The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Modern Jazz Quartet were incredibly important in the development of jazz in the 1950s, and although they officially disbanded in 1974, they’ve reformed for both concerts and recordings several times since then, making them now an “evergreen” jazz band. It was not always so.
The Modern Jazz Quartet was originally formed as the Milt Jackson Quartet (which, conveniently, had the same initials, MJQ) and consisted of Jackson on vibraphone, John Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. Of these, Clarke was the veteran of the group, a drummer who had been at Minton’s after-hours club in 1939, where Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian and Clarke invented “bebop” or bop, a harmonically advanced and challenging kind of new jazz.
Clarke served in the Army during World War II, and there he met and became friends with John Lewis, who was fresh out of the University of New Mexico where he’d studied anthropology and music. In 1946 both joined the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, the only bop big band, and there they met vibist Milt Jackson. Until then only two jazz musicians were well known for playing this electrified xylophone, Lionel Hampton (famous for his work in the ’30s with Benny Goodman and a band leader himself in the ’40s) and Red Norvo (whose early ’50s trio with guitarist Tal Farlowe and bassist Charles Mingus catapulted him from the swing era into modern jazz). Jackson was the first to adapt the instrument to a bop context. And also in Gillespie’s band they met Ray Brown, a bassist who appears on some early MJQ recordings.
In 1948 and 1949 Lewis and Clarke were also participants in the Miles Davis Nonet sessions for Capitol which were later dubbed Birth of the Cool. The group, nominally fronted by Davis, was a composer/arranger’s band, showcasing the writing of Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Gil Evans and John Carisi. Lewis contributed two originals and arranged three other pieces in the band’s repertoire. During this same period Jackson was making recordings for Blue Note, Prestige and Savoy, all small but important jazz labels.
The MJQ was formed in 1952; its first recording was the 10-inch Prestige album, Modern Jazz Quartet with Milt Jackson (PRLP-160), released in 1953, which is now valued at from $60 to $150, depending on condition. This was followed the same year by Modern Jazz Quartet, Volume 2 (PRLP-170), another 10-inch LP which has the same value. In 1955 the MJQ made two 12-inch albums, Concorde for Prestige (PRLP-7005) ($30 to $75), and Modern Jazz Quartet for Savoy (MG-12046) ($20 to $50). That year drummer Clarke dropped out and was replaced by Connie Kay, setting the personnel in place for the rest of the MJQ’s career.
But 1956 was the year in which everything came together for the group, and this was due to their signing with Atlantic Records. Atlantic was the reflection of the Ertegun brothers’ enthusiasms. The sons of Turkish diplomats, they loved R&B and jazz. Atlantic recorded Ray Charles, the Clovers, Ruth Brown, and a number of R&B groups for singles, and established an ambitious jazz program on LPs. Unlike Prestige and Savoy (and, to a lesser extent, Blue Note) – labels known for recording jam sessions – Atlantic spent time on preparations for each album, and many of Atlantic’s jazz albums were ambitious projects.
The MJQ’s first Atlantic album, Fontessa (1231), reflected this. The title track was over 11 minutes long and was a suite, not an extended jam. The music drew upon Lewis’s studies of Renaissance and Baroque music, and employed fugues and melodies in counterpoint, all done with impeccable swing. (Due to the popularity of this and subsequent Atlantic MJQ albums, and their widespread sales, Fontessa is valued at only $16 to $40, and most of the subsequent albums even less.)
The importance of what the MJQ did with this and their following Atlantic albums cannot be over-estimated. They changed the face of jazz. They were in the forefront of the movement to take jazz out of smoky clubs and recreate it in a concert setting – which went a long way toward “legitimizing” a form of music which many still considered disreputable and unfit for polite company. Their music was “chamber jazz,” music you could listen to in a drawing room, but Lewis’s baroque excursions were always balanced by Jackson’s blues-drenched vibes, which could simultaneously weave an intricate counterpoint to the piano’s lines and swing with an element of what would later be called “funk” or “soul.” Lewis tended to play a spare piano, usually devoid of florid ornamentation, giving space to the vibes and bass. Kay, like most drummers of the bop era, kept time on his cymbals. The overall sound of the MJQ was light and fluid.
Capitalizing on Fontessa’s success, Prestige reissued its second 10-inch MJQ LP and half of the first as the 12-inch Django (PRLP-7057) ($30 to $70) the same year. “Django” was Lewis’s compositional tribute to Django Reinhardt, the great Gypsy guitarist. It is a lovely melody and has since become a jazz standard.
While the vast majority of MJQ albums appeared on the Atlantic label, their album Patterns appeared in 1960 on United Artists (UAL-4072 in mono; UAS-5072 in stereo; valued at $8 to $25, with the best price for the mono release) because it was a soundtrack release from the movie Odds Against Tomorrow. (It was re-released in 1968 on Solid State inexplicably retitled The Modern Jazz Quartet On Tour, SS-18035, and is valued at only $4 to $10.)
In 1968 the MJQ were signed to the Beatles’ Apple label – the only jazz group to do so – on which they released Under The Jasmine Tree (ST-3353) in 1968 and Space (STAO—3360) in 1969. Both are valued at $8 to $25. Subsequently they signed to Norman Granz’s Pablo label, which has recorded and released reunion concerts from the early 1980s. Much, but far from all of their Atlantic output has been released on CD.
[Separately, John Lewis was involved in recordings with The Modern Jazz Society (early Third Stream music, all of Lewis’s composition) and The Modern Jazz Sextet (a group assembled for a recording session with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt). Milt Jackson separately made a solo album and a collaboration with Ray Charles for Atlantic in the ‘50s. Both made a number of albums since then.]