By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
The ground-breaking big band Dizzy Gillespie formed in 1946 was one of the most powerful and exciting in the history of jazz. Its brass and reed sections were given arrangements that demanded heavy expenditures of energy. It didn’t take long for Gillespie to realize that his horns needed more than the usual 15-minute breaks to recuperate. So, he put together a rhythm section of pianist/composer John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clark. These four sometimes relieved the brass and reeds for an hour at a time, while they recovered from the chore of playing incendiary bop classics such as “Things to Come” and “Our Delight.” Eventually, they left Dizzy’s band creating their own combo known as the Milt Jackson Quartet. In 1952, when they formed a cooperative combo under the leadership of Lewis, they became the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) which may be the most successful ensemble in the history of jazz. Like Dave Brubeck they capitalized on a growing enthusiasm for jazz among college students. The MJQ disbanded 22 years later but re-formed intermittently into the 1990s. The overbooked Brown was replaced by Percy Heath and, in 1955, Clark by Connie Kay.
John Lewis, one of the melodically most gifted of all jazz composers, firmly believed that J.S. Bach and the blues were compatible and he successfully combined classical forms with improvisation, particularly Milt Jackson’s inventive solos. And Jackson, in turn, rode the irresistible pulse and beautiful blend of bassist Percy Heath, often used as a third melodic voice as well as drummer Connie Kay, who had his own bright colors (a whole arsenal of auxiliary rhythm instruments – finger cymbals, triangles, even small Chinese drums) that didn’t clash with Jackson’s vibes, Arguably, Kay’s uncommonly subdued and sensitive drumming ushered in the MJQ’s finest period from 1955 to 1960. At their considerable peak, the MJQ’s interplay was almost flawless, possessing an original concept that exploited two musical traditions in a very specific way and may be the best exemplar of so-called “third-stream music” jointly inspired by jazz and classical.
There are so many accepted “truths” in jazz that just ain’t so. For example it is jazz lore that the shape and form given by Lewis to his ensemble restricted Jackson’s flow of ideas and improvisatory freedom. But, contrarily, he played some of the most beautiful solos of his career as a member of the MJQ. As director, Lewis generally ensured that the formality and rigidity of the arrangements seldom became pretentious or overwhelmed the group’s improvisations.
1) “Vendome,” published in 1952, was one of Lewis’s earlier pieces composed when he often took over classical forms almost literally. It is available in various compilations, including the 1960 Pyramid recording.
2) “Skating in Central Park,” the ultimate Lewis waltz, is from the MJQ score for the 1957 French film No Sun in Venice. This theme also appears in the 1959 movie Odds Against Tomorrow.
3) The interesting “Cold Wind Is Blowing” is part of a score composed by Lewis for the movie Odds Against Tomorrow, a thriller starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte. This piece takes seven and a half minutes, longer than the standard popular or jazz tune.
4) “Milano” is an exceptionally lovely ballad from the 1955 recording Django. There is a notable Mediterranean feel resounding in the opulence of MJQ’s unassuming interaction, Like the more famous Django, “Milano” is almost a program piece, using the jazz idiom within a tightly controlled frame.
5) The joyous “Golden Striker,” also from No Sun in Venice is one of the more upbeat numbers in the MJQ’s repertoire. It blends swing – courtesy of Kay’s insistent ride cymbal work – against Heath’s grooving bass lines.
Some of you will notice the absence of Lewis’s most popular piece “Django” his homage/lament to the loss of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The reason for omission is simply that “Django” is an iconic jazz classic much discussed and praised by a multitude of writers. There is, by the way, a particularly good ”Django” on the 1960 recording titled Pyramid
You may wish to investigate other worthy MJQ recordings. I recommend two live 1960 CDs. The first is a near-perfect double CD titled European Concert which contains 15 high-quality songs. The second is also a double and was recorded live in what was then Yugoslavia. The title is Dedicated to Connie and summarizes the quiet power of the MJQ in some of their most representative pieces. These two recordings are a vital addition to any serious jazz record collection. I also favor the 1957 film score for No Sun in Venice, which I have referenced above. Gunther Schuller, who organized the orchestra for the original soundtrack recording, observed that “it can serve its purpose in the film. But it can also stand as absolute music apart from the original situation.”
Jazz is one of the last outposts of the vanishing elegance of this world. And the always elegant MJQ combined the qualities of genuine jazz with the classicism of baroque music, providing a unique experience of cool, quiet swing that never lacked emotion and equally never lacked control. As bassist Percy Heath once noted “We got jazz up and out of the barrooms. We tried to put it on the level of the concert stage.” True and, thankfully, while making a “Lady” out of jazz the MJQ seldom forgot to swing.