John Lewis and MJQ
About John Lewis & the MJQ - Compositions - Discography (p.2) - Bibliography (p.2)

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JL 1 - John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet

John Aaron Lewis was born in La Grange (Ill.) in March 1920 and sadly passed away recently in March 2001.   He grew up in Albuquerque (N.Mex.), and started playing the piano when he was seven.   Lewis studied anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico until 1942 when he joined the Army. In the Army he befriended Kenny Clarke, a prominent Bebop drummer.

After the war, in 1946, Clarke introduced Lewis into the Dizzy Gillespie Band as arranger and pianist.  Lewis also started at the Manhattan School of Music. He included voice lessons in his curriculum and completed two degrees , developing a special interest in Renaissance and Baroc music (counterpoint).

Through Clarke, Lewis joined the nine piece Miles Davis Capitol recording group in 1949.

The Rhythm section of this group became the nucleus from which in 1952 the Modern Jazz Quartet was formed.

The Modern Jazz Quartet consisted of : John Lewis, piano - Milt Jackson, vibraphone - Percy Heath, bass - Kenny Clarke, drums. In 1955 Clarke was replaced by the quieter and more appropriate drummer Connie Kay.

Initially known as the Milt Jackson Quartet, John Lewis soon took over as musical director of the group and the name was changed to the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ).
The group played together for 22 years (until 1974), and is arguably the most successsful ensemble in the history of Jazz.

MJQ has been the main, though by no means only, vehicle for John Lewis' compositions and arrangements.
In Jazz his compositions are unique, as they commonly combine the element of Classical form with the Traditional Jazz element (largely lost in modern Jazz) of collective improvisation. The fugue is Lewis' favourite form. He uses it very effectively to integrate written lines with single and collective improvisations.


Pastels on acrylics by Michael

Leonard Feather wrote in the 'Encyclopaedia of Jazz' :

"John Lewis is regarded as one of the most brilliant minds ever applied to Jazz. Completely self-sufficient and self-confident, he knows exactly what he wants from his musicians, his writing and his career, and achieves it with an unusual, quiet firmness, coupled with modesty and a complete indifference to critical reaction. Though many of his more ambitious orchestral works have only a peripheral relationship to Jazz, he believes that the Jazz elements in his background have contributed to everything he has done."

As an instrumental soloist, Lewis has been described as :
" a unique and invariably moving Jazz pianist. His touch is sure and delicate, his ideas are disarmingly simple and honest. He has a rhythmic sense and enough technique to allow him easy freedom."

In the 50's and 60's the MJQ played a major role in making Jazz 'respectable' to many 'serious music' listeners in Europe. In the winter of 1957 alone the MJQ played 88 concerts in four months in Europe and England.

My personal interest in the MJQ commenced in the 1950's when, as a young teenager in Holland, I bought my very first Jazz LP : Fontessa. I have been hooked on the Modern Jazz Quartet ever since.

John Lewis once described his music as 'economical and transparent'.
This aspect of his music perhaps appeals to me most, for it parallels the two criteria I strive for myself when communicating ideas and concepts : keep it simple and crystal clear.
The stark contrast between Lewis' incisive skeletal solos and Jackson's brilliantly weaving beautiful sound tapestries is a key ingredient to their long lasting success.

John Lewis recording in Zürich in 1972
John Lewis recording at the Broadcast Studios in Geneva on July 5th-6th, 1972
(Photo courtesy of Jean-Jacques Becciolini, Zürich)


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JL 2 - Compositions

The principal publisher for all John Lewis Compositions is : MJQ Publishing, New York.

MJQ refers to the Modern Jazz Quartet : John Lewis piano - Milt Jackson vibraharp - Percy Heath bass - Kennie Clarke, and after 1955, Connie Kay on drums.

1945 - John Lewis joins the Gillespie Band.

  • Toccata, 1947, for trumpet and Jazz Orchestra. Premiere Carnegy Hall.

  • Minor Walk, 1947, Jazz Orchestra.

  • Two Bass Hit, 1947 for the Gillespie orchestra

  • Period Suite, 1948, Jazz Orchestra Premiere

1948 - Joins Tony Proteau's Band in Paris for 2 months. Joins I. Jacquet Band in November for 8 months. Played and recorded with Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

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1949 - 1950 - Joins Miles Davis 9 piece Capitol Band.

  • Rouge, 1949 , Jazz Orchestra. Recorded by Davis Capitol Band.

  • S'il vous plait, 1949 . Written for a 4th album of the Miles Davis Capitol Orchestra that never eventuated (only private recording).

  • Afternoon in Paris , 1949. Contrapuntal Jazz quintet. For J.J.Johnson (tbn)

  • Elysses , 1949. Jazz quintet (for J.J.Johnson)

1952 - The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) is formed.
  • Vendome , 1952. MJQ.

  • Little David's Fugue , 1952. MJQ

  • Sketch 1 , 1953. Jazz sextet (for J.J.Johnson)

  • Delaunay's dilemma, 1953, MJQ

1954 - Tours with Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Django ,1954, MJQ
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1955 - Connie Kay becomes the new drummer of The Modern Jazz Quartet.

  • Concorde , 1955, MJQ

  • La Ronde, 1955, MJQ

  • Sun Dance, 1955, Nonet, rearranged for quartet in '56

  • Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West, 1956, written for a special quintet.
    The title is a reference to the members of the group, 2 musicians from the East Coast Jazz scene : John Lewis and Percy Heath, and 3 from the West Coast : Chico Hamilton, Bill Perkins, and Jim Hall (Pacific Jazz 1217) (24 bit remastered CD in 2001, released by Toshiba/EMI - TOCJ-9353).

  • Fontessa, MJQ

  • Versailles , 1956, MJQ

  • Three Little Feelings, 1956, Brass composition for the ground-breaking Third Stream Music (Columbia CL941). The piece was played by a 30-piece brass orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller, and featured Miles Davis as soloist on flugelhorn.

  • A fugue for Music Inn., 1956, MJQ plus clarinet (for J.Guiffre)

  • A morning in Paris, 1956, (same chord progression as 'An Afternoon in Paris') MJQ

  • Variation No.1 on 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', 1956, MJQ

  • England's Carol, 1956, (variations on 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen') MJQ and Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra.

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1957 - John Lewis becomes the director of the summer Jazz Courses at Lenox, Massachusetts

  • Midsommer, 1957, MJQ

  • Sait-on jamais. John Lewis records the sound track for the French film 'No Sun in Venice'. It includes his compositions :

    1. The Golden Striker (39)

    2. One Never Knows (21)

    3. The Rose Truc

    4. Cortege (10)

    5. Venice

    6. Three Windows (triple fugue) (14)

1958 - 1964 - John Lewis is the Musical Director of Monterey Jazz Festival.
  • The Queens Fancy , 1958, MJQ and Symphony Orchestra. (10)

  • Baden Baden, 1958, MJQ (23)
1959 - MJQ integrated with the Beaux Arts String Quartet for concert in the NYC Town Hall (Sept.'59).

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1959 - John Lewis writes the film score for Odds against Tomorrow , which includes :

  • Skating in Central Park (38)

  • No Happiness for Slater

  • Social Call

  • Cue No.9

  • A Cold Wind is Blowing

  • Odds against Tomorrow (38, 39)
1959 - Lewis writes the film score for Exposure
  • Exposure , MJQ with clarinet,bassoon,French horn,cello,harp. (40)

1959 - A Milanese Story (Film score)
  • Da Capo, 1960, Jazz septet (MJQ with J.Guiffre trio : Cl/tnrsax, guitar,bass)

  • Sketch, 1960, MJQ and the Beaux Arts string quartet.

  • Festival Sketch, 1960, MJQ

  • The Comedy, 1960 - 1962, extended work for the MJQ.
    Includes : Spanish Steps - Columbine - Pierrot - La Cantatrice - Harlequin - Piazza Navona
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1961 - Stage : Original Sin ballet suite, San Francisco.

  • Alexander's Fugue, 1961, MJQ

  • Animal Dance , 1962, quartet adaptation of Original Sin Orchestra score

  • Lamb, Leopard, 1962, quartet adaptation of Original Sin Orchestra score)

  • Fugato, 1962, quartet adaptation of Original Sin Orchestra score)

  • New York 19, 1962, MJQ

  • Belkis, 1962, MJQ

  • Trieste, 1962, MJQ

1962 - Presents 'Orchestra USA', works by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller.

1963 - Natural Affection Stage : incidental music, New York

  • In Memoriam, 1963

  • Jazz Ostinato , 1963

    The following 6 titles all recorded on the record P.O.V. (Point of View)
  • Mirjana of my Heart, 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion (45)
  • Lionhead, 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion
  • P.O.V., 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion
  • Beach Head, 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion
  • Nina, 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion
  • Games, 1963, for violin, cello, flute, piano, percussion

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1971 - wrote music scores for Rod Serling's Night Gallery TV series. The episode titles are :

  • A Death in the Family
  • The Merciful
  • Class of '99
  • Witches' Feast
  • Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay
  • With Apologies to Mr. Hyde (co-composed with Oliver Nelson)
  • The Flip-Side of Satan (co-composed with Gil Mellé)

1974 - The Modern Jazz Quartet disbands.

1974 - Becomes teacher at Davis Centre for Performing Arts at City College CUNY.

1975 - Becomes lecturer at Harvard University.

1975 - Cities for People film score, won 1st prize at SF Film Festival.

1980s - Reunion of the MJQ concert at Budokan Hall, Tokyo (1980).

  • The Jasmin Tree

Composition dates uncertain :
  • Saint-Germain des Pres
  • Milano
  • Gemini
  • Midnight in Paris (1988?)

Discography - Bibliography

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Copyright © 1997 - 2005 Michael Furstner. All rights reserved.