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John Lewis -
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John Lewis

John Lewis

John Lewis

John Aaron Lewis (May 3, 1920 – March 29, 2001) was an American jazz pianist, composer and arranger, best known as the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. John Lewis was born in La Grange, Illinois, and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and began learning classical music and piano at the age of seven. His family was musical and had a family band that allowed him to play frequently and he also played in a Boy Scout music group. Read more on
John Aaron Lewis (May 3, 1920 – March 29, 2001) was an American jazz pianist, composer and arranger, best known as the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. John Lewis was born in La Grange, Illinois, and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and began learning classical music and piano at the age of seven. His family was musical and had a family band that allowed him to play frequently and he also played in a Boy Scout music group.] Even though he learned piano by playing the classics, he was exposed to jazz from an early age because his aunt loved to dance and he would listen to the music she played. He attended the University of New Mexico, where he led a small dance band that he formed and double majored in Anthropology and Music. Eventually, he decided not to pursue Anthropology because he was advised that careers from degrees in Anthropology did not pay well.

In 1942, Lewis entered the army and played piano alongside Kenny Clarke, who influenced him to move to New York once their service was over. Lewis moved to New York in 1945 to pursue his musical studies at the Manhattan School of Music and eventually graduated with a master's degree in music in 1953. Although his move to New York turned his musical attention more towards jazz, he still frequently played and listened to classical works and composers such as Chopin, Bach and Beethoven. Once Lewis moved to New York, he and Clarke tried out for Dizzy Gillespie's bop-style big band by playing a song called "Bright Lights" that Lewis had written for the band they played for in the army. They both were asked to join Gillespie's band, and the tune they originally played for Gillespie, renamed "Two Bass Hit", became an instant success.

Lewis composed, arranged and played piano for the band from 1945 until 1948 after the band made a concert tour of Europe. When Lewis returned from the tour with Gillespie's band, he left it to work individually. Lewis was an accompanist for Charlie Parker and played on some of Parker's famous recordings, such as "Parker's Mood" (1948) and "Blues for Alice" (1951), but also collaborated with other prominent jazz artists such as Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and Illinois Jacquet. In an article about Dexter Gordon for, reviewer Ted Panken suggests that ". .

. Higgins’s buoyant ride cymbal and subtle touch propels the soloists through the master take of "Milestones," a John Lewis line for which Miles Davis took credit on his 1947 Savoy debut with Charlie Parker on tenor."[7] Panken seems certain of his claim but does not offer corroboration to a charge that Davis took credit for music that was not his own. Lewis also was part of Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions. While in Europe, Lewis received letters from Davis urging him to come back to the United States and collaborate with the trumpeter, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and others on the second session of Birth of the Cool.[8] From when he returned to the U.S. in 1948 through 1949, Lewis joined Davis's nonet and is considered "one of the more prolific arrangers with the 1949 Miles Davis Nonet".

For the Birth of the Cool sessions, Lewis arranged "S'il Vous Plait", "Rouge", "Move" and "Budo". Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Clarke and bassist Ray Brown had been the small group within the Gillespie big band, and they frequently played their own short sets when the brass and reeds needed a break or even when Gillespie's band was not playing. The small band received a lot of positive recognition and it led to the foursome forming a full-time working group, which they initially called the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951 but in 1952 renamed the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Modern Jazz Quartet The Mod­ern Jazz Quar­tet was formed out of the four­some's need for more free­dom and com­plex­ity than Gille­spie's big band, dance-in­tended sound allowed. While Lewis wanted the MJQ to have more im­pro­vi­sa­tional free­dom, he also wanted to in­cor­po­rate some clas­si­cal el­e­ments and arrange­ments to his compositions. Lewis no­ticed that the style of bebop had turned all focus to­wards the soloist, and Lewis, in his com­po­si­tions for the MJQ, at­tempted to even out the pe­ri­ods of im­pro­vi­sa­tion with pe­ri­ods that were dis­tinctly arranged.

Lewis as­sumed the role of mu­si­cal di­rec­tor from the start, even though the group claimed not to have a leader. It is com­monly thought that "John Lewis, for rea­sons of his con­tri­bu­tions to the band, was ap­par­ently the first among the equals". Davis even once said that "John taught all of them, Milt couldn't read at all, and bassist Percy Heath hardly". It was Lewis who el­e­vated the group's col­lec­tive tal­ent be­cause of his in­di­vid­ual mu­si­cal abilities. Lewis grad­u­ally trans­formed the group away from strictly 1940's bebop style, which served as a ve­hi­cle for an in­di­vid­ual artist's im­pro­vi­sa­tions, and in­stead ori­ented it to­ward a more re­fined, pol­ished, cham­ber style of music.

Lewis's com­po­si­tions for The Mod­ern Jazz Quar­tet de­vel­oped a "neo­clas­si­cal style" of jazz that com­bined the bebop style with "dy­namic shad­ing and dra­matic pause more char­ac­ter­is­tic of jazz of the '20s and '30s". Fran­cis Davis, in his book In the Mo­ment: Jazz in the 1980s, wrote that by "fash­ion­ing a group music in which the im­pro­vised cho­rus and all that sur­rounded it were of equal im­por­tance, Lewis per­formed a feat of magic only a hand­ful of jazz writ­ers, in­clud­ing Duke Elling­ton and Jelly Roll Mor­ton, had ever pulled off—he rec­on­ciled the com­poser's be­lief in pre­de­ter­mi­na­tion with the im­pro­viser's yen for free will". Lewis also made sure that the band was al­ways dressed impeccably. Lewis be­lieved that it was im­por­tant to dress the way that they came across in their music: pol­ished, el­e­gant and unique. Lewis once said in an in­ter­view with Down Beat mag­a­zine: "My model for that was Duke Elling­ton.

[His band] was the most el­e­gant band I ever saw". From 1952 through 1974, he wrote and per­formed with and for the quartet. Lewis's com­po­si­tions were para­mount in earn­ing the MJQ a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for man­ag­ing to make jazz man­nered with­out cut­ting the swing out of the music. Gun­ther Schuller for High Fi­delity Magazine wrote: It will not come as a sur­prise that the Quar­tet's growth has fol­lowed a line par­al­lel to Lewis' own de­vel­op­ment as a com­poser. A study of his com­po­si­tions from the early "Af­ter­noon in Paris" to such re­cent pieces as "La Can­ta­trice" and "Pi­azza Navona" shows an in­creas­ing tech­ni­cal mas­tery and styl­is­tic broad­en­ing.

The won­der of his music is that the var­i­ous in­flu­ences upon his work—whether they be the fugal mas­ter­pieces of Bach, the folk-tinged music of Bartók, the clearly de­fined tex­tures of Stravin­sky's "Agon", or the deeply felt blues at­mos­phere that per­me­ates all his music—these have all be­come syn­the­sized into a thor­oughly ho­mo­ge­neous per­sonal idiom. That is why Lewis' music, though not rad­i­cal in any sense, al­ways sounds fresh and individual. Dur­ing the same time pe­riod, Lewis held var­i­ous other po­si­tions as well, in­clud­ing head of fac­ulty for the sum­mer ses­sions held at the Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass­a­chu­setts from 1957 to 1960, di­rec­tor of the an­nual Mon­terey Jazz Fes­ti­val in Cal­i­for­nia from 1958 to 1983, and its mu­si­cal consultant, and "he formed the co­op­er­a­tive big band Or­ches­tra U.S.A., which per­formed and recorded Third Stream com­po­si­tions (1962–65)". Or­ches­tra U.S.A., along with all of Lewis's com­po­si­tions in gen­eral, were very in­flu­en­tial in de­vel­op­ing "Third Stream" music, which was largely de­fined by the in­ter­weave be­tween clas­si­cal and jazz traditions. He also formed the Jazz and Clas­si­cal Music So­ci­ety in 1955, which hosted con­certs in Town Hall in New York City that as­sisted in this new genre of clas­si­cally in­flu­enced jazz to in­crease in popularity.

Fur­ther­more, Lewis was also com­mis­sioned to com­pose the score to the film Sait-On Jamais. The MJQ dis­banded in 1974 be­cause Jack­son felt that the band was not get­ting enough money for the level of pres­tige the quar­tet had in the music scene. Dur­ing this break, Lewis taught at the City Col­lege of New York and at Har­vard University. Lewis was also able to travel to Japan, where CBS com­mis­sioned his first solo piano album. While in Japan, Lewis also col­lab­o­rated with Hank Jones and Mar­ian Mc­Part­land, with whom he per­formed piano recitals on var­i­ous occasions. In 1981, the Mod­ern Jazz Quar­tet re-formed for a tour of Japan and the United States, al­though the group did not plan on per­form­ing reg­u­larly to­gether again.

Since the MJQ was no longer his pri­mary ca­reer, Lewis had time to form and play in a sex­tet called the John Lewis Group. A few years later, in 1985, Lewis col­lab­o­rated with Gary Gid­dins and Roberta Swann to form the Amer­i­can Jazz Orchestra. Ad­di­tion­ally, he con­tin­ued to teach jazz piano to as­pir­ing jazz stu­dents, which he had done through­out his career. His teach­ing style in­volved mak­ing sure the stu­dent was flu­ent in "three basic forms: the blues, a bal­lad, and a piece that moves".

He con­tin­ued teach­ing late into his life. In the 1990s, Lewis par­took of var­i­ous mu­si­cal ven­tures, in­clud­ing par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Re-birth of the Cool ses­sions with Gerry Mul­li­gan in 1992, and "The Birth of the Third Stream" with Gun­ther Schuller, Charles Min­gus and George Rus­sell,[29] and recorded his final al­bums with At­lantic Records, Evo­lu­tion and Evo­lu­tion II, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. He also con­tin­ued play­ing spo­rad­i­cally with the MJQ until 1999, when Jack­son died. Lewis per­formed a final con­cert at Lin­coln Cen­ter in New York and played a reper­toire that rep­re­sented his full mu­si­cal abil­ity—from solo piano to big-band and every­thing in between. John Lewis died in New York City on March 31, 2001, at the age of 80, after a long bat­tle with prostate can­cer. Music Style and influence Leonard Feather's opin­ion of Lewis's work is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of many other knowl­edge­able jazz lis­ten­ers and critics: "Com­pletely self-suf­fi­cient and self-con­fi­dent, he knows ex­actly what he wants from his mu­si­cians, his writ­ing and his ca­reer and he achieves it with an un­usual quiet firm­ness of man­ner, cou­pled with mod­esty and a com­plete in­dif­fer­ence to crit­i­cal reaction." Lewis was not only this way with his music, but his per­son­al­ity ex­em­pli­fied these same qualities. Lewis, who was sig­nif­i­cantly in­flu­enced by the ar­rang­ing style and car­riage of Count Basie, played with a tone qual­ity that made lis­ten­ers and crit­ics feel as though every note was de­lib­er­ate. Schuller re­mem­bered of Lewis at his memo­r­ial ser­vice that "he had a deep con­cern for every de­tail, every nu­ance in the es­sen­tials of music".

Lewis be­came as­so­ci­ated with rep­re­sent­ing a mod­ern­ized Basie style, ex­cep­tion­ally skilled at cre­at­ing music that was spa­cious, pow­er­ful and yet, refined. In an in­ter­view with Metronome mag­a­zine, Lewis him­self said: My ideals stem from what led to and be­came Count Basie's band of the '30s and '40s. This group pro­duced an in­te­gra­tion of en­sem­ble play­ing which pro­jected—and sounded like—the spon­ta­neous play­ing of ideas which were the per­sonal ex­pres­sion of each mem­ber of the band rather than the arrangers or com­posers. This band had some of the great­est jazz soloists ex­chang­ing and im­pro­vis­ing ideas with and counter to the en­sem­ble and the rhythm sec­tion, the whole per­me­ated with the fold-blues el­e­ment de­vel­oped to a most ex­cit­ing de­gree.

I don't think it is pos­si­ble to plan or make that kind of thing hap­pen. It is a nat­ural prod­uct and all we can do is reach and strive for it. It is con­sid­ered, how­ever, that Lewis was suc­cess­ful in ex­em­pli­fy­ing, in his arrange­ments and com­po­si­tions, this skill that he admired. Be­cause of his clas­si­cal train­ing, in ad­di­tion to his ex­po­sure to bebop, Lewis was able to com­bine the two dis­parate mu­si­cal styles and re­fine jazz so that there was a "sheath­ing of bop's pointed anger in ex­change for con­cert hall respectability". Lewis was also in­flu­enced by the im­pro­vi­sa­tions of Lester Young on the saxophone. Lewis had not been the first to be in­flu­enced by a horn player.

Earl Hines in his early years looked to Louis Arm­strong's im­pro­vi­sa­tions for in­spi­ra­tion and Bud Pow­ell looked to Char­lie Parker. Lewis also claims to have been in­flu­enced by Hines himself. Lewis was also heav­ily in­flu­enced by Eu­ro­pean clas­si­cal music. Many of his com­po­si­tions for the MJQ and his own per­sonal com­po­si­tions in­cor­po­rated var­i­ous clas­si­cally Eu­ro­pean tech­niques such as fugue and coun­ter­point, and the in­stru­men­ta­tion he chose for his pieces, some­times in­clud­ing a string orchestra. In the early 1980s, Lewis's in­flu­ence came from the pi­anists he en­joyed lis­ten­ing to: Art Tatum, Hank Jones and Oscar Pe­ter­son. Piano style Len Lyons de­picts Lewis's piano, com­po­si­tion and per­sonal style when he in­tro­duces Lewis in Lyons' book The Great Jazz Pianists: "Sit­ting straight-backed, jaw rigid, pre­sid­ing over the glis­ten­ing white key­board of the grand piano, John Lewis clearly brooks no non­sense in his play­ing, in­dulges in no im­pro­vi­sa­tional fr­volity, and ex­hibits no breach of dis­ci­pline nor any phrase that could be con­strued as for­mally in­cor­rect. Lewis, of course, can swing, play soul­ful blues and emote through his in­stru­ment, but it is the swing and sweat of the con­cert hall, not of smoke-filled, noisy night­clubs." Al­though Lewis is con­sid­ered to be a bebop pianist, he is also con­sid­ered to be one of the more con­ser­v­a­tive players.

In­stead of em­pha­siz­ing the in­tense, fast tem­poed bebop style, his piano style was geared to­wards em­pha­siz­ing jazz as an "ex­pres­sion of quiet conflict".His piano style, bridg­ing the gap be­tween clas­si­cal, bop, stride and blues, made him so "it was not un­usual to hear him men­tioned in the same breath with Mor­ton, Elling­ton, and Monk". On the piano, his im­pro­vi­sa­tional style was pri­mar­ily quiet and gen­tle and understated. Lewis once ad­vised three sax­o­phon­ists who were im­pro­vis­ing on one of his orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions: "You have to put your­self at the ser­vice of the melody.... Your solos should ex­pand the melody or con­tract it".

This was how he ap­proached his solos as well. He proved in his solos that tak­ing a "sim­ple and straight­for­ward... ap­proach to a melody could... put [mu­si­cians] in touch with such com­plex­i­ties of feeling", which the au­di­ence ap­pre­ci­ated just as much as the mu­si­cians themselves. His ac­com­pa­ni­ment for other mu­si­cians' solos was just as delicate.

Thomas Owens de­scribes his ac­com­pa­ni­ment style by not­ing that "rather than comp­ing—punc­tu­at­ing the melody with ir­reg­u­larly placed chords—he often played sim­ple counter-melodies in oc­taves which com­bined with the solo and bass parts to form a poly­phonic texture". Compositions and arrangements Sim­i­larly to his per­sonal piano play­ing style, Lewis was drawn in his com­po­si­tions to min­i­mal­ism and simplicity.[34] Many of his com­po­si­tions were based on mo­tifs and re­lied on few chord progressions. Fran­cis Davis com­ments: "I think too, that the same con­ser­v­a­tive lust for sim­plic­ity of forms that draws Lewis to the Re­nais­sance and the Baroque draws him in­evitably to the blues, an­other form of music per­mit­ting end­less vari­a­tion only within the logic of rigid boundaries". His com­po­si­tions were in­flu­enced by 18th-cen­tury melodies and harmonies, but also showed an ad­vanced un­der­stand­ing of the "se­crets of ten­sion and re­lease, the tenets of dy­namic shad­ing and dra­matic pause" that was rem­i­nis­cent of clas­sic arrange­ments by Basie and Elling­ton in the early swing era. This com­bin­ing of tech­niques led to Lewis be­com­ing a pi­o­neer in Third Stream Jazz, which was com­bined clas­si­cal, Eu­ro­pean prac­tices with jazz's im­pro­vi­sa­tional and big-band characteristics. Lewis, in his com­po­si­tions, ex­per­i­mented with writ­ing fugues and in­cor­po­rat­ing clas­si­cal instrumentation. An ar­ti­cle in The New York Times wrote that "His new pieces and re­work­ings of older pieces are de­signed to in­ter­weave string or­ches­tra and jazz quar­tet as equals".

High Fidelity mag­a­zine wrote that his "works not only show a firm con­trol of the com­po­si­tional medium, but tackle in a fresh way the com­plex prob­lem of in­pro­vi­sa­tion with com­posed frameworks". Thomas Owen be­lieves that "[Lewis'] best pieces for the MJQ are Django, the bal­let suite The Com­edy (1962, Atl.), and es­pe­cially the four pieces Ver­sailles, Three Win­dows, Ven­dome and Con­corde... com­bine fugal im­i­ta­tion and non-im­i­ta­tive poly­phonic jazz in highly ef­fec­tive ways. Read more on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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