Born John Aaron Lewis on May 3, 1920 in La Grange, IL; married to Mirjana. Education: Earned bachelor's degree in music and anthropology from the University of New Mexico; earned master's degree in music. Addresses: Record company--Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104 Phone: (212) 707-2144.

As the musical director and primary composer of the Modern Jazz Quartet throughout the group's entire history, pianist/arranger John Lewis proved that a weakness for the classics can lead to greatness in contemporary music. Searching for an outlet for his interests in bop, the blues, and jazz, as well as the compositions of classical composers such as Bach, Lewis, in 1952, formed the enduring and highly influential quartet, consisting of a usual lineup featuring a piano, bass, drums, and vibraharp. In the December 30, 1953 issue of Down Beat magazine and quoted by Eugene Holley of Down Beat, Nat Hentoff interviewed the young pianist about his new combo. In describing the outlook he wanted to take with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis articulated, "I think that the audience for jazz can be widened if we strengthen our work with structure. If there is more of a reason for what's going on, there'll be more overall sense and, therefore, more interest for the listener."

In the five decades that followed this statement, Lewis, possessing a "cool" piano playing style like that of the legendary bandleader Count Basie, a technique that made every single note count, watched his single idea become a reality. Along with his partners in the Modern Jazz Quartet, vibraharpist and featured soloist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath (who replaced original member Ray Brown soon after the quartet's formation), and drummer Connie Kay (who replaced original drummer Kenny Clarke in 1955), Lewis helped jazz gain a new respectability within the classical community, but always kept each performance new and exciting. Throughout the 20th century, the quartet reigned as one of the jazz world's most appealing and innovative small combos, attracting a world-wide audience. The Modern Jazz Quartet would have stretched their longevity even further had it not been for Jackson's passing from liver cancer on November 9, 1999. His death marked the end of the group.

While most groups lose their enthusiasm over time, the Modern Jazz Quartet, through their legendary interplay and Lewis's synthesis of American and European musical forms, was able to maintain an energy that lasted, excluding a hiatus between 1974 and 1981, nearly half a century. "We enjoyed making music. When we played on stage, we played for our pleasure first," Lewis offered as an explanation for the quartet's perseverance, as quoted by Eugene Holley in Down Beat. "If somebody else enjoyed it, fine, but it wasn't created for that purpose. We had a responsibility for playing for the public, to let them participate by understanding and gaining pleasure from what we did. But that's not the primary thing. The primary thing for us was the interplay, which took a long time to achieve. The whole point of a composition is to make a piece that incorporates improvisation into it as seamlessly as possible, so you won't know what's improvised and what's not. It took a long time for that to happen, but that was the goal we worked toward achieving."

John Aaron Lewis was born on May 3, 1920 in La Grange, Illinois, but after his father died, he moved with his mother to Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the time, Albuquerque differed from most other American cities, given the community's unique mix of people from a variety of cultures and no real rules of segregation. In addition to blacks and whites, Albuquerque also had a large population of Mexican and Spanish Americans, as well as Indians. According to Lewis, the group that suffered the greatest hardships in New Mexico were the Hispanics, rather than the African Americans. Lewis's new multicultural environment in the Southwest also mirrored his own heritage. "In my family you found everything you could imagine," he informed Holley. "Cherokee, Comanche, Irish and the French part came from Martinique. My great grandmother's husband was one of the Buffalo Soldiers from the 7th Cavalry. My grandmother and great-grandmother spoke Spanish and French."

Lewis, whose mother died when he was four years old, took his first piano lesson from his aunt at the age of seven and was soon playing all the time with his cousins. "We had pianos in our houses, no TVs. You had to find other was to entertain yourself. We belonged to the Methodist Church, but on some Sundays, these people from the Holy Rollers church would ask my grandmother, who raised me, if I could come and play, and they paid me 50 cents," Lewis recalled to Holley. During his teenage years, Lewis and his cousins played gigs with several older, influential musicians, including a local pianist and arranger named Eddie Carson. In addition to local musicians, the Count Basie big band, Lester Young, and Duke Ellington played in Albuquerque from time to time. One performance by Ellington, in particular, left Lewis speechless. "The most incredible visual experience I've ever had was with Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1939, 1940.... He's still my role model."

After high school, Lewis enrolled at the University of New Mexico, graduating in 1942 with a Bachelor's degree in music and anthropology. Then, he served in the United States Army during World War II. While stationed in Europe, he played in a special services band with an innovative drummer from Pittsburgh named Kenny "Klook" Clarke, an original member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Following his military discharge in 1945, Lewis relocated to New York City in order to pursue a career in music. He was especially intrigued by the emergence of several small groups, the most well-known led by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, that were adding classically-inspired melodies to their music instead of simply taking lines from the day's popular songs, a trend that had dominated jazz up to that time.

Thus, from 1946 until 1948, Lewis played with the Dizzy Gillespie big band as a member of the rhythm section, which also included Clarke, Jackson, and Brown. His earliest memories of blending jazz and classical music occurred during a September 1947 appearance with the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, for which Lewis had contributed two arrangements, "Emanon" and "Two Bass Hit," and debuted his "Tocacata for Trumpet." That same year he toured with Gillespie in Paris, then returned to the United States to work as a sideman with Illinois Jacket, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie Parker, for whom he recorded an important solo on "Parker's Mood." After leaving Gillespie's orchestra, Lewis from 1948 to 1949 played with a group of other young, forward-thinking musicians, including Davis, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, drummer Max Roach, and composers John Carsi, George Russell, and Gil Evans. Their musical efforts resulted in Davis's influential Birth of the Cool recordings.

Continuing to broaden the possibilities of jazz, Lewis, Jackson, Clarke, and Heath, who replaced Brown, who left in order to work with his wife Ella Fitzgerald, began recording together in the early-1950s and officially incorporated the Modern Jazz Quartet on January 14, 1952. After Lewis earned his Master's degree in music in 1953, the quartet worked steadily in New York, performing in clubs and recording for the Prestige label. In spite of some early criticism that they weren't playing "true jazz," the group pressed on. However, Clarke left in 1955 and moved to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1985. His replacement was a versatile drummer named Connie Kay, already known for his sessions work for Atlantic Records.

Just one year later in 1956, the Modern Jazz Quartet received a significant boost when they embarked on the historic Birdland tour to Paris with Davis, Lester Young, and Bud Powell. By the time they returned to America, the members of the quartet had become major stars, as audiences marveled at the group's telepathic interplay and regal stage clothes. From the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, the quartet enabled Lewis to explore a wide range of musical concepts. He wrote and arranged over 100 compositions--most of which were released by Atlantic Records--during this 20-year period, including blues numbers, ballads, tone poems, soundtracks, concertos, and orchestral works.

Some of the quartet's most acclaimed recordings included the soulful Pyramid released in 1959, the Latin-tinged Collaboration released in 1964, the swinging The European Concert released in 1960, and Blues on Bach release in 1973. However, years of constant touring had taken a toll on the Modern Jazz Quartet as the 1970s got underway. Thus, the group called it quits in 1974. Jackson cited financial frustrations as his reason for wanting to break up the quartet, but Lewis called attention to more personal reasons: "I didn't have an opportunity to know my children," he explained to Holley.

Following the split, Lewis continued to work on outside projects, interests he had started pursuing long before the group's so-called retirement. He released his first orchestral album, European Windows, in 1958, followed by Improvised Meditations & Excursions and Wonderful World of Jazz, two of his early piano-based albums. Around this time, Lewis also served as director for the Monterey Jazz Festival, and went on to co-found and conduct Orchestra U.S.A., from 1962 through 1965, and the American Jazz Orchestra in 1985. Also a strong believer in the value of music education, Lewis headed the faculty at the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts from 1957 to 1960 and taught jazz improvisation at Harvard University and City College from 1975 to 1982.

Although officially disbanded, the Modern Jazz Quartet continued to play occasional gigs. Then in 1981, after an offer came to tour Japan, the group decided to get back together. Some highlights from their "comeback" years included 1988's For Ellington, 1991's MJQ At 40, a four-CD retrospective, and MJQ and Friends, recorded with the late Harry "Sweets" Edison. After the death of longtime drummer Kay on November 30, 1994, the quartet operated on a semi-active basis until Jackson's death in late-1999.

Throughout most of his career, Lewis's exceptional work with the Modern Jazz Quartet tended to take precedence over his solo aspirations. However, the late-1990s saw a renewed interest in Lewis as a pianist. He started performing solo recitals and conducting orchestras, and several of his early recordings have been reissued. In 1999, he released an acclaimed piano solo CD entitled Evolution that included a haunting version of his classic ballad "Django," an elegy for the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Lewis resides with his Croation-born wife, Mirjana, in New York on Manhattan's East Side. A humble, soft-spoken man, Lewis say he doesn't dwell to much over his accomplishments as a composer and pianist. "I don't even think about that," he said to Holley. "I'm to busy trying to make music and be with my family. Now, I have one grandchild, Samuel. And I have time to spend with him."

by Laura Hightower

John Lewis's Career

Started playing local gigs as a teenager in Albuquerque, NM; served in the U.S. Army during World War II; moved to New York City, 1945; member of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, 1946-48; played with Miles Davis and others, 1948-49; incorporated the Modern Jazz Quartet, January 14, 1952; disbanded quartet, 1974; reunited quartet, 1981; co-founded and conducted Orchestra U.S.A., 1962-65; conducted the American Jazz Orchestra, 1985; headed the faculty at Lenox School of Jazz, 1957-60; taught jazz improvisation at Harvard University and City College, 1975-82; disbanded the Modern Jazz Quartet and focused on solo work, released Evolution, 1999.

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