John Edward Hasse writes of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ):
May 3 marks the centennial of jazzman John Lewis, best remembered as the pianist and musical director of the long-lived Modern Jazz Quartet.
But he was much more. A visionary, he imagined a different sound, look and esteem for jazz. A musical mastermind and organizer, composer, creative catalyst, educator—all these gifts have been undersung. But the quiet, gentle Lewis was uncommonly modest, unseeking of showmanship or stardom. He preferred to let his music speak for itself.
Raised in Albuquerque, N.M., by his grandmother and great-grandmother, he began piano lessons at age 7 and pursued music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico. After World War II Army service in Europe, he moved to New York, a cauldron of the daring, new bebop style. Lewis wrote arrangements for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s explosive big band and for trumpeter Miles Davis’s seminal “Birth of the Cool” recordings.
While gigging at night with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and saxophonist Charlie Parker, Lewis earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. He was now deeply in love with Bach, bebop and the blues, not to mention Duke Ellington’s music.
In 1952, he and the Modern Jazz Quartet began recording, with their novel instrumentation. Their personnel solidified as Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kay on drums remaining essentially the same for four decades (with a seven-year break from 1974 to 1981). With an intimate, fluid sound unlike any other, they became one of the most popular, venerable and elegant small ensembles in jazz or chamber music. Its rapport and interplay were palpable.