Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Accidental Birth of the Modern Jazz Quartet

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

Louis Armstrong played trumpet, but he also sang - frequently. Another trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval, plays piano during his sets. Many big bands turned to vocalists backed primarily by the sax section at various points during a concert. Brass section in big bands became Latin Jazz rhythm sections for a few tunes during the course of a set. The rhythm section in a Jazz combo might all-of-a-sudden become a feature for the piano player heading up a piano-bass-drums trio.

Why these deviations and departures?

Because playing a brass instrument, especially a trumpet can be an exhausting proposition tune-after-tune, set-after-set, night-after-night.

They gotta rest their chops or their face muscles and lips [embouchure] will simply go limp on them or worse still, “get blown [rupture].”  

Enter the coming into existence of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

You can get an understanding of its “accidental birth” from Mike Hennessey’s recounting of how the group first came into existence. These excerpts are drawn from Chapter 10 The Battle of the MJQ in his splendid biography of Klook: The Story of Kenny Clark.

“If the brass section of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band had not had to cope with such a lip-bruising library, it is conceivable that the Modern Jazz Quartet might not have existed. The group started life as a quartet within the Gillespie band, featured to give the brass a break - John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Ray Brown (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums).

When the Gillespie band broke up, the combo continued as the Milt Jackson Quartet, with Percy Heath replacing Ray Brown after the latter's marriage to Ella Fitzgerald and departure to the West Coast. Then, in 1952, it became the Modern Jazz Quartet, making its recording debut for Prestige in December of that year. Today, scores of records and a few farewell tours later, the MJQ continues to be a major jazz force, largely because its musical director, John Lewis, systematically converted what was a freewheeling, extrovert, loose-limbed bebop combo into a formalized jazz chamber ensemble whose discreet, charming, well-mannered music had an appeal which went far beyond the community of hard-core jazz enthusiasts.

And therein lay the source of much tension and contention, Both Kenny Clarke and Milt Jackson recognized that by allowing Lewis to take control of the musical identity and direction of the quartet, its chances of commercial success would be enhanced; but the price they might have to pay was the sacrifice of some of their cherished musical principles.

It was soon after his return to New York from Paris in April 1951 that Kenny Clarke had teamed up with Milt Jackson again. Dizzy Gillespie founded his short-lived Dee Gee record label in this year. Kenny had made four tracks for the label, just before leaving Paris, with trumpeter Dick Collins, Jean-Claude Fohrenbach (tenor), Andre Persiany (piano) and Pierre Michelot (bass), of which only the appositely titled 'Klook Returns' was issued.

As soon as Kenny arrived in New York he got word that Dizzy Gillespie was in the studios recording some sides with a small group that included J.J. Johnson, Budd Johnson, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Art Blakey. It was the session that produced The Champ'. 'I headed straight for the studio,’ Kenny said later, 'walked right in and everybody fell out. "You mean you're back?" they shouted. And they gave me a big welcome home.'

On 8 August 1951, Charlie Parker, now at the peak of his career, put together a quintet to record some sides for Norman Granz's Verve label. Klook was on this date, together with Red Rodney, John Lewis and Ray Brown, and it proved to be a vintage recording. Red Rodney recalled, 'It was the only date I ever did with Klook and it was a great experience for me. We did some memorable sides - "Swedish Schnapps", "Blues for Alice" and "Loverman" - and it was one of the most stimulating record sessions I have ever been involved in.'

Kenny Clarke, as it happened, was very nearly not involved in it himself. He told me,

At this particular time in New York I needed money badly and Bird knew it. Originally another drummer was supposed to do the session, but Bird told me, 'Bring your drums, Klook. I don't know what drummer they've got on the date - but he won't be when you get there.' I did the date - and it was a great session. We really cooked.

About two weeks after this date the Milt Jackson Quartet made its recording debut for the Dee Gee label with John Lewis on piano and Ray Brown on bass. Later Milt and Kenny took a quartet into Minton's Playhouse, with Percy Heath on bass. As John Lewis was studying at the Manhattan School of Music, Kenny hired Gildo Mahones, a twenty-two-year-old New Yorker, on piano. Sometimes Horace Silver or Jimmy Foreman subbed for Mahones, and Lou Donaldson played with the group for a while. Donaldson was also a guest soloist on the second date of the Milt Jackson Quartet in April 1952 -this time for Blue Note. By this time, however, John Lewis had already discussed the idea of forming a co-operative band with Klook, Milt and Percy and calling it the Modern Jazz Quartet.

It was as the Modern Jazz Quartet that they made four sides for the Prestige label in December 1952. But the MJQ remained purely a recording group until late in 1954 when John Lewis completed his music studies. Sonny Rollins and trumpeter Jesse Drakes also worked with the group at different times, Rollins recording with them in October 1953. And in the summer of 1954 the MJQ, with Horace Silver on piano, played the first Newport Jazz Festival.

Response to the Modern Jazz Quartet albums was encouraging, and with Lewis now available to tour, it was decided to take the group on the road. Milt Jackson recalls the first public performance being at a club called the Chantilly on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village - but the first major booking was at Birdland on the East side of Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Reviewing the quartet's performance, writer Nat Hentoff observed, 'If the success of the Modern Jazz Quartet depended only on the support of jazz musicians, this could be the most in-demand unit in the country.’

After a highly successful three weeks at Birdland, the MJQ played two weeks at the High Hat in Boston, three weeks at the Black Hawk in San Francisco and followed with dates at Sardi's in Los Angeles, Town Hall and Carnegie Hall New York, Symphony Hall Philadelphia - and a return four-week engagement at Birdland. Public and critical reaction was tremendously positive. But Kenny Clarke was already beginning to have reservations about his involvement with the group.

By the time we got back to Birdland for the second time, the style of music had completely changed. We had become a chamber group. But I wanted to play music my way. John told me that his way was the best way to make money and I replied that, sure, I was interested in making money, but I was becoming afraid that I wouldn't be able to play the drums my way again after four or five years of playing eighteenth-century drawing-room jazz.

John wanted to be responsible for all of the music, and when I told him that Bags [Milt Jackson] and I were composers, too, he said that he was musical director and that was the way it had to be.

Milt Jackson and Percy Heath, Klook always contended, were also unhappy about the musical direction, but they were perhaps concerned not to forgo the financial security that the success of the MJQ seemed to guarantee.

A further cause for disagreement developed on the day when John Lewis announced that there would be a fifth and equal member of the co-operative: Monte Kay, who would be managing the MJQ. Said Kenny, 'I told John that no manager deserved to get twenty per cent of a band's income. But he said the deal had been done. I was very unhappy about this.’

The motivation for Kenny's decision to quit the MJQ early in 1955, at a time when the group was really winning a high level of public approbation, was probably compounded of a number of elements. And, as was not unusual, he offered different explanations at different times.

He told Helen Oakley Dance that after his disagreement with Lewis over the introduction of Monte Kay into the co-operative, he believed that Lewis mentioned the matter to John Hammond, one of whose children was receiving piano lessons from Lewis at the time.

I think Hammond's response was that, since I seemed to be a troublemaker, it would be best if they got rid of me. Anyway, there was a strange atmosphere when I came to work the next evening. The next day the band was leaving for Washington for a date in the Howard Theater. I went home and thought about it - and I decided not to go. I felt that if John was prepared to fire me on the advice of an outsider, then I really didn't want to go on working with the quartet. So I quit.

In an interview with Crescendo's Les Tomkins, published in August 1968, Kenny said that when John Lewis first outlined his policy for the group to follow, he agreed with some of his ideas - but not all.

I eventually left, not because I felt restricted, but because I couldn't accept the overall conception. It should have leaned more towards folklore than to classical music; it would probably have been more agreeable to the public that way, too. I think jazz forms are more suitable to improvise on than classical forms. Happily, they've succeeded commercially. But I have no regrets about leaving them. None at all. Probably, if I'd stayed they wouldn't have been a success!

John Lewis told me that his understanding of Kenny Clarke's reason for leaving the MJQ was that he wanted to return to Paris.

He was going back to Paris and that was it. He had an opportunity over there and he took it. He always did things like that. I remember in 1937 he was supposed to go with Fletcher Henderson - but instead he took the job with Edgar Hayes, who was not in the same league as Henderson. But I guess he wanted to go to Europe, so that's what he did. Certainly he didn't leave because of the music. He was happy with the music.

Milt Jackson, on the other hand, says that Kenny left the MJQ 'because he was unhappy about the way musicians were treated in New York'. He said Kenny had happy recollections of Europe and wanted to return. (Milt himself left the group for a spell in the mid-fifties because 'even though we were successful musically, and were making a major contribution, it wasn't as financially rewarding as it should have been'. He had another break from the quartet in 1974 when, according to notes left by Kenny, he told him, 'After twenty years I finally got out. The only thing I have against you is that you didn't take me with you when you left.'

In an interview with French writer Francois Postif, Kenny said he left the MJQ 'because John Lewis thought of nothing but making money. He wanted to become commercial and pander to the public. I didn't agree.' And he told the International Herald Tribune's Mike Zwerin that he didn't regret 'leaving the gold mine just before it panned out. Not for one minute. I've thought about that; someone said, "Klook, you should have stayed here and made all that money." But money's only good when you need it.'

In most interviews about the MJQ, Kenny refrained from raising the more disputatious matters that he referred to in the conversation with Helen Oakley Dance. And he told her, true to his general tendency to sidestep controversy for the sake of tranquillity, 'When people ask me why I left, I always say, well, it just wasn't the way I like to play.'

In a December 1963 Down Beat interview Kenny told Burt Korall: 'As for John, his music is a bit too bland and pretentious for me. I fell asleep the last time I heard the MJQ in person.’

On another occasion Kenny recalled an incident at an MJQ rehearsal which, for him, must have been the ultimate heresy. John interrupted the tune they were doing and said to Klook, 'Hey, Kenny, this is not supposed to swing.’ And Kenny replied with a mirthless chuckle, 'Yeah? What's it supposed to do then?'

Bassist Red Mitchell also recalls an incident towards the end of Kenny Clarke's time with the MJQ which would seem to confirm the view that the conflict between Klook and John Lewis over the musical direction the quartet was taking was more than a touch acrimonious.

I was walking on Broadway one day, heading downtown towards the Alvin Hotel which was just across the street from Birdland. As I got to about half a block away from the hotel I heard voices raised in a heated argument. There, on the corner, were Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke - and I caught Kenny shouting at the top of his voice, 'Well, let that motherfucker get his own band!'
I'm quite certain that Kenny objected strongly to what John Lewis was doing to the MJQ. And it seems ironic to me that, in the end, Kenny went to France to pursue playing jazz the American way, while John Lewis stayed in the States and Europeanized the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

My own view is that the primary cause of Kenny's leaving the MJQ was his increasing dissatisfaction with the musical path that Lewis was following - a factor which, for Kenny, far outweighed any consideration of enhanced financial rewards.

However, I am quite sure that Kenny totally misread the attitude of John Lewis when he believed that he was preparing to fire him. Neither was it the case that Klook left the MJQ because he wanted to return to Paris. He didn't leave New York until some eighteen months after parting from the quartet. The most likely explanation is that he found the Lewis repertoire restricting and not in accord with his musical ideals, and he genuinely didn't want to become trapped by the MJQ's commercial success and the obligations that that would impose. It was yet another escape act for Kenny, and I am absolutely certain that, as he told Zwerin, he never regretted it for one moment.

He told me once,

I stuck it for a while and everybody tried to convince me how much it would mean to me financially - but I tried to think a little ahead, and I realized that it would all add up to being the same. I knew I could get more satisfaction and enjoyment from playing my way.

Among the papers Kenny left behind is an interview transcript with a handwritten note on the bottom, which reads:

I always knew the MJQ would make it because the musicians are sincere and talented, plus John Lewis had a formula for success and a businesslike attitude. Seeing their success, I'm not sorry I left. I'm completely happy with the way things have turned out because I like doing the things I do.

It was signed, 'Kenny "Klook" Clarke, drummer, Paris, France, 1968.’

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