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. 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.
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.
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. Their pieces required a high degree of skill to play. 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. The extent in which he was able to incorporate the loose, open approach of small group playing was a major innovation. 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.
The orchestra was arguably the most influential Big Band since the swing era. 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. The band initially was made of all-stars, but over time endeavored to showcase new talent (Jon Faddis). Jones' arrangements proved to be highly influential upon modern composers such as Maria Schneider, Bob Brookmeyer (who is also an alumnus), Jim McNeely, and Bill Kirchner. His songs built upon the innovations previously pioneered by Jazz composition figures 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.