BY BENSON IDONIJE
OF all the contributions that pianist John Lewis made to jazz, his ability to introduce honour and respectability to the music ranks high and remarkable. He was the music director of the celebrated Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) for its entire existence and history, a figure of substance and an astute judge of musicianship. Lewis and the MJQ emerged on the scene at the time that jazz musicians and commentators were fighting for respectability, and he was determined to prove that the music itself had validity apart from the social situations and myths, which surrounded it. To some, the Whorehouse of Storyville were colourful embarrassment; each new instance of narcotics addition among jazzmen was treated as if it were unique; every stride towards social acceptance made by the music or the musicians received press plaudits often entirely in commensurate with the step taken. The MJQ of John Lewis’ choice was a boon to those who wished well for the music. Impeccably attired, with the bearing, manner, and appearance of gentlemen in the employment of a highly corporate organisation, its members played some of the most eminently respectable music ever to be called jazz. Their records were in the homes of suburbanites, who might own nothing else more daring than the Songbooks of Ella Fitzgernald. The quartet played in places no jazzmen had ever played before, possibly some that no others would ever play. Through the MJQ, Lewis helped to make jazz respectable even to the classical music community without taking anything away from its authenticity as a veritable jazz expression. As musical director, Lewis was despised by critics for promoting jazz as an expression of quiet conflict rather than the hard driving blues images identified with the tradition of its pioneers. Most of these sceptics were passionate adherents of the musical tradition, which gave the players in the MJQ their start. They loved the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and tended to think that any player of that music, whether a top-drawer musician or not, was better than any player of another kind of music. They were proselytisers for such men as Kenny Drew, trumpeter Kenny Durham and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley who were generating excitement at the time with jazz of the blues and gospel influenced type, and tended to view the MQJ’s vibraharpist Milt Jackson as a man somehow held captive in the sinister thrall of Lewis, stoutly maintaining that MJQ should stand for “Milt Jackson Quartet”, as indeed it once did. And why not? THE main virtue of this viewpoint was that it pointed out the differences between Jackson and pianist-composer-musical-director John Lewis, differences that amounted to a miniature history of the two main directions jazz had taken since the death of Charlie Parker. That prime exponents of these two directions were the major soloists of the same quartet, who made the MJQ one of the most fascinating valuable, successful, and frustrating units of the 50s. As Lewis once told Jazz Reviewer, “the formation of the group has little to do with what it is today. At the beginning, it was a recording group that Milt Jackson wanted to use for some records for Dizzy Gillespie’s Dee Gee label. The original drummer was Kenny Clarke and the bass player was Ray Brown. From that time, we knew how nice the music felt, and how nice it was to play together for two years with Dizzy’s band, which did not have too many arrangements. The trumpet player’s music was particularly difficult in that band, and they needed a lot of rest. The rhythm section played quite a lot as relief, and it also gave Milt a chance to play, as he didn’t have much chance to do with the band, except for a few solos. “We were all working for others when we started, and there was a serious problem about more recording work, because Milt was the leader and would not then afford to pay the others, but we hit on the idea of making the group co-operative so that no one was the leader. This condition still exists, and though it is not perfect, it has worked quite well for a long time.” The MJQ was a co-operative unit, without a leader. So it seemed, at least from the agreement to play the kind of music they played, the kinds of venues that they chose to play in, the group’s attitude to jazz, which depended on their corporate appearance. They would also be said to be operating as a co-operative outfit based on the fact that they had a target audience and they had their motive for playing the music they chose to play. But it was obvious that pianist John Lewis, who wrote most of the songs and did the arranging and directing, was the leader, even though not expressly spelt out. They all chose to be equal, but John Lewis, for reasons of his contributions to the band, was apparently the first among the equals. Lewis had to work hard on all levels to achieve his goals, musically as well as otherwise. As Miles Davis once said, “John taught all of them, Milt couldn’t read at all, and bassist Percy Heath hardly.” Lewis himself, on the other hand, was an unusually well schooled jazzman. In this, as in many other ways, he was marked different from the other members of the quartet. BORN in La Grange, Illinois, on May 3, 1920, Lewis soon moved with his family to New Mexico. Both popular and classical music were present in his home, a large, pleasant hotel owned by his grandfather. Attending the University of New Mexico, he was an anthropology major before deciding to switch to music. After graduation, he went into the army. “I met Kenny Clarke in the service,” Lewis had said, “and Kenny got me to do an arrangement for Dizzy when we got out. Dizzy liked it, and then after a while, when Mark left, I took over the piano. Dizzy’s band was such a good idea musically, but its was botched up by appearing in the wrong places… And there I sat at the piano and could see the whole thing happening, and I knew what was wrong, and I couldn’t do a thing about it.” After Dizzy, Lewis worked with Illinois Jacquet, but found two much more rewarding associations when he worked for Lester Young and, largely on records for Charlie Parker. For the latter, he recorded on indelible solo on the classic Parkers Mood. While with Parker, he also became associated with Miles Davis, then Parker’s trumpeter. Lewis was later a pianist and driving force in the Davis’ nine-piece Cool band. But at the same time, Lewis was continuing studies at the Manhattan School of Music, from which he holds two degrees, and singing with Schola Cantorum. That he saw no incompatibility in such activities his record buying for instance was likely to include Handel and Schaenberg), is a fact which was likely to have a pervasive impact on jazz indeed, it had already, at the time. This influence first began to be felt in the summer of 1956 when the MJQ found itself at Music Inn, a resort near Lenox, Massachusetts, close to Englewood. As a matter of fact, my first listening experience to the MJQ was through their performance at the Music Inn. And my entrance point to their music was Sonny Rollins whose saxophone was already familiar and fascinating, to say the least. The recorded album was titled, The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn, featuring Sonny Rollins. I loved their interpretation of Bags groove, Rollins own original where he was allowed numerous choruses as solo concession. Rollins was at its best on the solo lines, a thematic treatment, which made the melody a central point to which Rollins related from time to time. Milt Jackson vibes demonstrated the blues essence of this 12-bar blues. And of course, John Lewis contrasted the flowing symmetry of the other two solos with single notes on the piano with the right hand. He sounded intensely rhythmic in the manner of Count Basie or Ahmad Jamal. Miles Davis might have brought the dignity of a unique individual to jazz, but by the shaping the image of the MJQ, an image that was ultimately as important as the music, John Lewis helped to introduce honour and discipline to jazz as a whole.