Tribute to John Lewis by Gunther Schuller

(This tribute was originally delivered by Mr. Schuller at the Memorial Service held for Mr. Lewis at Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 17, 2001)

It was on a winter evening in 1947, on a day when New York City was visited by one of the greatest blizzards in its entire history, that I met John Lewis the first time. Through the sheer chance of meeting John’s brother-in-law, Leon Bibb, when he and I were both working in the longtime Broadway hit show, Annie Get Your Gun, a meeting had been arranged for me to visit John in November of that year in his home in Hollis, Queens. Three feet of snow had fallen by evening on that day; the temptation was to take a rain check – or a blizzard check – on John’s dinner invitation.

But I was determined – stubborn cuss that I was (and still am) – to keep our appointment, New York’s nasty blizzard not withstanding. I was not going to be stopped, for by then I had followed John’s career as the pianist in Dizzy Gillespie’s remarkably innovative orchestra for a couple of years, having thus become an avid admirer of John’s artistry as a pianist, composer, and arranger, admiring particularly his unique luminous touch on the piano. I was not going to be denied this chance to meet the great man.

Trudging laboriously through hip-deep snow for eight long arduous blocks (from the nearest subway station), my wife and I arrived two-and-a-half hours late, John and his sister Marilyn having more or less given up on us, but nonetheless had somehow kept dinner warm and edible.

Thus began what became a deep, abiding, lifelong, brotherly friendship with John Lewis, whose life and art we celebrate here this evening.

Where shall one start to describe or eulogize John’s life and career? With the composer, the pianist, arranger, conductor, inspirer of countless fellow musicians? Or should one start with the wonderful human being – kind, sensitive, noble, selflessly generous, unwaveringly uncompromising in his ethics and his art? The answer is, of course, with both: The man and the career epitomized a unique human and artistic wholeness.

I need not enumerate the important steps in his career; they are well-known to all of us here! I was privileged to collaborate with John in some of these efforts, that surely expanded the scope, the horizons, of what was called jazz. John’s deep love and understanding of classical music brought a new dimension to jazz, without sacrificing even one iota of its essence, be it its improvisational spontaneity, its inherent sense of freedom, and – above all – its swing, as he had learned from Count Basie, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and a host of other jazz greats.

And, like Duke Ellington, he saw in that expanded vision of jazz a boundless yet disciplined music that went beyond categories and ephemeral definitions and labels. It came from a natural respect and love for other cultures, other traditions, as it was stimulated by John’s imagination and his widely varied world experiences.

Out of that same love and respect John also brought a new dignity to jazz and to his profession, in his own music making and in his (and the MJQ’s) demeanor and stage presence. Mocked at first in some circles, John knew with his typical resoluteness that music – any fine music – not only deserved such respect, but also that there was an as yet untapped audience out there who yearned for the kind of stateliness which the refined, quietly expressive, warm and friendly, swinging chamber music of the Modern Jazz Quartet offered.

John Lewis was an aristocrat – in the highest, most benign sense of that word. He radiated a sense of positiveness and relaxed assurance, devoid of any vanity or arrogance. Whatever inner private doubts he may have sometimes experienced, these never surfaced, and never interfered with his natural creativity. John always moved resolutely ahead in a beautifully straight, direct line.

He also was, in his calm persistent way, a courageous artist, who was not afraid to explore new territories, and who was singularly gifted to do so. With all his gentleness, ever the curious listener, John could also be tenaciously firm and surprisingly stern. In discussion or mutually explorative conversation, whenever his famous dismissive wave of the hand and a suddenly deprecating frown appeared, you knew that that part of the discussion was over. There was no need to continue on that path.

John had the ability to express himself with unequivocating candor, and yet he never hurt your feelings.

What I admired most particularly, among the many talents and qualities john possessed, was his deep concern for every detail, every nuance, in the essentials of music – whether in matters of rhythm, tempo, melody, harmony, phrasing, and structure. I often wondered whether he consciously knew how much and how deeply he cared about such details. It was simply the natural way to deal with the subtleties and refined nuances of his art. It was an unquestionable part of his work ethos and his innate commitment to the highest artistic standards.

John Lewis has left us a wonderful legacy, which has profoundly enriched our musical universe. May what he bequeathed to us never be forgotten or neglected.

I believe his music, especially his lightly dancing right hand, will accompany John gracefully to his eternal rest in the great pantheon.

This is how I knew John Lewis. And I shall miss him to the end of my days.

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