Thad Jones and Mel Lewis
We’re just two lucky guys
Our happy band
Happier than ever
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1969
As co–leaders of this band, would you say it had a special significance at the present time?
Jones: Well, there really is no particular significance attached to the band, other than the fact that we just want to play good music for people, and play it as well as we know how. We want to present our music to the people, and we hope they enjoy it as much as we enjoy playing it for them. That would have to be it, and I m sure Mel will agree with me on that.
Lewis: Yes—we’re all men that have been in the music business a long time; we’ve all been on the road with other bands, and have done a lot of nice things in the past, work-ing for other people. We’ve—as they say. . .
Jones: We’ve paid our dues.
Lewis: And we all came to New York, settled down, and fell into the studio situation. All of a sudden we’ve realised that life is getting shorter, and we never have stopped wanting to play.
Jones: To play good—and even better than good. Just to continually do better all the time, and improve upon whatever performances we’ve given with our past associates.
Lewis: Above all, we want to play; for the rest of our lives, actually. It’s something you never want to stop doing. And the only way something like that can be done is: somebody has to take the bull by the horns. That’s what Thad and I did; and we grabbed all our friends—people we love, admire and respect as musicians, that we like to play with. We said: “Come on; you come with us, you know.
Jones: But you know what? I have to sort of embellish that. We weren’t all friends, in the beginning. We were acquaintances who respected each other as individuals and musicians. The friendship came through our association together with our band. And it developed into such a beautiful, strong thing.
Lewis: This is really a friendly band, actually. Everybody’s become quite attached to each other. There’s no separation of several guys here and several guys there; everybody’s in it together and sort of hangs with each other. It’s a togetherness band. But they’re all men.
Jones: That’s first; if they weren’t men, they wouldn’t be able to perform the way they do on their instruments, or the way they do socially.
Lewis: We like to feel that this band represents musical maturity. Each man knows what’s happening; he’s paid his dues, he’s learned, and he’s reached a certain point. Of course, there’s no such thing as ever knowing it all; you’re always learning. But every man is a master in his own right; he knows his job. And that’s so important today.
Jones: Knowledge by itself is a beautiful thing, but there has to be that additional factor of accumulation. The knowledge that you have means nothing unless you can constantly add to it; otherwise it’ll stagnate and just remain dormant. This is the way the guys are, in our band. It sounds like we’re bragging, doesn’t it?
Lewis: Well, we are bragging, in a way.
Jones: Oh, these guys are so beautiful. You wouldn’t believe it. I stand behind what I say: this is the most beautiful bunch of men that I’ve ever been associated with in my life.
Without a shadow of a doubt.
Lewis: I would say the same thing.
Jones: This takes in everything that we’ve talked about, or want to talk about. Everything that we want to do and have done. It’s fantastic.
Lewis: I don’t think any two guys could be as lucky as Thad and I, as far as having something that you can be proud of till your dying day. The kind of thing you dream about. And most people would never attempt it, because they’d figure: “Oh, it couldn’t happen.” But it can. We’ve proved it—to ourselves, anyway. If somebody else doesn’t believe it, it doesn’t matter; we know it, and we’re two of the happiest guys in the world right now.
Jones: We’ve both been sidemen in other bands for practically all of our musical lives; we’ve never really done the things that we wanted to do as individuals. When you play with somebody else, you always try to fit that particular mould, to give what is in you to give within whatever’s going on. I worked for that bandleader; I gave him what he wanted. This is the type of attitude that I’ve come to expect; otherwise you’ll never be able to give one hundred per cent of you. And any band must do this, in order to be an orchestra, to play as one.
Lewis: What makes it nice, too, for the fellows that are with us is that they do it automatically. They’re conforming to us, like we always tried our best to please the person we worked for and to do what they had in mind. But to do what we have in mind isn’t taking as much effort from the men we have in the band, because we know that they happen to do these things In other words, they’re doing what they really want to do. So they don’t have to bend that far—or to bend at all, actually.
Jones: Every concept that we have in mind fits them as individuals, and also as people that play collectively as sections. We’re very compatible.
Lewis: Like our lead trumpet; Snooky’s a founder member. He’s our man.
Jones: He’s only the greatest first trumpet player in the world.
Lewis: But he already plays the way we want. He doesn’t have to try to play that way; he’s our favourite. And Al (Porcino) is the greatest back–up man for Snooky; you couldn’t want a better one.
Jones: You couldn’t find better.
Lewis: The same goes for Jerome Richardson, the lead alto. They all play our way.
Jones: These are our idols, the people we’ve wanted to hear work together as soloists and section–men for all these years.
Lewis: And they in turn are playing, in the kind of music that Thad writes, just what they like most.
Jones: Yet I never write anything to fit any particular person. All they do is interpret the music their way, and their way will fit the concept of the band. Whatever they want to play is beautiful. If the adjustment must be made on the rest of the band’s parts, then that will be made. Or if the soloist’s part must be adjusted, that will be done. With no sweat. It’s as easy as that. That’s what I mean by compatibility.
Lewis: As you’ve probably noticed, the rhythm section adjusts to each soloist. We never do anything behind anybody that would be uncom-fortable for him. Every soloist in this band plays differently, as well as marvellously, and in our backgrounds we get into different grooves behind the various guys. And Thad is part of our rhythm section, too. You know, he conducts the rhythm section in such a way, when he hears some patterns that’ll fit beautifully behind what a guy is playing, he’ll signal; so the three of us just open up our eyes and watch him. Oh, sometimes we get all messed up, and we laugh. We have so much fun, just trying to come up with something new each time, that’ll give the soloist a good boot just at the right time. No arrangement is ever the same twice; it’s a different version every time we play it.
Jones: That s the beauty of the whole thing, because we don’t have to do it the same way every time. We can always change it, because Mel is such a superb musician. As a drummer, he’s a horn player and a section player, in that he knows how to construct, to form and to mould things into a pattern. And this is so helpful in what I m trying to do out there. In fact, we sort of give each other little eye signals. He’ll drop an eye on me every now and then, and I know he’s saying: “Well, that won’t work.” Lewis: He popped one on me tonight. I couldn’t fall into it, and I was trying.
Jones: It cracks us up every time it happens, because we know that we tried to get it and that time it didn’t work. Next time. . .
Lewis: It’ll happen. We don’t know when we’re going to try it again, but we’ll make it next time. It’s always a laugh: “I just can’t find it—forgive me. I’ll go along the way I’m going; I can’t fall into, that’s all.” But better we have fun trying, though.
So you’d say that the band constitutes a fruition of all our earlier experiences. As well as knowing how to run a band, you know how not to run a band.
Jones: Well, we haven’t turned our back on anything.
Lewis: We re learning all the time, and I think now we both realise what some of the people we worked for went through. We also know, having been sidemen for them. that we have our own ideas on, say, their approach to the musicians. But then again, times were a little different then. Things have changed since Thad and I got of the road. It’s not the same situation in today’s music scene. Back in those days we were on the road every night, playing mostly dances—and we were in jazz bands.
Jones: Yes, we did a fantastic amount of one–nighters. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a touring band, although it is at the moment. Most of the year it isn’t—but we’d love it to be. I love travel, and I think a band really gets itself together on the road.
Lewis: But I’ve got to emphasise one thing here. We are not a rehearsal band. We’re an organised, living, working band. We don’t even rehearse; we play every week.
Jones: We have never been a rehearsal band. The band wasn’t formed just to rehearse. This is a point we’ve discussed many times.Lewis: We were tagged with that in the beginning, because that’s what we were thought to be. Naturally, when we first organised four years ago, all we did was rehearse. But, actually, we only had four rehearsals and then we went to work, and the band has been working ever since.
Jones: Six rehearsals.
Lewis: All right, six—I take it back. Still, you have to rehearse before you start. Now we rehearse very rarely—only when we have new music.
Jones: We used to call midnight rehearsals—and nobody missed.Lewis Everybody’d be there. They’d be putting in their whole day at work; they finished rehearsing at four or five in the morning, got home at six and had to be back in their studio jobs by nine or ten a. m. And it wouldn’t matter to them at all.Copyright © 1969, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.