Published January, 2010
One of my most important teachers and mentors was the great big band master drummer Mel Lewis. Growing up in New Jersey in the ’60s, I used to go to the Village Vanguard to hear Mel’s power and finesse with the big band he co-led with Thad Jones (Elvin’s Brother!). The first time I asked Mel for a lesson he deferred, saying he was too busy. I mentioned this to Joe Morello, with whom I was taking regular lessons at the time, and he said, “I know Mel. Get him on the phone!” We did, and Joe convinced Mel to teach me. That was the beginning of a long friendship that allowed me to examine Mel’s playing from every angle.
One of Mel’s favorite methods for locking in and swinging with the whole band as one was to use his self-described “Rub-A-Dub” system of playing eighth-notes as fills between band figures. Bob Brookmeyer used to tell me, “Play where the band doesn’t play,” and this is an approach to make that work musically. Ex. 1 is a pattern with the band playing a figure on the & of 4. Exs. 2—8 are eighth-note fills, adding one beat per exercise. You can see how these fills can really set up that band figure. Ex. 9 is a more intricate figure, and Ex. 10 is a way to fill using the Rub-A-Dub. Ex. 11 is a figure using short notes, and Ex. 12 shows how to fill using bass drum and toms for the eighth-note fills. I encourage you to listen to Mel’s playing, especially with his band, and the recordings he did with Terry Gibbs. One listen and you’ll get the idea.