My Life Before and After Mel Lewis

220px-MelLewis-1979SKF NOTE: All of us have pivotal moments in our lives. We gain new knowledge from reading a book, listening to music, studying a new subject, visiting a place for the first time, or meeting someone. Pivotal moments change everything for us. Our lives can be defined as before-and-after the pivotal moments.

One major pivotal moment in my life took place in 1977 when I interviewed drummer Mel Lewis. I was 26- or 27-years old, still feeling that whatever other jobs I had to work to earn a living, my goal was to one day make my living solely as a professional drummer.

By 1977 I had played in a few bands. Through performances, teaching, and freelance writing, I was earning enough — barely — to live. I loved the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. I owned and listened to their albums over-and-over, especially Live at the Village Vanguard and Consummation. Mel plays and sounds great. And I loved studying the musical conversations of the Jones/Lewis rhythm section of Mel Lewis, Richard Davis, and Roland Hanna.

The Jones/Lewis Orchestra was loved by jazz critics and fans. They released classic jazz albums nominated for Grammy Awards. Mel was endorsed by Gretsch Drums and Zildjian Cymbals. And Mel could play every style of music. He excelled at reading and interpreting drum charts.

In short, Mel Lewis 1977 was the model of a professional drummer. Mel Lewis had very successfully traveled the musical road to which I, walking several miles behind him, had dedicated my life.

We met in Mel’s New York City apartment. I had driven into the city from Long Island, parked as close as I could to Mel’s address, and walked the rest of the way. I stepped into Mel’s apartment building entryway where I was supposed to ring the buzzer to Mel’s apartment. Scanning the rows of doorbell buttons I didn’t see the last name Lewis.

“Who are you looking for?” asked the doorman, my puzzled expression a dead giveaway.

“Mel Lewis,” I said, “I’m here to interview him for Modern Drummer magazine.”

“Press the button for Sokoloff,” said the doorman. Mel’s real last name was Sokoloff? Already I was learning something new.

When I arrived at Mel’s apartment, Mel opened the door and invited me in. He was 48-49 years old. A gracious host and a natural born talker with great stories to tell, our interview went on for hours.

My pivotal moment took place near the end of the interview. Mel and I were talking about the Jones/Lewis Orchestra and Mel said, “We haven’t made a profit with that band in 13 years.”

We talked about reasons why the Jones/Lewis Orchestra hadn’t made a profit in 13 years and then the interview was over. Mel said he wanted to get out of his apartment and stretch his legs. He offered to walk me to my car. And when we arrived at where I had parked my car, my car wasn’t there. I didn’t know what happened to it, but I didn’t want Mel to think I was unknowingly stupid enough to park my car in a place where it would be towed.

My car was towed. Riding the Long Island Railroad home, I was thinking about what Mel said: “We haven’t made a profit with that band in 13 years.” That was on my mind all night, and all the next day riding the LIRR back into NYC to pay the Transit Authority $100 to get back my car, my 1972 Chevy Vega that probably wasn’t worth $100.

Mel’s matter-of-fact, “We haven’t made a profit with that band in 13 years,” was like Mel telling me everything I believed about what it takes to be a successful drummer was wrong. All of it. And I didn’t have a backup plan.

Depressing? You bet. Soon I stopped gigging, sold or gave away my drums and cymbals and did the necessary work of getting my life in balance. Ed Soph was right when he said of all of us who identify ourselves first as drummers: “You’re not a drummer. You’re a human being” who happens to play drums.

Within a few years I was focused on studying and writing about drummers and drumming. I only stopped playing drums in public, not at home. Eventually I started writing songs — lyrics and music — on piano and guitar.

But my heart remains with drumming.

I learned much later that Mel Lewis shared a birthday with the man responsible for introducing me to drums, my Uncle Bob Fish. A few years ago, when I was selling my house I decided to get rid of my LP collection — except for my autographed copy of Mel Lewis & Friends.

And as I write, on the window sill in front of my desk I keep a pair of Mel Lewis signature Slingerland drumsticks. A gift from a pivotal person in my life.

In closing here’s a lifelong favorite Mel Lewis track. This is a stellar performance.

Thanks for everything, Mel.


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Neil Peart – My Writing Apprenticeship

SKF NOTE: Neil Peart is perhaps as respected as writer — lyrics and books — as much as he is respected as a drummer.

Six or seven years ago, while packing all my “things” to move out of the house I’d been in for almost 30 years, I found on a bookshelf these five books Neil sent me at the time he self-published each book.

While unpacking these books in my new home I wondered if Neil still had copies for himself. I treasure these books, but if Neil didn’t have copies, I was going to offer to send these to him for the Neil Peart Presidential Library.

I took and emailed the book cover photos posted here along with a short note.

Neil’s reply, sent the next day, is posted below mine.


Scott K Fish
Mar 8, 2014, 4:53 PM
to Neil

howdy – sorting through a lifetime of books today. recognize these? / skf


Neil Peart
Mar 9, 2014, 2:24 PM
to me

Yes indeedy — my apprenticeship!

I have said many times how glad I am that in prose writing I was able to have that learning period BEFORE I started publishing — and wished I could have had that in music.

I would have started Rush’s history around, say, our sixth album!

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Ahmad Jamal Trio 1958 – That Was a Rhythm Section

SKF NOTE: Ahmad Jamal (piano), Israel Crosby (bass), and Vernell Fournier (drums). Man, that was a trio, a rhythm section. In the past, many years ago, I had an idea to write a magazine article about the Great Jazz Rhythm sections. The specifics are lost, but I do recall wanting to include this 1958 version of Ahmad Jamal’s trio among the greats.

Live at the Pershing Vol. 2 was my first Jamal album. I’m sure I bought it as a cut-out record, knowing only of the Jamal trio by name, probably in the early 1970s. There were always, it seemed, cheap cut-out records available. And the early 1970s was when I began buying and studying records in earnest.

Vernell Fournier kills on this date. Right from the start, track 1, Too Late Now, his brush playing is masterful. I used to practice playing brushes listening to this album through headphones. Talk about a learning curve. Not being a “schooled” drummer I relied almost totally on my ears, striving to nail Fournier’s sound, not his technique. It was not easy.

The classic 1958 recording of Billy Boy on Miles Davis’s Milestones album features Philly Joe Jones with the other musicians in the Miles Davis rhythm section — Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) — playing Ahmad Jamal’s Billy Boy arrangement from Live at the Pershing Vol. 2.

But I loved this trio’s team spirit and relaxed, relentless s-w-i-n-g. Phew!

Forty-eight years after buying Live at the Pershing Vol. 2 I still have it in MP3 format on my among my iPod playlists. This 62-year old recording date is still fresh. It could have been recorded this past weekend.

In fact, looking further into this album tonight I discover a Complete LIve at the Pershing album, and the same trio in 1958 with The Complete Live at the Spotlite Club — both “Complete” albums on CD, not MP3. Would love to hear them.

How many albums hold their magic over a lifetime? Personally, the percentage is small. If I was a new drummer trying to learn to play brushes, Vernell Fournier and Live at the Pershing Vol. 2 would be on my go-to list.

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Drummer Shortcomings Lead to Innovations Pt 2 – Roy Haynes

SKF NOTE: Yesterday, 9/22/20, I wrote about Kenny Clarke’s frustration trying to play left handed snare accents while crossing his right arm over-and-above his left while keeping time on his hi-hat. His frustration was the catalyst for Clarke’s experimenting with keeping time with his right hand on a ride cymbal. That change is now a standard way of playing drumset.

I tended to attribute evolution in drumming to artistic insight, flashes of musical inspiration. Yet, the more I learned about drummers and drumming, the more I discovered innovations were sometimes a result of more practical matters.

For example, for years I assumed jazz drummers in the 1960s used smaller “bebop” kits because the 18×14 bass drum, 8×12 and 14×14 toms lent themselves to a more melodic style of drumming. Yet in separate interviews in the 1980s, both Max Roach and Elvin Jones said they used the smaller drums because they fit better in a car trunk or in the back of a station wagon.

So much for flashes of musical inspiration.

Roy Haynes is credited as the first drummer to move away from playing the hi-hat with his foot on the 2 and 4 beats. For a long time, that was the rule of thumb for playing a drumset. You played the hi-hat on beats 2 and 4.

Roy Haynes treated his left foot on the hi-hat much the way he treated his right foot on his bass drum. Both were independent parts of the drumset.

I don’t remember how, but one afternoon, at a Hip Ensemble rehearsal in Roy Haynes’s basement, our conversation turned to Roy’s hi-hat playing. His rehearsal drumset was a bright white four-piece Ludwig. He gave me permission to sit at the drumset. I didn’t play, but I did rest my foot on Roy’s bass drum pedal. It was surprising how loose his foot pedal springs were adjusted. Almost as if he didn’t use the spring tension at all.

If I tested his hi-hat I don’t remember. But when our conversation turned to his not playing a strict 2 and 4 hi-hat — Roy laughed. He knew many people, including me, spoke about his hi-hat independence as a flash of musical inspiration. But the truth is, he said, try as he might, he was never able to play while forever keeping strict 2 and 4 time with his hi-hat. Instead, he developed his classic style, his one-of-a-kind voice.

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Drummer Shortcomings Lead to Innovations

SKF NOTE: Sometimes innovations in drumming – stylistic and/or equipment changes that become standard – begin as one drummer’s, or a few drummers’, workaround to a shortcoming. Discovering the root of such innovations is a favorite part of studying drumming/music history.

Shortcoming may not be the most accurate description. Let me start with one example of a current standard for drummers that was once a workaround for one drummer’s physical challenge.

History credits Kenny Clarke as first to use a ride cymbal as the main timekeeping part of his drumset. Before the ride cymbal, drummers’ used the snare drum, the bass drum, and then the hi-hat as their primary timekeeping elements.

Clarke, however, ran into the same physical challenge every drummer faces keeping time on his hi-hat. He was a right-handed drummer playing a standard four-piece drumset configuration: bass drum, snare drum, small and floor toms. His snare, small tom, and bass drum were set up in front of him. His floor tom was on Clarke’s right side and his hi-hat was on his left side.

Kenny Clarke played with his right arm crossed over to his hi-hat, situated above his left hand, which he used to play accents on his snare. This is a physically awkward way to play. In an old Down Beat story, Clarke said he found this physical limitation made it tough for him, especially playing in a big band, to use left hand accents of any volume.

Clarke wondered, What if I leave my right arm where it is naturally – on my right side – and keep time on a cymbal on a cymbal stand instead of crossing over to the hi-hat?

It worked. Keeping time on his (ride) cymbal freed up his left hand movement. Probably few drummers living today remember when using a ride cymbal was a curiosity. Ride cymbals are standard drumset equipment.

Long after Kenny Clarke’s solution to the limitations of playing the hi-hat with the right arm crossing over the left arm, there was another workaround: use two hi-hats; one placed on both sides of a drummer’s set-up.

I first saw Jack DeJohnette with two hi-hats when he was with Charles Lloyd in 1966. If not Jack, I don’t know who was first with the two hi-hat idea. But I think using two hi-hats was popularized by drummer/teacher Gary Chester, his New Breed method book, and his students — like Dave Weckl.

More drumming shortcomings turned to innovations to come.

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Tommy Aldridge on Sonor Drums – 1975

SKF NOTE: An ad from the May 20, 1975 Down Beat magazine. Tommy Aldridge is an imaginative drummer. He was bound to Black Oak Arkansas by contract long after he lost interest in the group.

Tommy’s still drumming really well. On top of that he is a nice man.

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