Full Name: Melvin Sokoloff

Description: Drummer – U.S.A.

Known For: Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra (1978)

Instruments: Drums

Music Styles: Drummer Drums

Location: United States of America

Date Born: 10th May 1929
Location Born: Buffalo, New York, United States of America

Date Died: 2nd February 1990
Location Died: Buffalo, New York, United States of America

Web Site:  Mel Lewis at Drummerworld

Other Links: See below:



Mel Lewis

An American drummer.

Mel Lewis (May 10, 1929 – February 2, 1990) was the stage name of an American drummer, jazz musician and bandleader. During his life, Lewis was a prominent solo performer, and a professor at William Paterson University, during which time he also authored a book on the art of drumming. In addition, Lewis extended his talents as session musician. Throughout his life he garnered fourteen Grammy nominations.

Lewis was born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents Samuel and Mildred Sokoloff. He started playing professionally as a teen, eventually joining Stan Kenton in 1954. His musical career brought him to Los Angeles in 1957 and New York City in 1963.


In 1966 in New York, he teamed up with Thad Jones to lead the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. 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 venue, the 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. In 1976, he released an album titled Mel Lewis and Friends that featured him leading a smaller sextet that allowed freedom and improvisation.

The band became the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, but when Jones moved to Denmark in 1978, it became known as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. 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.

Playing style and approach

Lewis’s cymbal work was considered unique among many musicians. Of his style, drummer Buddy Rich had remarked that “Mel Lewis doesn’t sound like anybody except himself”. Lewis insisted on playing genuine Turkish-made cymbals, switching from the Zildjian brand later in his career to the Istanbul brand. His setup included a 21-inch ride on his right, an 19-inch crash-ride on his left, and his signature sound, a 22-inch swish “knocker” with rivets on his far right. The rather lightweight cymbals exuded a dark, overtone-rich sound. Lewis’ wood-shell drums were considered warm and rich in their sound. He almost exclusively played Gretsch drums, although in later years, played Slingerland drums equipped with natural calfskin top heads. Regular mylar heads were used on the bottom. Lewis described a playing philosophy of not “pushing or pulling” but “supporting”. “If you watch me, it doesn’t look like I’m doing much” he remarked in an interview.

In the late 1980s, Lewis was diagnosed with melanoma. It was identified in his arm, then surfaced in his lungs, and ultimately went to his brain. He died on February 2, 1990, just days before his band was to celebrate its 24th anniversary at the Village Vanguard.

Lewis died in New York in 1990 at the age of 60.

Mel Lewis and the Orchestra

Naturally, 1979, Telarc
Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock, 1980, MPS Records/ Pausa
Live at the Village Vanguard…Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer, 1980
Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, 1982, Finesse
20 Years at the Village Vanguard, 1985, Atlantic
The Definitive Thad Jones

, Live from The Village Vangard 2CD set, 1988, Nimbus Records
Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 1, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 2, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
Soft Lights and Hot Music, 1988, Music Masters Jazz
To You: A Tribute to Mel Lewis, 1990, Music Masters Jazz

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

Opening Night (recorded 1966, released 2000) Alan Grant Presents
Presenting Thad Jones / Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (1966) Solid State Records
Presenting Joe Williams and Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, The Jazz Orchestra (1966) Solid State
Live at the Village Vanguard (1967) Solid State
The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Featuring Miss Ruth Brown (1968) Solid State
Monday Night (1968) Solid State
Central Park North (1969) Solid State
Basle, 1969 (recorded 1969, released 1996) TCB Music
Consummation (1970) Solid State / Blue Note
Live in Tokyo (1974) Denon Jazz
Potpourri (1974) Philadelphia International
Thad Jones / Mel Lewis and Manuel De Sica (1974) Pausa
Suite for Pops (1975) Horizon / A&M
New Life: Dedicated to Max Gordon (1975) A&M
Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra With Rhoda Scott aka Rhoda Scott in New York with… (1976)
Live in Munich (1976) Horizon / A&M
It Only Happens Every Time (1977) EMI Records – with Monica Zetterlund
Body and Soul aka Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra in Europe (1978) West Wind Jazz – Live in Berlin
A Touch of Class (1978) West Wind Jazz – Live in Warsaw