Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Day the Earth Stood Still for Thad and Mel

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

The morning of Thursday, 11 July 1968 started triumphantly for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The band assembled at the Northwest Orient ticket counter at New York's JFK Airport where they were met by an exuberant throng of family and friends who were commemorating the band's first trip overseas. The orchestra was scheduled to fly to Seattle then Tokyo to begin an eleven day tour of Japan. Thad Jones and Roland Hanna had been to Japan before but most of the band had not, so there was a tremendous air of excitement. Seven musicians--Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Snooky Young, Garnett Brown, Seldon Powell, Eddie Daniels, and Richard Davis--paid $700 in advance to Elvin Jones Productions for their wives to join them on the trip, and Richard Davis also brought along his infant child.  

The tour was built by Elvin's girlfriend, Keiko, whose father was a wealthy shoe manufacturer in Yokohama. Already very Westernized in her way of doing things, Keiko had no prior experience doing concert promotion. An itinerary of gigs and lodging in numerous cities, as arranged by Keiko, was distributed in advance of the trip and everyone was instructed to meet at the airport where they would pick up their tickets then fly West.

The celebratory mood ended when everyone learned that airplane tickets would not arrive and the band would not be traveling that day. Fortuitously, Thad's attorney was flying elsewhere out of JFK that day and came by to help. Calls were placed to the Japanese and American Embassies to sort out the dilemma, but Thad's lawyer learned that restrictions existed on how much money could be transferred on a given day between U.S and Japanese banks. He was also told that in the absence of a contract, nothing could be done to find Keiko or any specific party liable. Thad and Mel were running out of options.

Those in the band that pre-paid for their wives were, as Jerry Dodgion put it, "doubly pissed off" because they began to suspect that they'd be losing out on a trip, several weeks of work, and their deposit. As Mel Lewis told me in 1988, the possibility of a mutiny was growing by the minute. While Thad, Mel, their attorney, and the orchestra's band boy (Red Keller) tried to sort things out, the future of the band stood in the balance.

It's not clear how naive Mel Lewis and Thad Jones were about how business is done, but, according to Jerry Dodgion, in a recent interview, Keiko was certainly deceiving Thad, Mel and everyone else. According to Dodgion, Keiko kept assuring Mel that the tour's money was forthcoming, saying that everything was going to be OK and not to worry because her father was a wealthy industrialist. Little did Thad and Mel know that Keiko's father had disowned her after learning that she was dating Elvin. Nor were they aware that Keiko told Japanese promoters to "fuck off" because she wouldn't play along with the Japanese system--corrupt from a Westerner's perspective--of paying off people who demanded a cut for helping her get in touch with Japanese promoters. 

Prior to the airport fiasco, Thad, Mel, Keiko and the Japanese photographer K. Abe went to a Japanese bank in New York to get an update on the tour's funding. All conversation was in Japanese. Keiko translated for Thad and Mel and said that all was OK. But afterwards Abe told Thad and Mel that Keiko's rosy version was not the case at all and what the Japanese bankers in New York were telling Keiko instead was that there was absolutely no money available for the band.

At one point, when things looked extremely grim at JFK, Thad called his brother. In an understated, concise, and ironic turn of phrase that both Jerry Dodgion and Pepper Adams thought was remarkably appropriate, Thad said to his brother in a very stern tone of voice, "Elvin? Do you know any good spirituals?" 

Ultimately, Red Keller came up with a solution. He asked Thad and Mel if either of them had an American Express Card. Both answered that they did. "Well, buy the tickets with them!" replied Keller. That's how the band got overseas. Thad and Mel charged one-way tickets for the band and its entire retinue because their credit cards gave them 30-day terms and they'd be back in two weeks.

Their flight to Seattle departed at the same time the following morning, but this time without the hoopla. Trumpeter Danny Moore forgot his passport and had to retrieve it and fly the next day. The band finally arrived in Tokyo in the late afternoon and checked into an airport hotel. This was the first indication that the itinerary was awry. The band nonetheless had a big celebratory dinner that night at their hotel. At the end of the evening, however, Pepper got really drunk and unruly and tried to "take" Thad outside. Had Pepper sensed that the band wasn't going to get paid?

Each day the band didn't know what they'd be doing until around 2pm. Ultimately, all gigs took place in Tokyo except for one in Yokohama. Only one gig from Keiko's original itinerary was retained, to her credit at a well-known Tokyo venue. Another gig, at the Pit Inn, possibly lasted for 3 nights. Admission was $5 and the band never got paid for any of them.

Even after the difficulties at JFK and the degree to which Thad and Mel had to scramble in Japan to secure gigs, a major problem still remained: The band was stranded in Japan without any way to return. The final act of the drama played out thanks to the extraordinary generosity of K. Abe, who lent Mel his life savings to get the band back to New York. Then Mel leveraged his residence with a secondary mortgage to pay Abe back for the tickets. According to Mel Lewis, Thad and Mel also paid off their credit cards by leveraging their homes and it took quite some time to pay it off.

After the band left Japan for the U.S., Eddie Daniels stayed behind to record with Terumasa Hino's group (that included bassist Kunimitsu Inaba). Upon Daniels' return to New York, a Northwest Orient employee at the Seattle airport counter asked if he was a member of that big band that just went to Japan? Acknowledging that he was a member, Daniels was told that Thad and Mel's return flight broke the airline's record for the most liquor ever consumed. Back then, little glass liquor bottles were given out for free and some in the band, such as Bob Brookmeyer, were very heavy drinkers. "They really got their money's worth," said Jerry Dodgion.

The reason for my new research into the 1968 Japanese tour is the occasion of saxophonist Frank Basile's discovery of a Japanese website, The site, among other things, lists a possible recording--either a radio broadcast or an audience recording--that would be the first recording ever found of a performance from the 1968 Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra's tour of Japan. Frank and I are trying to determine if the recording exists. Once confirmed it will be added to "Joy Road (Discography) Updates" at

Here's the details of the possible recording, with my appended annotation. Thanks again to Jerry Dodgion and Richard Davis for their help in sorting out the personnel, etc:

THAD JONES-MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA                                                                          680720
20 July 1968, audience recording or radio broadcast, Pit Inn, Tokyo: Thad Jones flh; Bob Brookmeyer vtb; Jimmy Knepper, Garnett Brown tb; Cliff Heather btb; Jerry Dodgion as, fl; Jerome Richardson as, cl, fl; Seldon Powell ts; Eddie Daniels ts; Pepper Adams bs; Roland Hanna p; Kunimitsu Inaba b; Mel Lewis dm.

a Lover Man
b Bachafillen
c unknown title
d Don't Git Sassy
e Back Bone
f Don't Ever Leave Me
g St. Louis Blues
-c is a solo piano feature.
According to bassist Richard Davis, in a 2014 email to the author, Davis left the gig early and Inaba took his place. Because the Pit Inn was a small room for a big band, it's conceivable that Thad Jones scaled the band down to twelve pieces and Davis left the club along with the entire trumpet section before the final set.
This is the only known recorded gig from the band's first "tour" of Japan. Elvin Jones' future wife, Keiko, had agreed to put together eleven days worth of gigs. There was a great deal of excitement because this was the band's first overseas trip. An itinerary of events was given in advance to members of the band. On the morning of 11 July the band, along with seven of the musicians' wives, waited at JFK Airport to board a plane but the promised tickets never arrived at the gate. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis were left with no alternative but to charge the tickets on their American Express cards, without which the orchestra might've dissolved. To make matters worse, despite the itinerary, only one gig was arranged for the band in advance. The orchestra was in limbo each day until gigs could be acquired. The photographer K. Abe lent his life savings to pay for airplane tickets to get the group back to New York. After Mel Lewis returned, he paid Abe back by leveraging his residence with a second mortgage.
According to Jerry Dodgion, Jerome Richardson made the trip and the trumpet section on the tour was Snooky Young, Jimmy Nottingham, Danny Moore and Richard Williams. Richard Davis remembered the following: Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Richard Williams, Garnett Brown, Bob Brookmeyer, Cliff Heather, Eddie Daniels, Pepper Adams and Roland Hanna.


  1. Very intriguing story. Do you know how Thad reacted when Pepper tried to "take" him outside?

  2. Jerry Dodgion said that everyone in the band knew that Pepper was really loaded to get to the point where he would try to fight with the person he probably loved more than anyone. I think Thad's response was one of concilliation, such as "C'mon Pepper, take it easy."

  3. Man, that's a wild story. Taking a big band anywhere, let alone Japan, can be hairy even when all the arrangements are rock solid....

  4. Yes indeed, a wild ride that almost killed the band. Imagine if the orchestra ended that day at JFK. Think of how jazz history would've been different. Thad might not have written all that great music. Thad and Mel, despite the financial burden, made the right decision.

  5. From Bill Kirchner: Most interesting (and depressing) account of the Japan tour. But there's no way that the band would have done that one gig at Pit Inn without a trumpet section. The charts would have sounded terrible. Thad would never have allowed it.

  6. From Frank Griffith:

    This is a brilliant account of what must have been a serious nightmare. Definitely going into my files.