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John Aaron Lewis (May 3, 1920 – March 29, 2001) was an Americanmarker jazz pianist and composer best known as the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Early life

Born in LaGrange, Illinoismarker and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexicomarker, he learned classical music and piano from his mother starting at the age of seven. He continued his musical training at the University of New Mexicomarker and also studied anthropology. He served in the Army in World War II. While stationed in France on a three-year tour of duty, he met and performed with Kenny Clarke. Clarke was an early developer of the bop style and Lewis composed and arranged for a band he and Clarke organized. Lewis returned from service in 1945 and resumed his university studies.

Jazz career

In the fall however, he went to New York where he found work in 52nd Street clubs with Allen Eager, Hot Lips Page and others. After that year, he joined Dizzy Gillespie's bop-style big band where Clarke was the drummer. Lewis developed his skill further by composing and arranging for the band as well as attending the Manhattan School of Musicmarker. In January 1948, the band made a concert tour of Europe, interrupting Lewis' studies. Lewis stayed in Europe for a time after the tour, writing and studying piano. He returned to the United States and started working for Charlie Parker in 1948 (playing on the famous recording "Parker's Mood"), Illinois Jacquet from October 1948 to 1949, Lester Young from 1950 to 1951, and others. He participated in the second Birth of the Cool session with Miles Davis in 1949 but was unable to attend the first because of an engagement with Ella Fitzgerald, whom he accompanied. Al Haig substituted for him, and the band did not include a pianist for its third session in 1950. Lewis arranged the compositions "Move" and "Budo" (immediately released as singles in 1949) and contributed one tune, "Rouge", to these seminal sessions.

Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Clarke, and bassist Ray Brown had been the small group within the Gillespie big band (something that harked back to the peak of the big band era, when most big bands also featured small groups within) and played their own short sets when the brass and reeds needed a break. It led to the foursome forming a full-time working group in 1950, known at first as the Milt Jackson Quartet, and usually featuring the vibraphonist's distinctive, swinging, blues-heavy improvisations.

The group replaced Brown (who departed to join wife Ella Fitzgerald's group) with Percy Heath and changed their name to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis gradually transformed the group away from being strictly a vehicle for Jackson's improvisations, assuming the role of musical director, and oriented it toward a quiet, chamber style of music that found a balance between his gentle, almost mannered compositions, and Jackson's more elemental writing and playing. He obtained his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953 and soon made the MJQ his full-time career. From 1954 through 1974, he wrote and performed for the quartet, with the group earning a worldwide reputation for managing to make jazz mannered without cutting the swing out of the music, before Jackson decided he wanted to leave and return to his purely blues and swinging roots.

Lewis also directed the School of Jazz at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusettsmarker, annually in August from 1957 to 1960. From 1958 to 1982 he also served as music director of the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and in 1962 he formed the cooperative big band Orchestra U.S.A., which performed and recorded Third Stream (jazz/classical combined) compositions (1962–65). (The MJQ themselves had recorded an album, Third Stream Music, that amplified Lewis's and others' hopes that there could be a new stream of music welding jazz to classical music.)

After the MJQ disbanded temporarily in 1974, Lewis taught at the City College of New Yorkmarker and at Harvard Universitymarker, while performing solo recitals and duo recitals with Hank Jones and others and continued composing.

But in 1981, the Modern Jazz Quartet re-formed, though Lewis also played with his own sextet, the John Lewis Group and, in 1985, founded the American Jazz Orchestra with Gary Giddins and Roberta Swann. (The MJQ's return album, Three Windows, was dominated by chamber orchestra accompaniment, similar to tracks on the earlier Third Stream Music, including a re-written "Three Windows," a quarter piece he'd written for the MJQ's music for the film No Sun in Venice.)

In the 1990s he continued to teach, compose, and perform, both with the MJQ and independently. He participated in the Re-birth of the Cool sessions with Gerry Mulligan in 1992 (and was this time able to play on the entire album). He was also involved in various Third Stream music projects with Gunther Schuller and others, as well as being an early and somewhat surprising advocate of the music of Ornette Coleman.

John Lewis died in New York Citymarker after a long battle with prostate cancer.

Piano style

Lewis was among the most conservative of bop pianists. His improvised melodies, played with a delicate touch, were usually simple and quiet; the accompaniments were correspondingly light, with Lewis’s left hand often just grazing the keys to produce a barely audible sound. His method of accompanying soloists was similarly understated: rather than comping—punctuating the melody with irregularly placed chords—he often played simple counter-melodies in octaves which combined with the solo and bass parts to form a polyphonic texture. Occasionally, Lewis played in a manner resembling the stride styles of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, all the while retaining his light touch.

Many of Lewis’s solos had a degree of motivic unity, which is rare in jazz. For example, in "Bluesology" (1956) each chorus of his solo builds on the previous one by establishing a link from the end of one chorus to the beginning of the next. His 64-bar solo in "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (1957) derives almost entirely from its first two bars, which in turn derive from the first four notes of the theme. As the solo progresses Lewis subjects its opening motif to inversion (bar 9), chromatic alteration (bars 47 and 57), and a variety of other alterations in pitch and shape (bars 25-6, 41), which nevertheless retain their links with the basic figure.

Lewis was similarly conservative as a composer, for his music drew heavily on harmonic and melodic practices found in 18th-century European compositions. From the 1950s he wrote a number of Third Stream works combining European compositional techniques and jazz improvisation. Most of these were written for the MJQ or for the quartet with instrumental ensembles of various sizes and published by MJQ Music. Among his best pieces for the MJQ are "Django" (an homage to gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, first recorded in 1954, the year after Reinhardt's death), the ballet suite The Comedy (1962), and especially the four pieces "Vendome" (1952), "Concorde" (1955), "Versailles" (1956), and "Three Windows" (1957), all of which combine fugal imitation and non-imitative polyphonic jazz in highly effective ways. Other notable compositions that have become standards include "Milano" (1954), "Afternoon in Paris" (1956), and "Skating in Central Park" (1959, from the film score he wrote for Odds Against Tomorrow).


As leader:

As sideman with Charlie Parker:

As leader of Orchestra U.S.A. (with Gunther Schuller and Harold Farberman):
  • Orchestra U.S.A. (1963, Colpix 448), including "Three Little Feelings"
  • P.O.V. (1975, Columbia PC33534), including "Mirjana of my Heart and Soul"

Recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet:

External links

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