John Lewis: Musical Architect of the Modern Jazz Quartet


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John Lewis was an important pianist, composer and educator in his own right, but will always be best remembered as the pianist and musical director of the most successful jazz group of its era, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Although the group launched and ran as a collective, Lewis was responsible for the unique fusion of jazz and classical music which characterised the MJQ in an existence which spanned five decades.

If vibraharpist Milt Jackson, who died in 1999, was the band’s star soloist, Lewis was its major architect. The light, spacious, but always swinging arrangements which he favoured took their music to audiences well beyond the confines of the jazz clubs, and they became firmly established as a fixture on the international jazz scene.

Although the group was the focal point of much of his creative effort, Lewis’s own work away from the MJQ amounted to a substantial jazz legacy in its own right. The release of two recent CDs, Evolution (1999) and Evolution II (2001), revealed that he was still a vital force. Fittingly, his final concert appearance came in a lavish gala at Lincoln Center in New York in January, when he played in settings ranging from solo piano to big band.

He was born in Illinois, but was brought up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His mother had trained as a classical singer, and passed on her love of classical music to her son (as well as his familiar jazz work, Lewis loved to sing in choirs when the opportunity arose). He studied piano as a child, and met and shared musical ideas with drummer Kenny Clarke while in the army in 1942-45.

He moved to New York on returning to civilian life, where bebop was in full flow. He joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band on Clarke’s recommendation in 1946, and premiered his “Tocatta for Trumpet” with Dizzy’s band at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Although he later dismissed it as “juvenalia”, it was a harbinger of things to come.

He worked with Lester Young and Charlie Parker, among others, in the late 1940s, and took part in Miles Davis’s nonet sessions subsequently known as Birth of the Cool (1949-50), a significant landmark in modern jazz composition and arranging. He earned a Masters degree in Music from Manhattan School of Music in 1953, still an unusual distinction for a jazz musician at that time, to add to the degree in anthropology and music he held from the University of New Mexico.

The MJQ had its roots in the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, where Lewis was partnered by Jackson, Clarke, and bassist Ray Brown. Those four musicians convened for a recording as the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951. Brown, who was then married to Ella Fitzgerald, went off to work with the singer, and Percy Heath joined the quartet which became the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952. Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1955, and that familiar line-up remained in place until Kay’s death in 1994.

The band began to build an audience through touring and recording, although it was really in the late 1950s that they established themselves as a popular draw. The interplay between piano and vibes was central to their airy, refined sound, as were Lewis’s classically-influenced compositions like “Django” and “La Ronde”. His introduction of counterpoint, fugue-like structures and fusion of Bach and the blues did not meet with universal approval, and many observers felt that Lewis’s approach restricted Jackson’s free improvisational flow, a view which the vibraharpist also expressed from time to time.

If Bach was a major influence, though, so too was Count Basie (Lewis’s spare but carefully weighted piano style has often been likened to Basie’s), and bebop was always a significant factor in their music. Lewis’s credentials as a jazz pianist are beyond question, and whatever classical leanings their music might have reflected, the MJQ were first and foremost a swinging, inventive jazz group.

Lewis had very firm ideas on exactly what he wanted from them. They included establishing a dignified stage presence, and setting standards of dress (usually performing in tuxedos) and conduct which ran contrary to the popular image of jazz musicians. In a memorable observation, critic Ralph J. Gleason noted that the MJQ “made promptness and professional, responsible behaviour almost into a fetish”.

The group made many records over the years, initially for Prestige but mainly for Atlantic, including recordings with symphony orchestras and film soundtracks which Lewis composed. The most famous of these were No Sun In Venice (1957) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Away from the group, the pianist was equally active. He released a number of records under his own name over the years, providing a showcase for both his composition and his inventive piano playing on records like Grand Encounter (1956), Improvised Meditations and Excursions (1959), The Wonderful World of Jazz (1960), P.O.V. (1975) and the recent Evolution discs.

He composed a ballet, Original Sin, in 1962, and was centrally involved with conductor and composer Gunther Schuller in the development of the so-called Third Stream Music in the 1950s, an explicit attempt to fuse jazz with more formal classical structures.

He developed even his best-known compositions in many different ways over the years. This was not simply a matter of changing the context or size of group, but an intrinsic process of constant exploration and reinvention. He was able to find new and unsuspected directions even within such a famous composition as “Django”, a point perfectly illustrated in the two radically contrasting versions included on the Evolution discs.

He remained involved in education throughout his career. He was instrumental in the setting up of the influential jazz school at Lenox, Massachusetts, in the late 1950s, which provided a model for much that came after. He taught music at Harvard University and the City College of New York.

He was musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival from 1958-82, and was leader and director of two large ensembles, Orchestra USA (1962-5) and the American Jazz Orchestra (1985-92). The former was a jazz group with additional string and woodwind sections, while the latter was an important attempt to establish a big band which would perform both classic jazz repertoire and new compositions.

Lewis’s dedication to bringing jazz and classical music together did not stem from any feelings of jazz’s inferiority in the partnership. On the contrary, his motivation stemmed from an unshakeable conviction that jazz deserved to be taken every bit of seriously as its classical counterpart, and Lewis dedicated his long career to that ideal.

John Lewis died after a long battle with prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife, Mirjana, a harpsichordist; a son, Sasha; a daughter, Nina; a sister, and three grandchildren.

Kenny Mathieson is a freelance writer based in Scotland. His book Giant Steps: Bebop and The Creators of Modern Jazz (1999) is published by Payback Press. E-mail: [email protected]

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