As a jazz devotee I have been fortunate to meet and frequently interact with many of my idols. Back in the sixties I was publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival, and the jazz giants who performed there made it one of the world’s leading events. It still is. So I not only had the opportunity to hear these artists but in many cases to talk with them – some over a period of several years. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Charles Lloyd, and John Handy come to mind. Most were gracious but not particularly generous with their time. They obviously had better things to do than to make small talk with me. Nevertheless, some I got to know fairly well.
Dizzy had a serious side, but when I got to know him he could be, but was not always, dizzy. I was never able to crack the tough façade of Miles or Mingus. Ellington seemed to me to live on the glittering surface of his celebrity. Basie was quiet and somewhat withdrawn. Charles Lloyd is a complex man of large musical appetites. John Handy is warm and personable. These are personal recollections.
THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET
But this is a piece about my friend jazz pianist John Lewis, who died in 2001. I want to relate here how he became my friend and how much I miss him.
Many years ago when my taste in jazz ran to big band swing, I was invited to a Christmas party at a luxurious Hollywood Hills pad. Eggnogs and grass. Jazz on the hi-fi. Someone asked for Christmas music. The hostess put an LP on the turntable and out came “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” But this version was different – a Christmas carol that swung. The album was by The Modern Jazz Quartet, a group I was aware of only marginally.
John Lewis was the musical director and pianist for the Modern Jazz Quartet, the longest performing jazz group ever. The quartet was formed in 1952 out of the rhythm section of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That original quartet featured Lewis on piano, Kenny Clarke on drums (Clarke left after a short time and Connie Kay took over), Percy Heath on string bass, and Milt Jackson on vibraphone.
CHAMBER MUSIC THAT SWINGS
Lewis once described those early days for me: “The quartet grew out of a quasi-jam-session format. We improvised on fairly standard material. But I felt that whenever possible, jazz needed to create more of its own material with less dependence on standard pop fare.”
What Lewis and that quartet fashioned was a microcosm of the modern jazz scene. Lewis was a true internationalist, and strived to break down the artificial barriers between so-called classical music and jazz. The Modern Jazz Quartet was much like a chamber music group, and it adopted a conscious classical stance when on stage. It took its music seriously, as well as its audience, and developed a repertoire that included the blues; European classical music, including Bach’s fugues; and American standards, many from musical comedy. This eclectic mix was presented by four musicians, frequently in elegant, formal attire, who went quietly, but fervently about their business of playing jazz in a delicate and thoughtful manner. But it swung like mad. And, at that Christmas party long ago, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” did just that.
THE CONSUMATE GENTLEMEN
Lewis was born in Illinois and grew up in New Mexico, where he attended the University of New Mexico and majored in music. Later in New York he became a highly sought jazz piano player and arranger before formation of the MJQ, as the groundbreaking quartet was known. As a pianist Lewis favored spare, lean jazz lines presented in a highly rhythmic but understated fashion. He could be driving and percussive in his attack, but more often moved along in logical, frequently single-note and angular phrases.
My friendship with John Lewis extended far beyond the occasional times when I heard him play with the MJQ at the Monterey Jazz Festival, for which he was musical director for many years. We saw each other frequently here in San Francisco, in New York where John and his wife, Mirjana, lived, and even along the French Riviera where they had a home in Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Here’s my favorite recollection of John Lewis. John and I and our wives were having a late supper in a North Beach restaurant following an MJQ concert performance. During dinner the bar pianist – the piano was close to our table – was playing some Scott Joplin rags and Chicago-style “stride” piano. It was loud. At the end of the set, no one in the crowded bar or restaurant offered any applause, except John Lewis, who clapped enthusiastically. “That fellow is working hard over there and he’s quite good,” John said. That was John, the consummate gentlemen and music lover.
Ernest Beyl listens to the Modern Jazz Quartet each day as an antidote to saccharine elevator music. He may be reached at email@example.com