Jazz at 100 Hour 55: The Modern Jazz Quartet in the 1960s

The Modern Jazz Quartet: Percy Heath, Connie Kay, John Lewis, Milt Jackson

As the Modern Jazz Quartet, members of which were once Dizzy Gillespie’s rhythm section in the 1940s, moved into the 1960s, they continued to swing in their own quiet way, even as their music director, pianist John Lewis, explored the third stream, a synthesis of jazz and classical music. Having been founded in 1952, the MJQ was active as a unit until 1974, then reunited periodically for another twenty years, until drummer Connie Kay’s death in 1994.

“The standard evaluation of the MJQ has stressed the division in approach between Lewis and Jackson … and Jackson occasionally seemed to fuel that impression. In his later years, however, he reacted angrily to any suggestion of antipathy within the band, blaming the media for seeking scandal or – his own word – dissension where none existed. He has acknowledged he did not see eye to eye with Lewis on certain matters, including the latter’s championing of Ornette Coleman, and was occasionally frustrated at his role (especially in the context of some of the experiments with symphony orchestras, which left him ‘with nothing much to play’). At the same time, he made the point that ‘the MJQ has been together for forty years, and there’s no way a group can be that successful for all that time if we didn’t get along’. Jackson also acknowledged that when all was said and done, they all did better as the MJQ than they did on their own.” – Kenny Mathieson

MJQ – Fontessa.
“The MJQ … began a sequence of important recordings in January and February of 1956 with Fontessa, built around the now customary mixture of classically-influenced pieces ([such as] ‘Versailles’, one of the most successful of Lewis’s jazz fugues…) harder-hitting jazz and blues tunes (‘Woody ‘n’ You’, Jackson’s ‘Bluesology’), and ballads.” – Kenny Mathieson

“Lewis’s first exploration of characters from the commedia dell’arte was [the LP] Fontessa, an appropriately chill and stately record that can seem a little enigmatic, even off-putting. The themes of commedia are remarkably appropriate to a group who have always presented themselves in sharply etched silhouette, playing a music that is deceptively smooth and untroubled but which harbours considerable jazz feeling.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Versailles. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Fontessa. 1/22/1956

Woody’n You. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Fontessa. 1/22/1956

Bluesology. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Fontessa. 2/14/1956

John Lewis and his Orchestra – Third Stream Explorations
The LP “Golden Striker indulges [John Lewis’s] baroque leanings with a set of tunes arranged for piano and a large brass ensemble: the tone-colours are delightful, and ‘Piazza Navona’ and the reworked ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ are gravely beautiful. It’s not a much admired set, often dismissed because a good deal of the music is through-composed and therefore ‘not jazz’. It’s certainly a thoughtful set and a resolutely undramatic one.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Piazza Navona. John Lewis and his Orchestra
(Melvin Broiles, Bernie Glow, Alan Kiger, Joe Wilder-tp, David Baker, Dick Hixson-tb, Ray Alonge, John Barrows, Al Richman, Gunther Schuller-frh, Harvey Phillips-tu, John Lewis-p, George Duvivier-b, Connie Kay-d). From The Golden Striker. 2/15/1960

Odds Against Tomorrow. John Lewis and his Orchestra
(Melvin Broiles, Bernie Glow, Alan Kiger, Joe Wilder-tp, David Baker, Dick Hixson-tb, Ray Alonge, John Barrows, Al Richman, Gunther Schuller-frh, Harvey Phillips-tu, John Lewis-p, George Duvivier-b, Connie Kay-d). From The Golden Striker. 2/12/1960

MJQ Live – Dedicated to Connie.
“After [drummer Connie] Kay’s death in December 1994, the MJQ issued a [recording of a] 1960 concert from Yugoslavia in his memory. As John Lewis discovered when he auditioned these old tapes, it was one of the truly great MJQ performances. Jackson’s playing is almost transcendentally wonderful on ‘Bags’ Groove’ and ‘I Remember Clifford’…. Dedicated To Connie is a very special record and has always been our favourite of the bunch.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Bags’ Groove. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Dedicated to Connie. 5/27/1960

I Remember Clifford. Modern Jazz Quartet
(John Lewis-p, Milt Jackson-vib, Percy Heath-b, Connie Kay-d). From Dedicated to Connie. 5/27/1960

Milt Jackson & Wes Montgomery – Bags Meets Wes.
“Jackson was firmly ensconced in the Modern Jazz Quartet by this time, but occasional blowing dates were something he obviously enjoyed, and his association with Riverside led to some more challenging situations. [Bags Meets Wes, a] December 1961 date put together [Jackson with guitarist Wes Montgomery] the two modern masters of their instruments in a setting that allowed them both free rein. That said, it’s a more considered record than some of this period and nothing is allowed to go on too long. ‘Stairway To The Stars’ is presented as a miniature and it seems just right at that. The quintet locks into an irresistible groove on the uptempo themes and it’s no surprise that the set-list is dominated by blues, with the opening ‘S.K.J.’ and ‘Sam Sack’ the most compelling of them.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Stairway To The Stars. Milt Jackson – Wes Montgomery Quintet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Wynton Kelly-p, Wes Montgomery-g, Sam Jones-b, Philly Joe Jones-d). From Bags Meets Wes. 12/18/1961

S.K.J. Milt Jackson – Wes Montgomery Quintet
(Milt Jackson-vib, Wynton Kelly-p, Wes Montgomery-g, Sam Jones-b, Philly Joe Jones-d). From Bags Meets Wes. 12/19/1961

The Modern Jazz Quartet was the longest lasting combo in jazz for decades, earning well-deserved accolades for the consistency of their performances and recordings over the years. John Lewis and Milt Jackson also deserved considerable renown for their solo efforts as well.

While bebop was a revolutionary new music in the late 1930s and dominated jazz in the 1940s, by the 1960s it still had its adherents who were producing compelling music thirty years later. In the next hour of Jazz at 100, bebop from trumpeter Howard McGhee, saxophonists Charles McPherson and Sonny Stitt, and pianist Barry Harris.

Recordings.
Modern Jazz Quartet. Fontessa. Atlantic LP 1231.
John Lewis. The Golden Striker. Atlantic LP 1334.
Modern Jazz Quartet. Dedicated to Connie. Atlantic 8276
Milt Jackson & Wes Montgomery. Bags Meets Wes. Riverside RLP 407

Resources.
Mathieson, Kenny. 2012. Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65. Edinburgh. Canongate Books.
The Modern Jazz Quartet
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
John Lewis. The Golden Striker.
Modern Jazz Quartet. Dedicated to Connie
Milt Jackson & Wes Montgomery. Bags Meets Wes
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 41. Modern Jazz Quartet, Fontessa (1956)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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