“I would be lost without a Steinway - my constant companion in making music all over the world.”
More than any musician of his era, pianist John Aaron Lewis (1920–2001) aimed to blend Bach with bebop, to infuse jazz with some of the forms and “respectability” of classical music, taking it from nightclubs to concert halls – which he did to worldwide success for four decades as musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Referring to the pianist’s use of fugues and other Baroque forms, English critic Max Harrison said that Lewis had “succeeded where all others have failed in grafting a number of classical devices into the technique of jazz without doing violence to the spirit of the music.” Born in 1920, Lewis was raised in New Mexico, learning piano from a young age via classical music and, later, dance bands. Encouraged after making friends with drummer Kenny Clarke in the army, Lewis moved to New York in 1945, earning a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music and entering the bebop scene alongside Clarke. The pianist joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band and played on historic Charlie Parker recording sessions; he also worked with saxophonist Lester Young, who had starred in the well-honed Count Basie bands that were a formative inspiration for him. As pianist and arranger, he figured prominently in the Miles Davis nonet’s influential Birth of the Cool sessions of 1949. Lewis established the Modern Jazz Quartet in the early ’50s, seeking to blend blues-inflected improvisation with polyphonic arrangements in an airy, chamber-jazz style; once solidified in 1955, the lineup of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay ran until 1974 and then again from 1981 to 1993. (The group reunited occasionally with different drummers after Kay’s death in ’94.) The foursome recorded for Prestige and, most successfully, Atlantic Records; they collaborated with the likes of Sonny Rollins and symphony orchestras, filling formal halls first in Europe, then North America and Japan. Although some critics tired of the band’s tuxedoed academicism and ever-dulcet sound – its “music identifiable from the first bar even if it drove some hardcore jazz fans into the nearest bar,” as The Guardian put it – the MJQ enjoyed a duration and popularity exceedingly rare for a small jazz ensemble.
As a pianist, Lewis was known for his soft touch, blues feeling and subtle swing, as well as a predilection for understatement and economy — believing that improvised solos should be “at the service of the melody.” Along with composing extended suites and film scores for the MJQ, Lewis wrote such hit tunes for the band as “Django,” which became an instant, oft-covered jazz standard. He also created a soulful, shimmering arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s modernist ballad “Lonely Woman,” as well as versions of classical pieces by Bach, Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo and entire albums devoted to Duke Ellington and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Beyond the group, Lewis composed several works aligned with the jazz-meets-classical Third Stream movement in the 1950s, prime among them Three Little Feelings, a mini-concerto for Miles Davis. He helped establish the Lenox School of Music in Massachusetts, a vital incubator for ambitious jazz talent in the late ’50s. Lewis was music director of the Monterey Jazz Festival from 1958 to 1982, and he directed the American Jazz Orchestra, a pioneering jazz repertory ensemble, from 1985 to 1992. After Jackson’s death ended MJQ reunions in 1999, Lewis recorded a widely praised album of solo piano, Evolution. He passed away two years later. Veteran critic Leonard Feather appreciated the MJQ’s “devotion to affirmative values of order and reason — melodic invention, harmonic beauty, subtlety of rhythmic pulse,” a summation that could serve as a motto for Lewis’s art. —Bradley Bambarger