Pianist John Lewis, the driving force behind the Modern Jazz Quartet, died March 30th in New York City; he was eighty. Lewis and the MJQ were among jazz’s most enduring units, performing and recording prolifically between 1952 and 1974, and again when they reunited in 1981.
Lewis was born in La Grange, Illinois in March 1920 and grew up in New Mexico, where he began to play piano at the age of seven. While pulling a stint in the army, Lewis met drummer Kenny Clarke. Upon returning from Europe, Clarke helped Lewis land a spot with Dizzy Gillespies band in the mid-Forties as a pianist and arranger, filling the seat vacated by Thelonious Monk. Lewis also spent part of the late-Forties playing with Charlie Parker and played piano and arranged a pair of tracks on Miles Davis’ legendary Birth of the Cool nonet. Lewis and Clarke, along with vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown (who was replaced by Percy Heath shortly thereafter) formed the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951, later changing their name to the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952, driven by Lewis’ musical and stylistic vision for the ensemble that included tight, cool arrangements, band members clad in tuxedos and theater gigs rather than nightclubs.
The MJQ’s twenty-two year-run ended in 1974 when Milt Jackson pulled out, citing limitations on his work as a soloist within the band’s arrangements. The quartet reunited in 1981 and continued to perform and record into the Nineties. But in 1994 drummer Connie Kay (who replaced Clarke in the mid-Fifties) died, followed by Jackson in 1999. Heath is now the quartet’s lone surviving member.