Dobbin's Den

Remembering Gil Melle
November 2004


For Immediate Release:

Friday, October 29, 2004

Gil Melle, the baritone saxophonist, composer, painter, and all around Renaissance man, died yesterday of a heart attack at his home in Malibu, California. He was 73 years old.

The above arrived in my email box on October 30th. I remember the first time I saw the name Gil Melle, it was on a 78 rpm Blue Note that I purchased in 1953 while still in my teens, "Mars" backed by "Sunset Concerto". I think the other musicians – Eddie Bert, Max Roach, George Wallington and (a man who was soon to become a friend) Red Mitchell – are what first attracted to me to this record, done March 2, 1952. Then there was his first full session for Blue Note on October 25, 1953, one with Gil doubling on tenor and baritone (he played tenor only on the first one) joined by trombonist Urbie Green, who I'd heard with the Woody Herman band at the Seville Theater, and an excellent rhythm team of Tal Farlow, guitar, Clyde Lombardi, bass and Joe Morello, drums. I remember this being a favourite lp of noted Canadian painter Yves Gaucher – "Curley" to his jazz friends, a nickname, I was to learn after his death, unknown to friends out of the jazz circle. Memories of late nights in his coach house digs, good ale, good company and this wonderful session playing. Then, after fellow Emanon Jazz Society member Pat Sorrentino and I trekked down, hearing Melle's group with Lou Mecca, guitar, Bill Phillips, bass and Vinnie Thomas, a previously unannounced starter, a New Star Group, at the first Newport Jazz Festival in July 1954. Later that year, on August 25, the same quartet recorded another 10" lp for Blue Note. It was most listeners' introduction to Lou Mecca and included standards like "Lullaby of Birdland" and "Summertime" as well as Melle originals including his "Quadrille for Moderns". A year later this quartet recorded again this time with the tuba of Don Butterfield added to good effect. A 1956 Blue Note session reunited Gil with Eddie Bert and added guitarist Joe Cinderella, the great Oscar Pettiford on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums and again included standards "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Long Ago and Far Away" to Melle originals. You can hear all this music and more on Blue Note's "Gil Melle: The Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions", a 2-CD set.

Born John Gilbert Melle in Manhattan on December 31, 1931, he was raised by a family friend after his parents abandoned him when he was two. He began painting before hitting his teens and won several national competitions. By his teens he was playing saxophone and gigging around Greenwich Village. Soon thereafter he signed with Blue Note records and later did sessions for Prestige records, followed in 1967, by an electronic jazz album for Verve. After a move to LA in 1960, Melle began a 30 year career as a film composer and did scores for films like "The Andromeda Strain" and "Borderline" as well as handling assignments for TV shows like Rod Serling's "Night Gallery", "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "Columbo". In 1996 he appeared at Ruth Price's "Jazz Bakery" playing a digital saxophone, improvising compositions against a background of his own paintings. As an artist he had earlier designed covers for "Piano Interpretations" by Wynton Kelly on Blue Note and "The Thelonious Monk Trio" and Sonny Rollins' "Worktime", both on Prestige. In 1997 he wrote the liner notes for "Involution", a session where Michael Marcus was joined by the Jaki Byard trio, a session released on Jim West's Justin Time label based here in Montreal.

On top of the sessions already mentioned, Melle did "Primitive Modern", "Quadrama" and "Gil's Guests" for Prestige in the mid-50s, "Tome VI" is the 1967 Verve release, "Water Birds" of 1970 came out on Jazz Chronicles and in 1991 he returned to Blue Note for "Mindscapes".

© Len Dobbin 2004
Montreal, Quebec, Canada