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Modern Jazz Quartet

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Jazz ensemble

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: The Modern Jazz Quartet
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend The Modern Jazz Quartet's album Django (Fantasy).

Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
The original members of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) — Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano and director), Ray Brown (double bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums) — first performed together in 1946 in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. In 1951-2 these four players made recordings under the name of the Milt Jackson Quartet. By 1952, when the first recordings under the name Modern Jazz Quartet were issued, Percy Heath had replaced Brown as bass player. The group began performing regularly in concert halls and nightclubs from 1954. In the following year Clarke was replaced by Connie Kay, thus establishing the group's present membership.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Django"
Tom Cole reports on John Lewis' jazz classic "Django," a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical recordings of the 20th Century.

By virtue of its recordings and international concert tours the MJQ soon acquired a reputation as a superior jazz ensemble. Beginning in the early 1960s the group disbanded during the summer months, enabling Lewis to pursue his activities as a composer and teacher, and the other members to perform in different jazz contexts. In 1974, primarily because of Jackson's desire to perform full-time as a leader, the MJQ broke up. For several years its members pursued separate careers, reuniting occasionally for short concert tours, but in the early 1980s they resumed playing together for several months each year.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: John Lewis
Host Nancy Wilson presents this profile of pianist John Lewis, principal architect of the groundbreaking Modern Jazz Quartet, which brought classical music sensibilities to jazz.

The MJQ plays in a restrained, conservative bop style that is sometimes referred to as cool jazz. In its best moments it has a finely honed ensemble sound, owing in part to the long-standing association of the four excellent players and in part to Lewis's compositions, which include some of the most carefully organized works in jazz history. The main soloist is Jackson, whose exuberant and rhythmically complex solos contrast effectively with Lewis's restrained and deceptively simple manner of playing. By frequently accompanying Jackson with subsidiary countermelodies rather than the usual chordal punctuations of bop, Lewis creates a distinctive contrapuntal texture seldom heard in other bop performances. Throughout its long career the MJQ has also performed and recorded much third-stream music, combining techniques of European art music and jazz improvisation. These works, written by Lewis, Gunther Schuller, André Hodeir, and others, are uneven in quality, some suffering from disparities between the composed and improvised sections, others from pretentiousness. Among the best are Lewis's England's Carol and his fugal pieces Versailles, Concorde, Vendome, and Three Windows.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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