Mel Lewis, The Pioneer of Jazz Drumming

America is home to the greatest musicians, and Mel Lewis is one of them

He was an American jazz drummer who was also working as a session musician, professor, and author. With all the contributions he made to Jazz music, it’s not exaggerated to say that he’s the pioneer of jazz drumming.

He began his career in the 1950s when he started working with Stan Kenton. It led him to be part of the legendary big band with Thad Jones.

Throughout his decades-long career, Mel Lewis received fourteen Grammy Award nominations, showing how respected he is and one of the best drummers in the industry. He is remembered as an innovative drummer whose techniques were adopted by many leading jazz musicians after him.

Keep following this article to learn more about him!

Mel Lewis’ biography

Mel Lewis, or Melvin Sokoloff, was born on May 10, 1929, in Buffalo, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents named Samuel and Mildred Sokoloff.

At a young age, he already developed an affinity for music and began playing drums professionally in his teen years.

In 1954, he joined Stan Kenton’s band, quickly establishing himself as a jazz drumming prodigy. His talent and musical career later brought him to Los Angeles in 1957 and then to New York City in 1963.

Later that year, after gaining his position in the industry, he co-founded the American Jazz Orchestra. His legacy continues today through his work as a professor and author.

Mel Lewis’ musical journey

Mel Lewis, a legendary jazz drummer, had a remarkable musical career throughout his active years. Starting in the late 1950s, he performed Stan Kenton’s band.

In 1966, he performed with Trumpeter Thad Jones. Initially, the group consisted of informal gatherings with the city’s leading studio and jazz musicians, but it later progressed to performing regularly on Monday nights at the renowned Village Vanguard. Later that year, it became known as Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

After Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, the group became called Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.

Throughout his career, Lewis has collaborated with many musicians, such as Terry Gibbs and Gerald Wilson. He also recorded several albums featuring some of the greatest musicians of the time and firmly established Lewis’ place among the jazz elite.

Playing style and approach

Lewis was a jazz musician renowned for his distinctive cymbal work and was considered a one-of-a-kind musician by many. Even drummer Buddy Rich praised his style, stating, “Mel Lewis doesn’t sound like anybody else. He sounds like himself.

Lewis preferred to play with Turkish-made cymbals, eventually switching from Zildjian cymbals to Istanbul. As for his setup, he used a 21-inch ride on the right, a 19-inch crash-ride on the left, and his signature 22-inch swish “knocker” with rivets on his far right.

He was also known for playing warm and rich-sounding Gretsch drums, and in later years, he used Slingerland drums with natural calfskin heads.

He got his own playing philosophy. It was to “support” rather than “push or pull.”

The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life and Music Of Mel Lewis

As a respected jazz musician, he also got someone who wrote a book about him – ‘The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life and Music Of Mel Lewis‘, which was published in 2016 and is an intimate look into his life and career.

Chris Smith, the author, pays tribute to the man behind one of the most influential figures in modern jazz drumming. As a fellow drummer and educator, he brings a unique perspective to Lewis’s life and career, highlighting not just his musical achievements but also his impact as a mentor and teacher.

The book provides a comprehensive look at the drummer’s life and legacy through extensive research and interviews with those closest to Lewis.


Thad Jones & Mel Lewis – The Groove Merchant (1968)

Mel Lewis had a vast collection of songs and albums to his name, but his most memorable work was done with his big band group, The Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.

Some of the examples are Naturally (1979), Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock (1980), Live at the Village Vanguard…Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer (1980), and Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (1982).

He was recognized for his talent in writing and arranging, earning Grammy Award nominations for their recordings. In 1979, with his band, he won a Grammy for their album Live in Munich.

As a master of big band drumming, Lewis’s collaborations with Thad Jones and Gerry Mulligan also cemented his place in jazz history. 

Today, his music continues to inspire new generations of musicians and is considered a cherished part of the jazz canon.


Towards the end of the 1980s, Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma, which was first detected in his arm and then spread to his lungs and brain. He passed away on February 2, 1990, just before Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra was due to mark its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.


Mel Lewis left an indelible mark on jazz with his innovative drumming approach.

His influence can still be felt today, whether in the work of modern drummers or young drummers who look to him as a source of inspiration. The legacy of Lewis will continue to inspire generations to come, just as it has for over 60 years.

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Written by Andrea

Andrea is a music lover and an experienced drummer with more than 15 years of drumming with different bands and music projects, such as Seditius and Hermano & the Marines.

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