Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lewis, John (Aaron)

Pianist and composer John Lewis’s sophisticated musical approach blended jazz and classical music. Early experiences with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis led him to pursue a middle path between the two genres.

Throughout his career, Lewis wrote works which combined the compositional techniques of European classical music with jazz improvisation. This particular kind of jazz was dubbed “Third Stream” by composer and historian Gunther Schuller. As the primary composer of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis’s vision helped jazz gain respect in the classical community. Lewis’ work has demonstrated that the amalgamation of these two different sounds can form a wholly new sound while paying tribute to the original.

John Aaron Lewis was born on May 3, 1920 in La Grange, Illinois. Shortly after his birth, Lewis’ father passed away and his mother moved the family to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque provided Lewis with a multicultural childhood, as one of the few places in the nation where people of different ethnic backgrounds lived together without racial segregation.

Tragedy followed Lewis from an early age, with the death of his mother at the age of four. Soon after, Lewis was sent to live with his grandmother, who raised him. At the age of seven, Lewis began to play the piano after receiving a lesson from an aunt. Soon after, Lewis began to perform with members of his church after Sunday services, for which he got paid fifty cents.

Throughout his teenage years, Lewis and his cousins would perform locally where they polished their performing experience. Lewis would often perform with numerous older and influential musicians including local pianist Eddie Carson. Lewis was lucky to see several big named groups when they passed through Albuquerque including pianist William 'Count' Basie and saxophonist Lester Young. Lewis also saw bandleader Duke Ellington, which he said was “the most incredible visual experience I’ve ever seen.”

Upon his graduation from high school, Lewis enrolled at the University of New Mexico, where he studied anthropology and music. Lewis graduated in 1942, then served in the United States army for three years during World War II. Whilst stationed in Europe, Lewis played in an army band which featured drummer Kenny Clarke, whom would become a collaborator later his career.

After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Lewis moved to New York City in hopes of starting a career in music. What intrigued Lewis most was what he had heard from Clarke about the city's numerous small groups, especially the one led by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker group, which he was told was incorporating classically-inspired melodies to their music instead of solely relying on popular songs of the day.

From 1946 until 1948, Lewis was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, which included Clarke, bassist Ray Brown and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Lewis contributed two arrangements, “Emanon” and “Two Bass Hit,” to the Big Band's debut at Carnegie Hall in September of 1947, as well as his piece “Toccata for Trumpet.”

In 1947, Lewis toured Europe with Gillespie, then returned to the United States, where he worked as a sideman for tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young, trumpeter Miles Davis, singer Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, with whom he recorded “Parker’s Mood.”

Following his departure from the Gillespie band, Lewis began to frequent the circle of musicians that congregated at arranger Gil Evans' 55th Street apartment, which included Davis, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, tuba player Bill Barber, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, and drummer Max Roach amongst others. One result of this collaboration was Davis’s 1950 album Birth of the Cool.

Lewis played an integral part on the recording, arranging both “Move” and “Budo” as well as composing “Rouge.” On “Rouge,” Lewis constructed a sophisticated arrangement that begins in 3/4 time before moving into 4/4 time. Lewis’ solo includes subtle ornamentations that are enhanced by the solid timekeeping of bassist Nelson Boyd and drummer Kenny Clarke.

In the early 1950s, Lewis reunited with Clarke and Jackson, and with bassist Percy Heath they revived a tradition they had started in Gillespie's band. While on tour, Gillespie would sometimes let the rhythm section play its own arrangements between sets, so that his band's brass and woodwind players could rest their chops. This planted the seed for this group, which sought to expand the musical palette for small jazz groups. Initially entitled the “Milt Jackson Quartet,” in 1952, the group was officially christened the “Modern Jazz Quartet,” and was later commonly known as the “MJQ.” Once Lewis earned his Master’s Degree in music in 1953 from the Manhattan School of Music, the group began to perform throughout New York and record for Prestige Records.

Early criticism of the group stated that they weren’t being faithful to the traditions of jazz, but the group soldiered forward. In 1955, Clarke left the group and moved to Paris. Clarke’s replacement was drummer Connie Kay, a veteran drummer who performed on Atlantic Records sessions.

In 1956, the MJQ received a considerable boost in popularity when they participated on the “Birdland” tour with Davis, Young and pianist Bud Powell. Upon their return to the United States, the group had become major stars. From this time until the mid 1970s, the quartet allowed Lewis to examine several musical ideas including concertos, fugues and orchestral pieces.

In 1956, the MJQ released the album Django. For the record, Lewis composed the song “Django,” in tribute to the guitarist Django Reinhardt, who had died the previous year. While the track has little, musically, to do with Gypsy jazz, Lewis constructs a tranquil intro that sets up the verse for Jackson to fully swing. The interplay between Lewis and Jackson is clever, as they appear to bounce ideas off one another.

In 1958, Lewis released his first orchestral album, European Windows, followed by Improvised Meditations & Excursion and Wonderful World of Jazz, two piano-based albums. The same year, Lewis became the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, a position he held until 1982.

In 1959, Lewis and the MJQ created the score to Robert Wise’s film Odds Against Tomorrow starring singer Harry Belafonte, which contained the track "No Happiness for Slater.". In the fall of 1962, Lewis formed “Orchestra U.S.A.” with Gunther Schuller and percussionist Harold Farberman. The group included a string section as well as several jazz soloists in an effort to further cement the marriage of jazz and classical music.

Lewis and Schuller collaborated closely over the next years as they created the Third-Stream movement, and can be heard on recordings such as "Abstractions" with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, "Sketch," which pairs the MJQ with a string quartet

“Orchestra U.S.A” released several albums beginning with Orchestra U.S.A: The Debut Recordingin 1963 and ending with Sonorities in 1965. Among the musicians of note who recorded with the group are Ornette Coleman and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

The MJQ recorded prolifically, releasing The European Concert in 1960. Their recording of "England's Carol," a reworking of the chestnut "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen," became a surprise radio hit at the time. In 1964, they released Collaboration and MJQ Plays George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” On “My Man’s Gone Now,” Lewis’s gentle tone lets Jackson and Heath’s beautiful interplay to shine through. The arrangement evokes Gershwin’s work while simultaneously allowing the group’s technical abilities to modernize the sound.

Always an advocate for jazz education, Lewis was on the faculty during summer sessions of the Lenox School of Jazz from 1957 until 1960 and also taught improvisation at Harvard University and City College of New York from 1975 until 1982.

After years of touring, the MJQ decided to disband in 1974 with Jackson citing financial troubles and Lewis citing his desire to spend more time with his family. Though technically disbanded, the MJQ continued to perform sporadic concerts. In 1981 after they were offered to tour Japan they decided to reform. During this time, Lewis also formed “The John Lewis Group.”

In 1985, Lewis co-founded the “American Jazz Orchestra” with jazz critic Gary Giddins and producer Roberta Swann. Started as a jazz repertory ensemble, the orchestra had their debut concert in 1986. Included in their repertory were works by Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford. The orchestra parted ways in 1992 due to a lack of funding.

The MJQ continued to perform through the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1994, drummer Connie Kay passed away and the group decided to remain partially active until the death of Milt Jackson in 1999.

Though known for most of his career as a member of the MJQ, the late 1990s saw a renewed interest in Lewis as a pianist. Lewis began to perform solo concerts as well as conducting orchestras and symphonies. In 1999, Lewis released Evolution, which included a new version of his song “Django.”

Lewis passed away on March 29, 2001 in New York City from prostate cancer, and is survived by his wife Mirjana.

Select Discography

As John Lewis

The John Lewis Piano (1956)

European Windows (1958)

Improvised Meditations and Excursions (1959)

Wonderful World of Jazz (1960)

John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions (1960)

Evening With Two Grand Pianos (1979)

Kansas City Breaks (1982)

Midnight In Paris (1988)

Private Concert (1991)

Evolution (1999)

With Miles Davis

Birth of the Cool (1950)

With the Modern Jazz Quartet

M.J.Q. (1952)

Django (1956)

Fontessa (1956)

Pyramid (1959)

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

The European Concert (1960)

Lonely Woman (1962)

The Comedy (1962)

Collaboration (1964)

Plays George Gershwin’s “Porgy And Bess” (1964)

Under The Jasmin Tree (1969)

Plastic Trees (1971)

Blues On Bach (1973)

The Complete Last Concert (1974)

With Gerry Mulligan

Re-birth of the Cool (1992)

With Orchestra U.S.A

Orchestra U.S.A: The Debut Recording (1963)

Jazz Journey (1963)

Sonorities (1965)

With Charlie Parker

The Genius of Charlie Parker (1948)

Contributor: Eric Wendell