The Modern Jazz Quartet was a major jazz institution, a band that, counting a seven-year “vacation,” lasted 43 years. During a time when jazz musicians were stereotyped as unreliable, rarely sober and erratic, the MJQ played at concert halls while wearing tuxedos. They are not known to have ever been late, missed a gig, or disappointed an audience.
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s evolution began in the Dizzy Gillespie big band of 1946. Due to the complexity of the charts and the strain that it caused in the trumpet section, Gillespie featured his rhythm section on an occasional number. Vibraphonist Milt Jackson (1923-1999), pianist John Lewis (1920-2001), bassist Ray Brown (1926-2002) and drummer Kenny Clarke (1914-1985) made for a very self-sufficient group and they discovered that they had a great deal of musical chemistry. That was not too surprising considering that Jackson was the new pacesetter among vibraphonists, Lewis offered a sparse and bluesy but boppish alternative to Bud Powell, Brown was a major new bass soloist, and Clarke had revolutionized the drums.
A few years passed and in 1951 the Milt Jackson Quartet was formed with those four players. Brown soon left to join Oscar Peterson and was succeeded by Percy Heath (1923-2005), the oldest of the Heath brothers who had also worked with Dizzy Gillespie and the other bop greats. The MJQ made their recording debut in 1952 for the Prestige label and their first successes were for that label.
In 1955 the Modern Jazz Quartet had their one personnel change. Kenny Clarke, feeling restricted by the format, departed and was replaced by Connie Kay (1927-1994). Kay, who had played with Lester Young, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, was perfect for the role as drummer with the MJQ. His emphasis on creating quiet sounds while keeping time fit Lewis’s conception perfectly.
The MJQ spent the majority of its existence recording for the Atlantic label and it was one of the most successful jazz groups of the 1950s and ’60s. By 1974, however, Milt Jackson was itching to expand on his own solo career and he quit the group. Since replacing Jackson was unthinkable, the MJQ called it quits after a final round of sold-out concerts. Each of the musicians remained active, with Percy Heath joining his siblings in the Heath Brothers, Connie Kay working with Benny Goodman, John Lewis heading his own combos, and Milt Jackson recording constantly with all-stars on the Pablo label.