John Lewis Dies at 80


John Lewis
John Lewis
Photo by Wil Mosgrove, courtesy of Atlantic Records

John Lewis, a founding member of one of the most famous ensembles in jazz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, died in Manhattan on Thursday, March 29. He was 80.

The M.J.Q. was a leading concert attraction from the mid-1950s to the late ’90s. The quartet made its first recordings in 1952, gave its first public performance the next year, and except for a seven-year layoff, remained consistent both in terms of personnel and signature style.

The group made its first albums in 1952 as the Milt Jackson Quartet, with Jackson on vibes, Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. When Clarke moved to Paris in 1955, Connie Kay replaced him. Kay died in 1994, and was replaced by Percy Heath’s younger brother Albert the following year. The quartet retired for good a few years later when Percy Heath decided he no longer wanted to tour. Milt Jackson passed away in 1999.

Lewis contributed the bulk of the group’s compositions and arrangements, including Django and Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West. He insisted members wear tuxedos to dignify jazz as an art, and he worked to secure as many concert hall bookings as possible.

Lewis also wrote music for symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles, and the scores for several movies, most notably No Sun in Venice and Odds Against Tomorrow.

“He was one of the great composers and great pianists of the last century,” commented Gary Giddins, jazz columnist for The Village Voice. “He virtually created the ‘third stream’ between classical and jazz music. Everything he played was jazz – even in his recordings of Bach, he made the music swing.”

“There have been very few jazz musicians who have also been great composers: Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane; John Lewis ranks among them,” stated jazz historian Nat Hentoff. “He was one of the clearest and most durable voices in all of jazz literature.” As a composer, he had “clarity, an extraordinary sense of dynamics and lyricism. He did [everything] in such a marvelously precise way, and it swung,” Hentoff concluded. “The pulse was always there.”

John Aaron Lewis was born on May 3, 1920, in LaGrange, Ill., and grew up in Albuquerque. He took his first piano lesson at age 7 and studied both music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

His entree to the jazz world came during World War II, when he met Kenny Clarke, an established drummer. At Clarke’s urging, Lewis moved to New York after his discharge. Lewis submitted some arrangements to Dizzy Gillespie, who was forming a big band with Clarke as his drummer, and eventually ended up replacing Thelonious Monk as the group’s pianist.

After a few years with Gillespie, Lewis became a busy freelance sideman, performing or recording with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others.

In 1949 and 1950, Mr. Lewis participated as both pianist and arranger in a series of recordings with a nine- piece ensemble led by Miles Davis. Peter Keepnews in The New York Times wrote that “although the music attracted little notice at the time, its pastel colors and restrained ambience came to be regarded as a seminal influence on the so-called cool jazz that flourished in the middle and late 50’s.”

The M.J.Q.’s music was primarily rooted in the improvisatory and rhythmically sophisticated style of bebop – a reflection, perhaps, of the work that Lewis and Clarke had done with Gillespie, one of the pioneers of the style. Lewis’s classical training also came to bear on the Quartet’s music. The group’s playing was understated, frequently slow and contrapuntal, quite different from the virtuoso, fast playing usually associated with bebop.

Lewis’s piano style was clearly influenced by that of Count Basie, but as a soloist he depended as much on silence as he did on notes to express himself. This subdued approach contributed to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s reputation as the standard-bearers for “cool jazz.”

Hentoff feels that, contrary to popular perception, Lewis’s playing was steeped in the blues. “Like any jazz musician of durability, he knew the roots. All through the history of jazz, the great musicians have been totally conversant in what came before and have then created their own distinctive voice.” Hentoff pointed out that like other important jazz composers and improvisers, Lewis could be recognized from the first few notes he played. “His legacy is an inviting personal body of work.”

Like the other members of the M.J.Q., Lewis maintained a separate career away from the group. From 1958 to 1982, he was musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. From 1962 to 1965 he was a leader of Orchestra U.S.A., a jazz ensemble augmented with strings and woodwinds that was a leading exponent of ‘third stream’ music. From 1985 to 1982, he was musical director of the American Jazz Orchestra, a big band that Gary Giddins established to perform both classic works and new compositions.

“I learned much of what I know about big band music from John,” Giddins stated. In 1985, when he decided to form the American Jazz Orchestra, “the only person” Giddins could picture in the role of music director was John Lewis. “I wrote him a long, elaborate letter, but at the time, he was in Europe, and it missed him in city after city.” Finally the letter caught up with Lewis, and he sent word back through his sister that he would do it. Lewis, however, thought that Giddins had asked him to do a single concert. An anxious Giddins clarified the nature of the venture – Lewis would be conducting a standing ensemble – and he quickly agreed.

“The first night was a very exciting thing, but we didn’t have any money, and we were going to have trouble producing the second concert,” Giddins remembers. At the end of the concert, he wrote out two small checks: one for Lewis, and one for himself. Lewis took his check and tore it up. “He said ‘we can’t afford it.’ He never got one nickel in seven years.” Unfortunately, even this self-sacrificing behavior wasn’t enough to save the AJO, which went belly-up in 1992 due to lack of funds. Some credit the Orchestra, however, with establishing the jazz repertory movement that caught fire in the 1990s.

Lewis was also involved as a jazz educator. He received his M.M. from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953, and later taught music at Harvard and the City College of New York. In the late 1950’s, Lewis helped found the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts.

Mr. Lewis’s most recent albums were Evolution, a solo recital released in 1999, and Evolution II, a quartet album released earlier this year, both on Atlantic. Mr. Lewis performed selections from both albums, as well as works from various stages of his career, at a concert at Avery Fisher Hall in January.

“He was an extraordinary man,” Giddins concluded. “Fastidious was his middle name. He was intransigent, he could always get what he wanted – and yet he was also incredibly warm and gentle. It was a privilege to be around him.”

A public memorial service was held for Mr. Lewis on April 17, 2001 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Speakers at the service included Stanley Crouch, Ahmet Ertegun, Gary Giddins, Gunther Schuller, and George Wein. Many musicians also performed in tribute to Mr. Lewis, including Jim Hall, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, Hank Jones, Dick Katz, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Reed, and the duo of Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

To read the tribute to Mr. Lewis delivered by Gunther Schuller at the memorial service, please click here.

In a prepared statement, Percy Heath and his wife June described their fifty-five year friendship with Lewis. “We have shared his love and friendship for over half a century. There are no words to express our sadness at his passing.”

Mr. Lewis is survived by his wife, Mirjana, a harpsichordist; a son, Sasha; a daughter, Nina; a sister, Marylyn Gore, and three grandchildren.