Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Modern Jazz Quartet: Impressions and Reflections

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The MJQ, as it is universally known, is an incredible delight to listen to. John Lewis (…) the scholarly, soft-spoken, diffident music director of the group, plays what sounds like a simple style of piano. Be not deceived.

His col­league Milt Jackson reigns as the most powerful voice on vibraharp in jazz, with a bluesy style and chromatic fluency that prompted someone to dub him the Steel Bender. John accompanies him in a spare, delicate counterpoint rather than the chordal style common to bebop. Some­times John will play, say, two or three select notes behind a passage. They are the per­fect two or three notes, expressions of the man's exquisite taste and unfaltering musicality.

Percy Heath (…) is a powerfully rhythmic bassist, again one of those players who produces exactly the right notes. Connie Kay's style on drums is unlike that of anyone else: you can rec­ognize it on a record immediately. It is a rather soft style, and he has a way of set­ting up an almost lacey sound with brushes on cymbal that, for all its delicacy, swings strongly. ….

They are a remarkable ensemble with an almost telepathic rapport. The MJQ was original from the moment of its foun­dation, and it still is.”
- Gene Lees

The MJQ was originally the rhythm section in Dizzy Gillespie’s post-war band…. Often quietly understated and with a conservative image, the MJQ nevertheless created thoughtful and often innovative structures, a reminder that the rhythm section has always been the engine-room of innovation in Jazz.”
-Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“…, no group went farther in establishing a valid chamber-music style for jazz. This was more than a matter of tuxedos and concert halls. The MJQ's music cap­tured an intimacy and delicacy, and a sensitivity to dynamics, that was closer in spirit to the great classical string quartets than to anything in the world of bop or swing.

But unlike their classical world counterparts, the MJQ thrived on the tension— whether conscious or subliminal—between their two lead players. The young Niet­zsche made his reputation by untangling the Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in art—analysts of the MJQ need to do the same. The Bacchic tendency, in this case, is epitomized by Jackson, a freewheeling improviser, at his best when caught up in the heat of the moment. Lewis the Apollonian, in contrast, served as Jackson's collabo­rator, adversary, and spur, all rolled into one. He constructed elaborate musical struc­tures for Jackson to navigate, embellish, and, at times, subvert.

Such tensions between opposites often underpin the greatest art, but rarely make for stable partnerships— and, in fact, Jackson's desire to perform in less structured musical environments led to the MJQ's breakup in 1974. But a few years later, the quartet came back together, for the first of many reunion concerts, tours, and recordings.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, [p. 284, paragraphing modified]


Arduous in its own way, I’m sure it must have also been a wonderful life.

Especially the frequent trips to France and Italy where the Modern Jazz Quartet was adored.

The architectural beauty of Paris and Rome, the gorgeously appointed concert halls and outdoor amphitheaters, some located in Roman ruins, the delicious cuisines and fine wines, the frequent appearances on radio and television programs; all this and more for over forty years for four, black Jazz musicians.

Not a bad way to make a living.

It seemed that pianist John Lewis, the group’s primary composer and nominal leader, was always looking for melodies that he could set to counterpoint.

Bassist Percy Heath did his best to keep the group swinging while assuming a Stoic stance about those prospects during some of Lewis more elaborate compositions.

Drummer Connie Kay was always finding new gizmos to hit or strike; his drum kit with its suspended triangles, finger cymbals and chime trees at times took on the look of a pawn shop window.

And vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose long-suffering countenance earned him the nickname “Bags,” often seemed embarrassed by it all while trying to insert the best in bebop and blues licks wherever possible into the MJQ’s repertoire.

“The Modern Jazz Quartet were something of a phenomenon in a world where jazz groups tend to be ephemeral creatures, often living no more than a single night, and reaching the veteran status after a half-dozen years. Not only did the MJQ clock up over four decades in action, but they achieved most of that longevity with only a single change of personnel, and that took place in 1955. The pre-history of the band can be traced to the Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1946, when pianist John Lewis, vibes player Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke formed the rhythm section, and often played as a quartet within the band, to allow the horn players to rest their lips. They recorded in 1951-2 as the Milt Jackson Quartet, and when Brown went off to concentrate on working with his then wife, singer Ella Fitzgerald, he was replaced by Percy Heath, and the MJQ was born.


The familiar line-up was completed when Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clarke in 1955, and the rest, as they say, is a long, long history, punctuated only by a lay-off from 1974-81, brought about when Jackson announced his intention to leave the band, citing the limitations on his playing freedoms, the constant touring schedules, and financial considerations, and they decided to quit rather than replace him. In later years, drummer Mickey Roker occasionally took over the drum chair from an ailing Kay, who died in 1994. Albert Heath joined briefly as his replacement, but the group finally broke up for good the following year.

In terms of hard bop, the MJQ were certainly on the periphery of the genre, with other priorities to follow. The essence of their distinctive contribution to jazz lay in tracking a middle path between the competing directions implied by hard bop and cool jazz, fiery improvisation and lucidly textured arrangements. 

The members of the band all had impeccable bop credentials, but the particular direction which they chose to cultivate extended the possibilities of their music in a more carefully structured, compositional fashion. At the same time, they offered an alternative public image for jazz to that of the familiar hipster stereotype, adopting a sober, businesslike, dignified demeanor in which, to quote Ralph J. Gleason's memo­rable phrase, they 'made promptness and professional, responsible behavior almost into a fetish'.


If Milt Jackson was their most dynamic and bop-rooted solo­ist, the overall direction of the band was down to pianist John Lewis, the shaping force behind their musical strategy. Much of the distinctive quality of their music grew out of the implicit creative tension between Jackson's driving, rhythmically-complex improvisations on the vibraphone and Lewis's classical leanings and concern with structure, form and order, which were evident in firmly jazz-based compositions as well as those which drew more directly on European models, notably of the 18th century Baroque era, his favored period.

Rather than simply resorting to standard bop chordal accompaniments underneath Jackson's forays, Lewis also developed a more contrapuntal style of playing, pointing up the improvisation by introducing a counter-melody, as well as writing complex independent polyphonic textures for the group as an alternative to the standard melody-over-chords model. The resulting music sounded cooler and more cerebral than the denser, heated outpourings of bop.

…, Lewis was also a primary motivator in the development of the experiments which G√ľnter Schuller, his chief collaborator in that regard, called Third Stream music. The pianist's Three Little Feelings', recorded on 20 October, 1956, with Miles Davis as soloist, and available on The Birth of the Third Stream, remains a high point of the genre. That development expanded the pianist's interest in the cross-pollination of jazz idioms and improvisation with musical forms and structures based on European classical music, always a consistent feature of his music with the MJQ.


The Quartet's enduring worth, however, was firmly based on their qualities as a jazz ensemble. Their improvisational virtuosity, a group sound which was light and airy but also driving and always swinging, a finely-honed ensemble understanding, and the elegant textural and rhythmic complexity of their music all appealed to a wide spectrum of the potential jazz audience. Their success established the band as one of the most famous of all jazz groups, and a major draw in international festivals and concert halls. While many of their concerns were tangential to hard bop, it is easy to forget in the light of their 'chamber jazz’ experiments that all of the band's members - very definitely including John Lewis - were seasoned bop players, and the style was the foundation stone of their music. Although Lewis subsequently dictated much of the musical direction of the group, Jackson has always maintained that the concept was mutually agreed at the outset….” Kenny Mathieson, Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65 Edinburgh, Canongate, 2002, pp. 107-109]

“The standard evaluation of the MJQ has stressed the division in approach between Lewis and Jackson (…) and Jackson occasion­ally seemed to fuel that impression. In his later years, however, he reacted angrily to any suggestion of antipathy within the band, blaming the media for seeking scandal or - his own word -dissension where none existed.

He has acknowledged he did not see eye to eye with Lewis on certain matters, at the same time, he made the point that 'the MJQ has been together for forty years, and there's no way a group can be that successful for all that time if ‘we didn't get along'. Jackson also acknowledged that when all was said and done, they all did better as the MJQ than they did on their own.

If Jackson was the star soloist in the band, Lewis was undoubtedly its primary shaping force. … While Lewis was firmly rooted in jazz, he was equally well versed in classical music, an interest which went back to his childhood piano studies, and remained firmly on his agenda as a composer ….

Much of Lewis’s creative effort went into the MJQ, and he had very firm ideas on exactly what he wanted from the band. They included establishing a dignified stage presence, and setting standards of dress (usually performing in tuxedos) and conduct which ran contrary to the popular image of jazz musicians, and especially bop musicians. …. [Mathieson, Ibid, excerpts from 110-111]


Their first recording session for Prestige in 1952 set the musical pattern for the MJQ which would develop over the ensuing decade and that would sustain the group over its long lifetime.

Of the tunes recorded on this first Prestige date, the real marker of things to come was Lewis’ Vendome, the first of his many fugues.

“A fugue is a European classical form which employs complex contrapuntal imitation of a given theme or themes, technically referred to as 'subject(s)', with Bach as its great exemplar. As writers like Martin Williams and Francis Davis have pointed out, Lewis was also drawing consciously on a jazz heritage. Counterpoint was also fundamental to early jazz, and if Bach was a model, so too was the Basic band of the 1930s and 1940s, the inspiration behind what Lewis described as the MJQ's pursuit of 'an integration of ensemble playing which sounds like the spontaneous playing of ideas which were the personal expressions of each member of the band'.

Their distinctive combination of piano and vibraphone as their front line instruments was always central to the airy, refined group sound which Lewis cultivated, ….

Once launched, the MJQ quickly set about defining their particu­lar direction. Their next three sessions for Prestige were gathered on the LP released as Django, and confirmed their unique approach. The title track, a tribute to Django Reinhardt, who had died in 1953, is one of Lewis's most successful and widely admired combinations of carefully structured compositional elements with flowing improvisations.

The slow 20-bar opening introduces all of the thematic material, which is then utilized in inventive fashion in the improvisations, comprising two 32-bar choruses each from Jackson and Lewis, with a dividing 4-bar interlude which aids in emphasizing the symmetry of the piece. The intro­duction is reprised at the end, giving a very deliberately balanced structure which nonetheless sounds quite unforced and organic.

As with other of the MJQ's early works, later versions would extend and refine the music further than they achieved in this original recording, but it remained a perennial favorite in their repertoire. ….

Even at this early stage, the template had been definitively laid out, with Jackson singled out as the lead soloist, and Lewis's formal aspirations firmly established as the guiding influence in their musical direction.

The pianist's lightness of touch and his lucid, highly thematic improvisations were less spectacularly virtuoso than Jackson's, but fascinating in their own right, and at different times the rhythm section was employed both conventionally and also as individual voices within the independent polyphony which characteristically made up the musical texture.

At the same, time, Lewis also looked to develop a more controlled shape to the group's ensemble playing. As Martin Williams points out in The Jazz Tradition, 'Lewis's suggestion to the other members of the Quartet, that they attempt a more cohesive and singular emotional rise and fall in a given piece, may have begun as a piece of self-knowledge. But far from being a matter of audience pandering, it is the most legitimate sort of aesthetic refinement for Jazzmen to undertake - and, incidentally, one that Ellington has used for many years.'

If the 'classical' aspects of their music attracted most comment, both for and against, familiar standards and jazz tunes were an ever-present element at its centre. Jackson's apparently limitless ability to come up with fresh and inventive blues lines and lustrous (if occasionally over-sentimental) ballad interpretations remained equally central to the group's musical identity, and they always swung.


Improvisation also remained at the core of their music, and it is often difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. Lewis told Len Lyons in The Great Jazz Pianists: 'In all the years I've written music, there have never been any piano parts, not on anything where I've been the pianist. I invent the piano part each time. For me, improvising is the main attraction, not having to play the same thing every time.” ….

They were always impeccably prepared, rehearsing endlessly and performing new material thoroughly before recordings, with the result that, as Percy Heath told Gary Giddins, the material was 'not only rehearsed, it was refined before we got to the studio'. The MJQ raised the hackles of many jazz fans over the years, but they were a unique institution as well as a band who developed in their own singular and unshakeable fashion.

One of the things which irked those recalcitrant fans most was the idea that Milt Jackson was somehow being prevented from unleashing the full flow of his gutsy, blues-drenched playing in the context of Lewis's imposed classicism. That may have happened in some of the band's projects, but for much of the time, Milt had plenty of space and opportunity to stretch out, especially in a concert setting, and the MJQ's large roster of recordings has no shortage of prime vibraphone solos from the master.

Lewis's light, formal structures provided more sympathetic settings for Jackson than has often been allowed, and the sense of exuberant release when the vibraphonist was set loose from some passage of intricate group interplay to spin one of his dazzlingly inventive flights often gave the resulting solo even greater impact than if it had emerged from a driving bop setting. His vibrant solos provided a sharply contrasting coloration within the MJQ's palette, and he profited from Lewis's firm sense of direction and purpose, even where the settings ran contrary to his natural instincts. Jackson never really developed as an innovative leader in his own right, and generally blossomed when others were in charge and he was free just to play,….” [Mathieson, Ibid, excerpts from 113-115]

As Doug Ramsey stated in Jazz Matters:

“Creating a quartet setting that would encompass both Jackson, one of the most unrestrainedly earthy soloists in jazz, and Lewis's preoccupation with formalism presented a challenge brilliantly met. Although Lewis was to be accused of bridling Jackson, recorded evidence clearly shows that the vibraharpist functions most effec­tively in an organized context.

It is often assumed that Lewis im­posed tightly arranged structures on the quartet, but many of the "arrangements" are meldings of written material, variable patterns growing out of the members' collective experience, and spontane­ous creation.

The fact is that among listeners to the MJQ, only ex­perienced jazz musicians are likely to know what is written and what is improvised, and many of them have been fooled often enough to be amazed at what seems to be the group's extrasensory perception.” [p. 245]

Whatever distinctions one chooses to draw or preferences to express about the Modern Jazz Quartet, I’m just sorry that in the forty or so years of its existence, auditions were never held for the drum chair as I would have no doubt enjoyed the lovely European settings, all that great food and the many fine wines on offer.

But then, I suspect that each member of the group did, too.

The audio track for the following video tribute to the group was recorded at the 1987 Jazz Festival in Bath, England.