Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Structure and Freedom: A Reappraisal of the Modern Jazz Quartet by Don DeMicheal

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


“When John Lewis stated his jazz ideals for the 1955 Metronome Yearbook, Jazz 1955, he said "They stem from what led to and became Count Basie's band of the thirties and the forties. This group produced an integration of ensemble playing which projected — and sounded like — the spontaneous playing of ideas which were the personal expression of each member of the band rather than the arrangers or composers. This band had some of the greatest jazz soloists exchanging and improvising ideas with and counter to the ensemble and the rhythm section, the whole permeated with the folk-blues element developed to a most exciting degree."


"I don't think it is possible to plan or make that kind of thing happen. It is a natural product. All we can do is reach and strive for it."


In that statement, I think, John Lewis has hit upon one of the most unique virtues of the Modern Jazz Quartet — its spontaneous unity. There have been relatively few groups in recent jazz history which have achieved the submersion of the individual talents into a group sound, feeling and existence which is actually more than the sum of its parts. The Basie bands that Lewis spoke of qualify; at times the Goodman small groups, Ellington's band, Woody Herman's First Herd, and more recently the Erroll Garner Trio (when Fats Heard was with him), Gerry Mulligan's Quartet and the current Oscar Peterson Trio. They are all groups which have had and have a particularly happy amalgamation of individual talents stewed, brewed and cooked together long enough to emerge as a single thriving, throbbing organism. And yet the individual was never lost in them. He was made greater by his contribution to the whole.


The Modern Jazz Quartet today is just that. It is indicative of their oneness that they are able to dispense with the use of microphones and loudspeakers in the night clubs (except for announcements); their balance is so good they do not need the help of electronics to make them heard. The true sound, the true note and the true blend of sound can fill a room by itself and does.”
- Ralph J. Gleason, Jazz author, columnist, critic


The following appeared in the June 17, 1965 edition of downbeat and its author, Don DeMicheal, also served as the Assistant Editor of the magazine at that time.


The Modern Jazz Quartet has to be considered one of the most successful groups in the history of the music both in terms of longevity and artistic excellence.


Over the 40+ years that the group was together, it was also a financial success, something that the so-called “Jazz purists” [read - starving musician lovers] latched onto as a major resentment.


This disgruntlement [envy or jealousy?] is the major basis for Don’s “reappraisal” which goes well-beyond pushing aside the undeserved bitterness in highlighting the MJQ’s many positive attributes.


In the mid-1990’s, the group often performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and after one of its concert, John, Milt, Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath [Connie Kay had passed away a couple of years earlier] held a meet-and-greet for select VIPs in one of the banquet rooms of the city’s majestic Masonic Auditorium.


Always the quiet one, I noticed John Lewis sitting at a table in the corner with a couple of local musicians. I joined the gathering and was soon sitting alone with him after the other musicians left. I remarked about how fortunate he and the group were to visit Europe on a regular basis and, as my work took me to Europe quite frequently, we were soon comparing restaurants and favorite wines.


After chatting  for a time, John was called away to be introduced to more, important dignitaries, but as he was leaving, he concluded his description of the MJQ’s travels in Europe with the remark: “Not a bad lifestyle over the years for four, Black Jazz musicians.” He was quietly laughing to himself as he shook my hand and thanked me for being a fan of the group for almost as many years as it had been in existence.


Here’s Don’s piece.


“THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET is taken too much for granted. It's time for reassessment.


It would seem that in jazz, success breeds contempt, for several musicians, a few critics, and numerous hippies have delighted in calling the MJQ sterile and stagnant, precious and prissy. They see music director-pianist John Lewis as a villain, bent on working some evil against vibraharpist Milt Jackson, a man of the people. Bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay are dismissed as either pawns of the villain or as flies caught in a spider's web. The detractors, however, base their criticisms much more in fancy than fact; there are no Simon Legrees or Little Nells [beggars in a Charles Dickens novel] in the Modern Jazz Quartet.

That is what the MJQ is not.


It is four gifted musicians who have worked hard to build what is one of the most musically varied and consistently excellent groups in jazz. It is not perfect, but it is unique.


The coming together of these men has proved to be one of the more fortunate meetings in jazz history. The combination of talents, particularly
those of Lewis and Jackson, has resulted in an impressive body of music, both composed and improvised.


It has been the contrast of Lewis' sophisticated musical conception with Jackson's basically folk-blues orientation and the fusion of those divergent approaches that have made the quartet a continually invigorating, ever-growing musical organization, a delightful blend of the formal and the informal, sobriety and wit.


Though the quartet's music has become increasingly intricate, the four men never have lost sight of the jazz essential — swing. At every performance there are ample portions of straight-ahead, cooking jazz. It is a soft, insinuating swing that rolls along as if on ball bearings, particularly when Lewis solos in his lean but strong manner. When he is right, Lewis stitches the time together as a cobbler stitches sole to boot.

The quartet today is so closely knit that if one member becomes ill, all engagements are canceled until the ailing member is well. There are no substitutes.


The musical development of the MJQ can be easily traced through the 24 albums produced by the group since its first recording session, in December, 1952. (The group, which originally included drummer Kenny Clarke in place of Kay, had recorded spontaneous blowing sessions previous to that but as the Milt Jackson Quartet.)


That first 10-inch LP, issued on Prestige in 1953 as The Modern Jazz Quartet with Milt Jackson, indicated the areas the group would work in: the imaginative compositions of Lewis, often in classically oriented forms (Vendome and The Queen's Fancy) but also in the accepted jazz tradition (Delauney's Dilemma); development of the music, bebop, with which the men were closely associated (All the Things You Are and La Ronde); ballad reworkings usually featuring Jackson (Autumn in New York); and updated mainstream swinging (But Not for Me and Rose of the Rio Grande). One major area not included was the blues, Jackson's forte.


Though the quartet was not a permanently organized, working unit, musicians and critics gave it unstinting praise. Nothing quite like it had been heard theretofore.


"The original idea for the quartet," Jackson said in a recent group discussion, "came from the fact that John and I played with Dizzy Gillespie in the big band, and music for the brass section was difficult sometimes, and to give them a chance to rest their lips, we would play as a quartet — John, myself, Ray Brown, and Kenny Clarke or Joe Harris. It was successful, so we decided to form a group like that. This was '46, '47."


Jackson and Lewis left the trumpeter's band soon afterwards. Lewis enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music; Jackson worked with various groups, including a return to Gillespie's small combination in 1950, which had Heath as bassist.


"Once in a while," Lewis said, "we would go out and play. Things are different now than they were then, and we were younger. We were all friends, so naturally, whenever we got a chance, we'd go out and play, go to Minton's or some place like that, or somebody would get a dance job."

The group, when it worked, was called the Milt Jackson Quartet.


"By '53," Heath said, "we had already made the Modern Jazz Quartet album, and we were getting a few jobs as the Modern Jazz Quartet. Philly and a few other gigs that year."


When did the members decide to make the group a permanent combination?


"The beginning of '54, probably," Jackson recalled. "Actually, we decided to work when we could get jobs. In the meantime, John went on the road with Ella Fitzgerald, and I still made a few gigs with Dizzy — till August of '54 when we started getting a few gigs."


"We started working pretty good after the [1954] Down Beat critics award for that record," Heath said. "We won the combo award for that Prestige Modern Jazz Quartet record."


Lewis suggested the name for the quartet; he told the others he was not interested in building a group that used someone's name as identification. The four men agreed to make the group co-operative, and each was assigned a portion of the work involved in running a musical unit.


IN THE BEGINNING, and to some extent now, the major drawing power of the quartet was Jackson. It was he who most often broke through the sometimes complex arrangements to create an improvisation that captured the hearts of the audience. But it was the setting — the contrast of a highly organized ensemble structure with solo freedom — that made Jackson even more effective than he normally was in a strictly improvisatory milieu.


The milieu, in turn, had its effect on Jackson. Before the quartet became a working group, the vibraharpist's solos occasionally were marred by flashiness. In the quartet, from the beginning, his playing took on greater introspection and depth; he shaded his work more skillfully, accenting to better advantage, balancing emphasis with de-emphasis; and in recent years, there has been an intricacy that was missing in the early days.


By the time the men recorded their second album, the Modern Jazz Quartet was a working unit, and as a result, the music was more relaxed. La Ronde, which had been a showcase for Clarke, was now a four-part performance, with each member featured in his own segment. It was the first of many reinterpretations of the group's repertoire. This second LP also contained Lewis' Django, one of his most moving and popular compositions, one that incorporated a change of tempo, something that became increasingly frequent in the quartet's performances.


All was not smooth sailing for the four men, however.


"I never thought we could stay together and make money," Jackson said a few years ago. "A lot of people tried to crush us — the agencies. Unless you have an agency in your corner, you're sunk. If you get one person in your corner, you can do it."


One person who was in their corner was Monte Kaye, the group's manager from the beginning. He helped get proper bookings. But the concept of presenting the quartet with a dignity and a formality seldom before seen in jazz was the members' own.


But not all members saw eye to eye, and in 1955 Clarke and the MJQ parted company for various reasons. Connie Kay was selected to take Clarke's place.


"I was working with Lester Young," Kay remembered, "but he was on tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic at the time. He would go with JATP for six or eight weeks, and I'd stay home. Monte called me and told me he had a job for me with the quartet in Washington and two weeks in Boston and asked me if I wanted to work."


Though he had known Jackson, Lewis, and Heath for some time, Kay was relatively unknown and unheralded in the jazz world, but he was more than an adequate replacement for Clarke. Kay's subtlety, taste, and flexibility were perfect for what the group, and particularly Lewis, was attempting to do. His ability to alter the complexion of a piece by judicious choice of cymbal, triangle, or whatever, along with his finely honed sense of time and pacing, coalesced the group. His presence had a significant effect, for it was not until he joined that Lewis attempted longer compositions, such as Concorde and the splendid Fontessa. In addition, Kay's dignified bearing fit hand in glove with the MJQ plan of presentation.


A major part of the plan was to make the group a concert-hall attraction. At one point, the MJQ had limited its night-club appearances to about two a year; all other appearances were on concert stages. This has changed somewhat recently.


"We're playing more clubs now than we ever played," Jackson said. "It has come to the point where, when we play a club, we can more or less cater to the concert-like audience because, say, 60 percent of the audience has already seen the group, and they know what to expect. Whereas before, when we played clubs, it was sort of difficult, a constant battle between the drinks, the glasses, and things like that and the kind of music we were trying to produce. . . . Through having played concerts, we can more or less create the same atmosphere in the majority of the clubs we play."


"I think we did a lot to educate night-club audiences," Heath added. "And as to why we're playing more clubs now, it's good business. There's a certain section of our audience that our managerial department felt we were neglecting by not appearing in night clubs. There's a segment of the populace that prefers to listen in that night-club atmosphere. They feel it's more intimate than sitting 30 rows back in a concert hall."


Has formal attire at concerts had a salutary effect on the group's success?


"It helps," Kay offered.


"Yes, but I think it's really the music," Heath said. "It's a good sound."


"Also they want to come see somebody who looks clean," Lewis said.
"At one time we had established the reputation for a number of things," Jackson inserted. "As an example, the owner of [San Francisco's] Black Hawk when we first went up there, told us this was the only group of musicians he knew of that had any kind of discipline, the only group that when it was 20 minutes to 10, or whatever time they hit, he never had to go out and look for.... He didn't believe this sort of thing existed in jazz.


"These things were purposely done to prove to the public that this is a respected art and profession that carries dignity and class just like any other cultural art form. It paid off. We eventually worked it out so that people could see it clearly for themselves. And I think these things, along with the music itself — that's the whole story of the success."


In an art-business where permanency is almost unheard of, how have they managed to stay together so long?


"Three squares a day," Lewis answered, with a smile.


"What John is saying," Heath said, "is that we're together because we were successful together. Why change a good thing? If it had got so we didn't have any bookings and there was no market for what we were doing, then we probably wouldn't have stayed together."


"We get along together," Jackson said. "Plus looking around you and seeing the existing circumstances.... I'm talking about top qualified musicians who can't even get a job."


IN THE 11 YEARS of its existence as a working group, the MJQ has pared and added to its repertoire, constantly reshaping those compositions it has retained. The group has grown ever more sophisticated since it reached its first peak of artistry in 1957, when it had fully established the basic tenets of its artistic creed — exposition of blues and standards, interspersed with Lewis compositions that reflected his background and ranged from suites, ballet music, and movie background music to attractive original blues, ballads, and loping 32-bar songs.


By then the members had solidified their individual styles and welded them into the group sound. Since 1957 the MJQ has spent most of its energies exploring its tenets, re-investigating much of the music it had produced, and, in general, developing as a musical unit.


"The music is more involved than when I first joined the quartet," Kay said. "But for me, it doesn't seem more involved because I'm more relaxed now; I'm used to everybody. Now I have an idea of what John wants and how everybody plays."

"The basic ideas have remained," Jackson remarked. "How John always thinks ahead, always looks for something different or helpful, to more or less extend a variety to the music, is largely responsible for the success of the quartet, I think. We can play in so many different settings and surroundings without any trouble. This lends great variety to the group."


"I don't think it's changed so much as it has developed along the direction it started out in," Heath stated. "It naturally developed. In the beginning, John may have been restricted in his writing because of the capabilities of the members — me, personally. He always wrote a little more challenging as we went along, at least he did for years. . . . Now he's better able to inject what he had in mind originally. I can do things now that I couldn't do then. I just hadn't been playing long, only about four or five years."


Lewis, who had sat quietly by as the others spoke, merely said, "I think the explanation of the other members is perfect. I mean that sincerely.... We put our eggs, so to speak, in the kind of music we wanted to play, and I think that came from associations with Dizzy, Charlie Parker, and so forth, and those who preceded. We did what we seemed to like to play best."


NOTHING IN the group's repertoire remains the same. Even Now's the Time, a Charlie Parker blues that one might assume would offer little room for development, is now played much differently from the way it was when the four recorded it in 1957. Some listeners undoubtedly would prefer to hear, say, Django, performed in its original form, but this is beside the musical point — music belongs to the players, not to the listeners. This development of its repertoire has done much to keep the quartet fresh.


"When you play a tune like that," Jackson said, referring to Django, "it eventually becomes spontaneous, it just automatically comes out different. You look for different ways of getting the results out of the same piece. We recorded Django three times, and each is different. John doesn't write a new version...."


"And it'll stay that way for a while," Heath said. "And maybe next week, John may come up with an entirely new concept of that first chorus."


Though the group has kept current a good portion of its recorded repertoire, some things no longer are played.


Heath pointed out that it is impossible to perform every composition they have recorded — the number is too large. "Another thing to take into consideration," he said, "is that as long as we've been around and if we'd had the same repertoire all that time, everybody would have figured they'd heard it. Even though it's actually different, they'd recognize the melody thing and say, 'Oh, those cats are laying back; they're just jivin' now; they got it made.' That's the public's reaction. ... This is another reason why the programs change — to keep the interest of the audience. Always give at least one thing new in every appearance."


"It takes time to keep up with all of them," Lewis said in reference to the tunes in the repertoire. "We have to rehearse them, and we have to learn new things so it's better to use the rehearsal time for the new things."


The amount of rehearsal depends on whether Lewis is working on what Jackson called a "project." Sometimes, depending on the project, rehearsals are held two or three times a week, Jackson said.


(The most recently completed Lewis project, a fetching one the quartet plays at each performance, is a group of songs from Porgy and Bess Summertime; I Want to Stay Here; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; My Man's Gone Now; It Ain't Necessarily So; Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess?; and There's a Boat That's Leavin' Soon for New York. The quartet recorded the George Gershwin compositions early last month, and it marks the first time the group has done a complete album of works by a composer other than Lewis.)


Though Lewis said he has no set method for writing for the quartet, he did offer an explanation of how he approaches the matter:


"I've been living with these people here for 14 years ... and I want to know all there is to know about, say, Milt. Any little hint I see, or if he does something I haven't heard before, I try to include that in the next thing. But I don't think you can do music with talk; you really have to do music with music. If he plays something that's better than what we had, I" — Lewis grinned and nodded his head vigorously—" and it stays in. But no one talks."


How developed are the individual parts for a new composition?


"All the essential music is there," Lewis answered.


"Some pieces, as far as the bass part's concerned," Heath said, "are written out completely.... Then there are pieces that are really head arrangements, held over from the bebop days. It runs from one extreme to the other, the whole gamut."


Jackson added, "There are pieces we have that sound like John outlined the whole thing, but nothing's been put on paper. Also, when you associate with someone every day for a number of years, you eventually learn methods, habits, and all those kind of things. To me, there's no difficulty to immediately associate a habit or something like this when we play together."


In other words, the music is collective.


"I think it's as collective as you can get," Lewis said.


Did he mean collective within his framework?


"No, not in my framework — in these four people, who years ago decided how they wanted to play the framework, to play the way we wanted. If I write music for four other people, it doesn't have anything to do with this at all. I write for each man."


Sometimes the four become five when the quartet has a musical guest. Last year, guitarist Laurindo Almeida joined the quartet for a tour of Europe and, upon their return, a successful album date. For the MJQ's European tour this September, October, and November, Lewis and the others are considering asking another outstanding musician to work with them.


When asked if the addition of a fifth person was strictly a musical consideration or if there were commercial overtones, Lewis may have unwittingly summed up his and the others' long-prevailing musical attitude when he answered:


"I can't separate them. What's good is good. If it's good music, people will like it. That's the only way I can consider it."”



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