Dennis Mackrel to Fill Mel Lewis’ Chair With Jazz Orchestra

Ex-Count Basie drummer Dennis Mackrel has been named to fill the drum chair in the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra that was vacated when Lewis, one of jazz’s great trapsmen, died Feb. 2 of melanoma in New York City.

“Before he died, Mel made it very clear to everybody that Dennis was the man he wanted to take his place,” said saxophonist Ted Nash, the Los Angeles native who has played with the Lewis band for seven years, by phone from his home in Brooklyn. “Dennis had subbed with the band on numerous occasions, both when Mel was ill and when he was out of town.”

Mackrel made his first appearance as the aggregation’s regular drummer on Feb. 5 at Greenwich Village’s Village Vanguard, which has been the band’s musical home for more than 25 years. Lewis played the room on Monday nights, from the early ‘60s through 1978 as co-leader of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and since then as sole leader.

Other than the obvious aspect of the players’ missing Lewis’ musical and personal impact, the fact that the band will have no leader poses no problem, said Nash. “There is no one musical director, so decisions on new material will be made by a group of players, as it was done in the past,” he said. “Basically, we’re going straight-ahead, just like Mel wanted it. If any changes come about musically, they’ll happen organically. But we’re going to miss his music more than you can ever imagine. We always think of Mel when we play, and I’m sure that will continue.”


Nash said that as far as he knew, Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, widow of the room’s founder, Max Gordon, had no plans to change its Monday night policy.

Lewis, whose “The Definitive Thad Jones” (MusicMasters) is nominated for a 1990 big-band jazz instrumental Grammy, was honored at a memorial service Sunday at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. “People flew in from everywhere, and the band played throughout the evening, in between speakers,” Nash said.

The saxophonist offered this remembrance of his late employer: “He loved the band so much that he treated everyone like one of his kids. And while he was a leader, he was very much a sideman in wanting to be at the same level--musically and socially--as the players. He had a very relaxed feel, but not so laid back that it didn’t push you. His sound was dark and very round and it filled things up a lot more subtlely than guys who are more intensive. And even though he was known as a traditional player, he was open-minded musically, always on the lookout for non-traditional music and for new guys with things to say.”

Lewis, who played with Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan and Dizzy Gillespie during his lengthy career, was from New York and lived most of his life in Manhattan. However, from 1957-63, he resided in Los Angeles, playing here with the orchestras of Gerald Wilson and Terry Gibbs, co-leading a small group with Bill Holman and recording on many LPs.

“He was one of my closest friends and we loved each other,” said Holman, the distinguished composer and bandleader who fronted a quintet with Lewis in 1958. “Musically, he made history. He was really one of a kind. Nobody has ever been able to sound like him. He gave a band a feel. Guys have studied him and tried to get that feel, but they couldn’t do it.”

“He had something special. He was there, always trying to do something to help and I’m really going to miss him,” said Wilson, for whom Lewis played on such classic 1960s LPs as “You Better Believe It!” and “Moment of Truth” (the latter was recently re-released on a Capitol CD). “He was one of the pioneers. He had good feeling and in a big band, if the drums aren’t brewing, it’s hard.”

For the second successive year, the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Jazz Caravan, featuring the Al Aarons Quintet, is bringing jazz to elementary schools in Los Angeles. The Caravan--which spotlights Aarons (trumpet), Herman Riley (reeds), Joanne Grauer (keyboards), Frank De La Rosa (bass) and Earl Palmer (drums)--is playing eight schools. The program began earlier this month at the Utah Street School and finishes its brief tour at the Westminister Elementary School on Feb. 23.

“This year, we’re giving the kids familiar themes from movies and television, played with a jazz emphasis,” said Teri Merrill-Aarons, the society’s president and wife of the trumpeter. “Tunes like ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ and ‘The Flintstones Theme,’ which a lot of guys like to play on. (Disc jockey) Chuck Niles introduces each piece, perhaps pointing out who made a great recording of the tune, and the band switches around from one style to another.”


Depending on the school, the Caravan plays for between 300-500 children, Merrill-Aarons said. “The response has been marvelous. The kids are good listeners, and we’re making a good audience out of them.” Information: (213) 469-6800.