Mel Lewis, whose faultless timekeeping and sense of ensemble earned him recognition as one of the greatest drummers in jazz, has died of cancer in New York City.
The 60-year-old musician, who died Friday in a hospice, joined trumpeter Thad Jones to form the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1965. Lewis remained with the group for the next 23 years.
Born Melvin Sokoloff in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1929, Lewis--whose father also was a drummer--began his career at age 14, working in dance bands.
Between 1948 and 1953 he played with the bands of Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Rey, Ray Anthony and Tex Beneke. He then spent three years with Stan Kenton before settling in Los Angeles in 1957, where he played in Bill Holman's quintet and in big bands led by Terry Gibbs and Gerald Wilson.
He co-founded the critically acclaimed orchestra with Jones after settling in New York in the mid-1960s. When Jones left the orchestra in 1979, Lewis continued as its leader.
Lewis, who played until three weeks before his death, said he loved any kind of music.
"When I play, I'm ecstatic," he told an interviewer last year. "There isn't a better feeling in the world than swinging or playing a good arrangement."
Lewis is survived by his wife, Doris Sokoloff; two daughters; three sisters; a brother and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.