SKF 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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