John Lewis; Led the Modern Jazz Quartet


John Lewis, the pianist, primary composer and musical director for the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan, N.Y., after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He was 80.

One of the most influential musicians in jazz over the last half-century, Lewis was once described by critic Leonard Feather as “the most rational and imperturbable artist in his field.”

As leader of the MJQ, Lewis brought classic sensibilities into jazz to create an accessible sound for the innovative small combo that attracted a worldwide audience.


“He was generally viewed as the taskmaster of the Modern Jazz Quartet, as concerned about appearances as he was about the music,” said Don Heckman, who writes about jazz for The Times.

“But that simply wasn’t true,” Heckman added. “Lewis did indeed work to give jazz an aura of respectability comparable to that associated with classical music. But that did not reflect a desire on Lewis’ part to sacrifice the more visceral elements of jazz: its rhythmic propulsion, its spontaneity and its passion.”

Lewis was born in La Grange, Ill. His parents were divorced not long after his birth, and he moved with this mother to Albuquerque to join his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, who raised him after his mother died of peritonitis when he was 4.

Lewis starting learning piano from an aunt as a boy and, as a young teen, played professionally in churches around Albuquerque for 50 cents a performance. By the time he was 14 or 15, he was playing in dance halls and nightclubs in Albuquerque. He later recalled having to learn Mexican-style music to play in local fiestas.

After high school, Lewis became enthralled with anthropology as well as music at the University of New Mexico, but was drafted into the Army just six months before completing his degree.

After serving in a special services band in Europe during World War II, Lewis returned to the University of New Mexico to finish his degree in music and anthropology. He relocated to the jazz center of New York City and played with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band while pursuing an advanced music degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

As was the practice in those days, members of big bands would branch off to play in other formats, either trios or quartets. As Lewis told Feather some years ago, he and three other members of the band--drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Ray Brown and vibraphonist Milt Jackson--decided to form a group to try to create a sound that was not based on the standard theme, solo, theme arrangements of the day.

The group, originally called the Milt Jackson Quartet, encountered some early criticism that it wasn’t playing true jazz, but it pressed on, working steadily in New York clubs. Brown, who quit to play in the band fronted by his then-wife, Ella Fitzgerald, was replaced by Percy Heath. Clarke left the group to go live in Europe and was replaced by Connie Kay.

That group--with its new name the Modern Jazz Quartet--had a well-received European tour in 1956 and returned to a warm welcome from American jazz audiences. It remained a fixture in American jazz for nearly two decades.

“I think one reason the MJQ caught on was that so many small groups didn’t bother to do anything substantial in the way of arrangements,” Lewis told a reporter years ago. “Our challenge was to change that, to blend composition, arrangement and spontaneity within the body of a single work.”

And though Jackson--the engine that drove the MJQ--was considered by many the hard swinger of the group, the role of Lewis, the inventor who kept the group in the jazz mainstream, was equally important, Heckman says.

“Carefully listening to many of the MJQ’s recordings reveals an element that significantly energized Jackson’s playing,” Heckman said. “[It] is the subtle but intensely supportive accompaniments provided by Lewis. Sometimes simply playing brief, harmonic bursts, occasionally dropping in riff-like contrapuntal lines, his piano backing energized a surge of rhythm that allowed Jackson to float, in his own inimitably swinging fashion, on top of the beat.”

The MJQ broke up in 1974, with Jackson citing financial considerations and Lewis saying he didn’t have time to see his family. The split lasted until 1983, when the group went to Japan for a series of highly lucrative concerts, which reunited them permanently. They continued to play after the death of Kay in 1994, who was replaced by Percy Heath’s brother Albert “Tootie” Heath, and quit only after Jackson’s death in 1999.

In addition to his work with the MJQ, Lewis was for many years in the 1960s and ‘70s, the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. A noted jazz educator, Lewis taught jazz improvisation at Harvard and City College of New York. He also composed scores for several Hollywood films.

Several years after launching the quartet, Lewis, along with noted composer Gunther Schuller, became involved with the Third Stream movement, which he once explained to Feather:

“We both felt that a European music tradition going back thousands of years--the First Stream--could be used along with the jazz tradition--Second Stream--to form a third body of music, taking advantage of both the European roots and such American elements as the blues, swing, energy, tension, improvisation,” Lewis said.

This merger of values played a significant role in most of what Lewis has done, both in large settings and in the quartet.

“Many of Lewis’ compositions--’Django,’ ‘Vendome’ and ‘Concorde’ among them--immediately reveal his affection for the disciplined structures of classical music,” said Heckman. “Here, however, as well as in his outright concert works--’Music for Brass,’ ‘The Golden Strike,’ for example--Lewis’ jazz roots are present in a constant subtextural fashion.”

Lewis, who split time between his New York apartment and his home in the south of France, is survived by his wife, Mirjana, also a pianist.

A memorial service is being planned.