Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, we tell about pianist John Lewis. He created one of one of the most famous jazz
groups in America, the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Lewis was known for his creativity. He
was a skilled piano player and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet for
almost fifty years. He wrote and
arranged all the music for the small group.
Mister Lewis was responsible for the group's sound and its
Lewis was interested in jazz, blues, and bebob, a music with a great deal of
energy. Yet he was also greatly
influenced by his training in European classical music. Classical music is expressive and intense,
but is also structured. He thought jazz
should be presented the same way.
combined classical music with traditional jazz to create songs for himself and
the three other members of his quartet.
He believed music should be simple and clear, yet played in a meaningful
way. Here is one of the Modern Jazz
Quartet's big hits, "Django."
was greatly influenced by the piano style of the famous jazz bandleader, Count
Basie. Like Basie, Lewis believed in
making every note of music count. He
depended as much on silence as he did on notes to get his message across.
Lewis often used a form of music called fugue.
Fugue is a series of opposing melodies used to create a complex
effect. Mister Lewis also combined
written music with music that the group invented as it went along.
new kind of jazz attracted both lovers of jazz and classical music. It also appealed to people who did not
necessarily like jazz. Here is an
example of fugue in the song "Alexander's Fugue."
Modern Jazz Quartet included John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Connie
Kay. The group made its first recording
in nineteen fifty-two. And they
continued to play together, with a seven year break, until nineteen
Lewis was as concerned about appearances as he was about the music. The musicians had to dress well for every
performance. They played mostly in
concert halls instead of small dance clubs.
Lewis believed jazz should receive the same respect as classical music.
Lewis was born in La Grange, Illinois, in nineteen twenty. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He started playing the piano when he was
seven. As a teenager, he played professionally in churches around
Albuquerque. He soon was playing in
local dance halls.
Lewis studied anthropology and music at
the University of New Mexico. In
nineteen forty-two, he joined the Army and served in Europe during World War
the war, Lewis moved to New York City and played in Dizzy Gillespie's big
band. He also studied for his master's
degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
Lewis played in the rhythm section of Gillespie's band. Other members were drummer Kenny Clarke, bass
player Ray Brown and vibraphone player Milt Jackson. The four often performed together while the
horn players in the band rested.
four band members continued to work together after leaving Dizzy's group in the
late nineteen forties. At that time,
they were criticized for not playing "true jazz." But they continued anyway. Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke soon left the
group. Bass player Percy Heath and
drummer Connie Kay replaced them. In
nineteen fifty-two, the group became the Modern Jazz Quartet and established
its own identity.
nineteen fifty-six, the Modern Jazz Quartet played a series of concerts in
Europe. The group helped make jazz
popular with many music listeners in Europe.
The members of the quartet had become major stars by the time they
returned to the United States.
Modern Jazz Quartet continued to perform all over the world for sold-out crowds
until the late nineteen seventies.
People loved the group's teamwork and their amazing sound. Listen as we play "Vendome", another big hit.
say John Lewis's "less is more" piano style and Milt Jackson's energy on the
vibraphone were the secret to the group's long-lasting success.
over the years, Mister Jackson expressed dissatisfaction with limits that were
put on his talents. The group separated
in nineteen seventy-four. However, the
members of the quartet reunited after seven years. They played together until Milt Jackson's
death in nineteen ninety-nine.
addition to his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis worked for many
years as musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival in California. He wrote the music for several Hollywood
films. He taught at Harvard University
and the City College of New York. And he
helped establish a jazz school in Massachusetts.
the years, John Lewis worked with some of the biggest names in jazz, including
trumpet player Miles Davis. Yet for all
the praise Lewis received, he was known for putting the interests of the group
over the individual.
Lewis lived a quiet life with his wife, Mirjana, in New York City. In March, two thousand one, he died of
cancer. He was eighty years old. His death officially marked the end of a
historic period in modern jazz.
Special English program was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our audio engineer was Roy Benson. I'm Steve
I'm Shirley Griffith. Listen again next
week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.