Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was a jazz combo established in 1952 that played music influenced by classical, cool jazz, blues and bebop. The band performed over a 40-year span with only one personnel change. For the majority of their career, the group was composed of John Lewis (piano and musical director), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath (double bass) and Connie Kay (drums).
Under Lewis's leadership, they carved their own niche by specializing in elegant, restrained music that used sophisticated counterpoint, yet nonetheless retained a strong blues feel. Lewis firmly believed that J.S. Bach and the blues were compatible, combining classical form with jazz improvisation and polyphony. The band was also noted for its ability to play alongside a variety of other groups. Initially active into the 1970s until Jackson quit in 1974 due to creative disagreement and frustration with their busy touring schedule, the MJQ reformed intermittently into the 1990s.
In 1946, John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Ray Brown (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums), all members of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, formed a quartet as a side project. By 1951, the combo were recording as the Milt Jackson Quartet. In 1952, Percy Heath replaced Brown on bass and in late 1952 they changed the name to Modern Jazz Quartet. In 1955, the final switch to the band's lineup occurred as Connie Kay (drums) replaced Clarke.
In their middle years, the group often played with classical musicians, but their repertoire consisted mainly of bebop and swing era standards. From 1952 to 1955, the group recorded for Prestige and released two of their most famous compositions, "Django" (a tribute to the guitarist Django Reinhardt) and "Bags' Groove" ("Bags" being Jackson’s nickname). In the late 1950s, they provided soundtrack music for Roger Vadim's film Sait-on Jamais (released in America as No Sun in Venice and in the UK as One Never Knows) and subsequently recorded this music. From 1956 to 1974, they recorded for Atlantic Records, with occasional projects with other record labels such as Apple.
In 1974, Jackson departed from the group and they ceased playing until the early 1980s when they began reuniting periodically. The MJQ released their final recording in 1993. When Kay died in November 1994, the group stopped reuniting; five years later in October 1999, Milt Jackson died, followed by John Lewis in March 2001 and Percy Heath in April 2005.
The paradox of the MJQ's music-making was that each individual member could improvise with an exciting vibrancy while maintaining the precision and collectivity of a classical group. They typified cool jazz through John Lewis' composition skills, but also exemplify bop with Jackson's virtuosic improvisation. As musical director, Lewis envisioned a style that fused composition and improvisation. Lewis wrote both fugue-like classically influenced pieces, such as "Concorde," as well as modern jazz standards, such as "Django." The Modern Jazz Quartet played in a variety of styles, generally a combination of cool jazz and bop. Jackson brought a strong bebop influence to the group with his virtuosic improvisation and was the first to play vibraphone in a bop style. Percy Heath too brought a hard bop influence to the group having played with J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk and Clifford Brown. The MJQ’s style was characterized by flexibility; they played alongside orchestras and brass bands, covered a Beatles tune, and performed at prestigious venues.
The Modern Jazz Quartet earned a variety of honors, including the first NAACP award for cultural contributions in the field of music in 1957 to top billing on numerous jazz magazine polls to honorary doctorates from Berklee College.
First dates are of recording, in parentheses are dates of release
- 1951–52: The Quartet (Savoy) – reissued on several labels under different titles (First Recordings 1952, Modern Jazz Quartet, Anthology)
- 1952: The Modern Jazz Quartet Quintet recorded 1952 and 1954 (Prestige)
- 1952 Wizard of the Vibes (10" LP issued 1952, 12" LP as Milt Jackson issued 1956) – session has identical personnel to the Modern Jazz Quartet of the time plus Lou Donaldson.
- 1953: 1953: An Exceptional Encounter (The Jazz Factory, 2001) – with Ben Webster
- 1955: Concorde (Prestige)
- 1953–55: Django (Prestige, 1956)
- 1956: Fontessa (Atlantic)
- 1956: The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn (Atlantic) – with Jimmy Giuffre
- 1958: The Modern Jazz Quartet Plays No Sun in Venice (Atlantic)
- 1957: The Modern Jazz Quartet (Atlantic)
- 1957: The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Oscar Peterson Trio at the Opera House (Verve)
- 1958: The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn Volume 2 (Atlantic) – with Sonny Rollins
- 1959: Pyramid (Atlantic)
- 1959: Music from Odds Against Tomorrow (United Artists) – also released as Patterns (United Artists, 1960)
- 1960: European Concert (Atlantic)
- 1960: Dedicated to Connie (Atlantic, 1995)
- 1960: The Modern Jazz Quartet & Orchestra (Atlantic)
- 1960: Third Stream Music (Atlantic) with guests including the Jimmy Giuffre 3
- 1962: The Comedy (Atlantic)
- 1962: Lonely Woman (Atlantic)
- 1963: In a Crowd (Atlantic)
- 1963: 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival (Douglas, 1997)
- 1964: The Sheriff (Atlantic)
- 1964: Collaboration (Atlantic) – with Laurindo Almeida
- 1964–65: The Modern Jazz Quartet Plays George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Atlantic)
- 1965: Jazz Dialogue (Atlantic) – with The All Star Jazz Band
- 1966: Concert in Japan '66 (Atlantic/Jazz Forever, Japan only)
- 1966: Blues at Carnegie Hall (Atlantic)
- 1966: Place Vendôme (Philips) – with The Swingle Singers
- 1967: Live at the Lighthouse (Atlantic)
- 1969: Under the Jasmin Tree (Apple)
- 1969: Space (Apple)
- 1971: Plastic Dreams (Atlantic)
- 1972: The Legendary Profile (Atlantic)
- 1973: In Memoriam (Little David)
- 1974: Blues on Bach (Atlantic)
- 1974: The Complete Last Concert (Atlantic, 1988) – includes The Last Concert (1975) and More from the Last Concert (1981)
- 1981: Reunion at Budokan 1981 (Pablo)
- 1982: Together Again: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival '82 (Pablo)
- 1984: Echoes (Pablo)
- 1985: Topsy: This One's for Basie (Pablo)
- 1987: Three Windows (Atlantic)
- 1988: For Ellington (East West)
- 1992: A Night at the Opera (Jazz Door, 1994)
- 1992–93: MJQ & Friends: A 40th Anniversary Celebration (Atlantic)
Dates are of first release
- 1960: Plays for Lovers (Prestige)
- 1973: The Art of The Modern Jazz Quartet – The Atlantic Years (Atlantic)
- 2002: A Proper Introduction to the Modern Jazz Quartet: La Ronde (Past Perfect)
- 2003: The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige & Pablo Recordings (Prestige/Pablo/Fantasy, 4-CD box)
- 2005: The Modern Jazz Quartet & Jimmy Giuffre – Complete Recordings (Lone Hill, 2005)
- 2010: The MJQ in the Movies (Giant Steps)
- 2011: The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of The Modern Jazz Quartet 1956–64 (Mosaic, 7 CDs)
- 2012: Original Album Series – The Modern Jazz Quartet (Warner, 5 CDs)
- 2005: The Modern Jazz Quartet: 35th Anniversary Tour
- 2007: 40 Years of MJQ
- 2008: Django
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- Paul Finkelman. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Accessed April 21, 2014.
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