The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

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The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was a jazz big band formed by trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis around 1965. The band performed for twelve years in its original incarnation, and included a 1972 tour of the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The band won a 1978 Grammy Award for the album Live in Munich and in 2009 a Grammy Award for the album Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard. The collaboration ended in 1978 with Jones suddenly moving to Copenhagen, Denmark, after which the band became the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Since the death of Lewis in 1990 it has been known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. They have maintained a Monday-night residency at the Village Vanguard for four decades.[1]


The orchestra started out as a group 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.[citation needed]

The band had its own unique style, and tradition along the lines of big band swing, bebop and hard bop. The sound was powerful, fast, intellectual and fun to listen to.[citation needed] Their pieces required a high degree of skill to play.[citation needed] Thad Jones, a trumpeter who toured (and wrote) for the Count Basie Orchestra during the 1950s, led the group, was its main arranger, and was occasionally featured, most often on flugelhorn. Mel Lewis, co-leader, produced a drum style with the band that was unique for big bands.[1] The extent in which he was able to incorporate the loose, open approach of small group playing was a major innovation.[1] His cymbal work added a texture and richness that is one of the hallmarks of the band. Every big band drummer after Lewis has been influenced by him to some degree.[1]

The orchestra was arguably the most influential big band since the swing era.[1] 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.[1] The band initially was made of all-stars, but over time endeavored to showcase new talent (e.g. Jon Faddis). Jones's arrangements proved to be highly influential upon modern composers such as Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer (who is also an alumnus), Jim McNeely, Bill Kirchner, Richard DeRosa, Bob Mintzer, Jerry Dodgion, and many others.[1] His songs built upon the innovations previously pioneered by jazz composers such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. Since the mid-1980s, the band has been renamed the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, continuing its tradition as the Village Vanguard's house band.[1]


Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

Video performances


Jones and Lewis as guests with other orchestras

Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra

  • Naturally (1979) Telarc
  • Live in Montreux: Mel Lewis Plays Herbie Hancock (1980) MPS Records/ Pausa
  • Live at the Village Vanguard...Featuring the Music of Bob Brookmeyer (1980)
  • Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (1982) Finesse
  • 20 Years at the Village Vanguard (1985) Atlantic
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 1 (1988) Music Masters Jazz
  • Definitive Thad Jones, Vol. 2 (1988) Music Masters Jazz
  • Soft Lights and Hot Music (1988) Music Masters Jazz
  • To You: A Tribute to Mel Lewis (1990) Music Masters Jazz

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

  • Lickety Split, The Music of Jim McNeely (1997) New World Records
  • Thad Jones Legacy, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (1999) New World Records
  • Can I Persuade You (2002) Planet Arts
  • The Way, Music of Slide Hampton (2004) Planet Arts
  • Up From The Skies, Music of Jim McNeely (2006) Planet Arts
  • Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard (2008) Planet Arts - double CD
  • Forever Lasting Live in Tokyo (2011) Planet Arts – double CD
  • Over Time: The Music of Bob Brookmeyer (2014) Planet Arts



Awards and honors

Grammy award:[2]

  • Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance: 2008 (for Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance - Big Band: 1978 (Live in Munich)

Grammy award nominations:

Down Beat magazine


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Wong, Herb. The Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Education Journal, Nov./Dec. 2003, Vol. 36, #3, pp. 42-46.
  2. LA Times, "The Envelope" awards database. link. Accessed 2008 April 28.
  3. Down Beat magazine Critics' Poll archives. Accessed 2008 April 28.
  4. Down Beat magazine Readers' Poll archives Accessed 2008 April 28.

External links