Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra

Artist / Band / Musician
The Groove Merchant - Thad Jonesby boberwig

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band was a Jazz Big band formed by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis around 1965.

The group, also known as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, started out as a bunch of all-star studio musicians getting together for midnight practice sessions at any place within walking distance from Jim and Andy's, a bar frequented by New York musicians. They eventually debuted at the Village Vanguard in New York, in 1966, and were quickly noticed by jazz insiders for their originality and virtuoso skills.

The band had its own unique style, along the lines of big band swing, Bebop and Hardbop. The sound was powerful, fast, intellectual and fun to listen to. Their pieces required a high degree of skill to play. Thad Jones, an improvisational genius on the trumpet, led the group. Mel Lewis, co-leader, produced a drum style with the band that was unique for Big bands. His cymbal work added a texture and richness that is one of the hallmarks of the band.

The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band was the most influential Big Band since the swing era. It was also an unusual band; creating new styles, succeeding in an era where big bands were out of favor, and remaining integrated during racially tense periods. The band initially was made of all-stars, but over time endeavored to showcase new talent (Jon Faddis). Thad's arrangements proved to be highly influential upon modern composers such as Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer (who is also an alumnus), and Bill Kirchner. His songs built upon the innovations previously pioneered by Jazz composition figures such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus.

The band performed for twelve years in its original incarnation, and included a tour of the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The band won a Grammy in 1979 for the album Live in Munich. The collaboration ended in 1978 with Jones suddenly moving to Denmark, after which the band became the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.

Since the death of Mel it has been known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Trombonist John Mosca serves as director, saxophonist Dick Oatts serves as artistic director, and pianist Jim McNeely as composer-in-residence. They have maintained a monday-night residency at the Village Vanguard for four decades.
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