subject of a book. Long may they play!

Here are a few words about WBGO's 1980s fundraisers a/k/a Jazzathons (or as I like to spell them, Jazzathaans):

We went from midnight sat to midnight sun… Fat Tuesdays, Greene Street, The Village Gate. I was always in on the deal making! The guys put me up to it …. WBGO’s Dorthaan Kirk

The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band played one year. Also want to say the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet played, too.... Wylie Rollins, former Program Director

Yes, live broadcasts. Amazing events. Some of them ran around the clock. The jazz community was involved. Yes, Michel Petrucciani at The Ritz [on East 11th Street, now Webster Hall], Big Joe Turner at The Village Gate [at Thompson and Bleecker] …. Duke Markos, former Operations Director

We loved Mel and we loved to play, plus we were curious to play in [The Ritz] which was famous for acoustics ….  Of course we were all regular listeners of WBGO and were excited to play for a broadcast …. John Mosca, spokesman for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

Mosca also says, “Mr. Fonebone was a character regularly featured in MAD magazine in the work of the great Don Martin who was a neighbor of Pepper Adams [baritone saxophonist in the TJ and ML Orchestras] in the Village in the 50's.  Yes, Bob Mintzer composed and arranged [Mr. Fonebone]” for Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra.

Another chart that Mel Lewis especially loved was “Just Friends” arranged by Bill Holman. Here it is from Jazzathaan April 21, 1985, at The Ritz.

Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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