Meet John Lewis – Master of the Jazz Solo Piano

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Billy Taylor’s Jazz Counterpoint presents John Lewis. Born in LaGrange, Illinois and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he learned classical music and piano from his mother starting at the age of seven. He continued his musical training at the University of New Mexico and also studied anthropology. He served in the Army in World War II. While stationed in France on a three-year tour of duty, he met and performed with Kenny Clarke. Clarke was an early developer of the bop style and Lewis composed and arranged for a band he and Clarke organized. Lewis returned from service in 1945 and resumed his university studies. In the fall however, he went to New York where he found work in 52nd Street clubs with Allen Eager, Hot Lips Page and others. After that year, he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s bop-style big band where Clarke was the drummer. Lewis developed his skill further by composing and arranging for the band as well as attending the Manhattan School of Music. In January 1948, the band made a concert tour of Europe, interrupting Lewis’ studies. Lewis stayed in Europe for a time after the tour, writing and studying piano. He returned to the United States and started working for Charlie Parker in 1948 (playing on the famous recording «Parker’s Mood»), Illinois Jacquet from October 1948 to 1949, Lester Young from 1950 to 1951, and others. He participated in the second Birth of the Cool session with Miles Davis in 1949 but was unable to attend the first because of an engagement with Ella Fitzgerald, whom he accompanied. Al Haig substituted for him, and the band did not include a pianist for its third session in 1950. Lewis arranged the compositions «Move» and «Budo» (immediately released as singles in 1949) and contributed one tune, «Rouge», to these seminal sessions.
Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Clarke, and bassist Ray Brown had been the small group within the Gillespie big band (something that harked back to the peak of the big band era, when most big bands also featured small groups within) and played their own short sets when the brass and reeds needed a break. It led to the foursome forming a full-time working group in 1950, known at first as the Milt Jackson Quartet, and usually featuring the vibraphonist’s distinctive, swinging, blues-heavy improvisations.
The group replaced Brown (who departed to join wife Ella Fitzgerald’s group) with Percy Heath and changed their name to the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis gradually transformed the group away from being strictly a vehicle for Jackson’s improvisations, assuming the role of musical director, and oriented it toward a quiet, chamber style of music that found a balance between his gentle, almost mannered compositions, and Jackson’s more elemental writing and playing. He obtained his master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953 and soon made the MJQ his full-time career. From 1954 through 1974, he wrote and performed for the quartet, with the group earning a worldwide reputation for managing to make jazz mannered without cutting the swing out of the music, before Jackson decided he wanted to leave and return to his purely blues and swinging roots.
Lewis also directed the School of Jazz at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, annually in August from 1957 to 1960. From 1958 to 1982 he also served as music director of the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and in 1962 he formed the cooperative big band Orchestra U.S.A., which performed and recorded Third Stream (jazz/classical combined) compositions (1962–65). (The MJQ themselves had recorded an album, Third Stream Music, that amplified Lewis’s and others’ hopes that there could be a new stream of music welding jazz to classical music.)
After the MJQ disbanded temporarily in 1974, Lewis taught at the City College of New York and at Harvard University, while performing solo recitals and duo recitals with Hank Jones and others and continued composing.
But in 1981, the Modern Jazz Quartet re-formed, though Lewis also played with his own sextet, the John Lewis Group and, in 1985, founded the American Jazz Orchestra with Gary Giddins and Roberta Swann. (The MJQ’s return album, Three Windows, was dominated by chamber orchestra accompaniment, similar to tracks on the earlier Third Stream Music, including a re-written «Three Windows,» a quarter piece he’d written for the MJQ’s music for the film No Sun in Venice.)
In the 1990s he continued to teach, compose, and perform, both with the MJQ and independently. He participated in the Re-birth of the Cool sessions with Gerry Mulligan in 1992 (and was this time able to play on the entire album). He was also involved in various Third Stream music projects with Gunther Schuller and others, as well as being an early and somewhat surprising advocate of the music of Ornette Coleman. John Lewis died in New York City after a long battle with prostate cancer.

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