John Lewis


(1920 - 2001)

John Aaron Lewis was born in La Grange (Ill.) on 3rd May 1920. He grew up in Albuquerque (N.Mex.) and started playing the piano when he was seven, initially taught by his mother. He studied anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico until 1942 when he joined the Army. In the Army he befriended Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer. After the war Lewis moved to New York to enter a course at the Manhattan School of Music where he included voice lessons in his curriculum and developed a special interest in Renaissance and Baroque music. This in-depth knowledge of classical forms and counterpoint has greatly influenced John Lewis' composing style through the decades. In 1946, Clarke introduced Lewis into the Dizzy Gillespie Band as arranger and pianist. This move brough Lewis immediately to the forefront of the emerging bebop movement and he was instrumental in establishing the form. Later Lewis was to join the nine piece Miles Davis Capitol recording group in 1949 with which he recorded the now essential "Birth of the Cool" sessions. The Rhythm section of this group became the nucleus from which in 1952 the Modern Jazz Quartet was formed. The Modern Jazz Quartet consisted of : John Lewis, piano - Milt Jackson, vibraphone - Percy Heath, bass - Kenny Clarke, drums. In 1955 Clarke moved to Paris and was replaced by the quieter and more appropriate drummer Connie Kay. Initially known as the Milt Jackson Quartet, John Lewis soon took over as musical director of the group and the name was changed to the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). The group only disbanded in 1995 following the death of drummer Connie Kay, and is arguably the most successsful and longest running ensemble in the history of Jazz. Lewis contributed the bulk of the group's compositions and arrangements, including "Django" and "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West." He insisted members wear tuxedos to dignify jazz as a sophisticated art form. In the 50's and 60's the MJQ played a major role in making Jazz 'respectable' to many 'serious music' listeners in Europe. In the winter of 1957 alone the MJQ played 88 concerts in four months in Europe and England. Although the group was the focal point of much of his creative efforts, Lewis’s own work away from the MJQ amounted to a substantial jazz legacy in its own right. The release of two recent CDs, Evolution (1999) and Evolution Part 2 (2001), revealed that he was still a vital force towards the end of his life. Fittingly, his final concert appearance came in a lavish gala at Lincoln Center in New York in January, when he played in settings ranging from solo piano to big band. In Jazz his compositions are unique, as they commonly combine the element of classical form with the traditional Jazz element (largely lost in modern Jazz) of collective improvisation. Though many of his more ambitious orchestral works have only a peripheral relationship to Jazz. As an instrumental soloist, Lewis has been described as " a unique and invariably moving Jazz pianist. His touch is sure and delicate, his ideas are disarmingly simple and honest. He has a rhythmic sense and enough technique to allow him easy freedom." Lewis was also a comitted educator who taught music at Harvard and the City College of New York, and in the late 1950's he was a founder of the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. John Lewis died aged 80 on March 31, 2001.

Recommended Recordings


Go to Johnn Lewis' page at emusic for free MP3 downloads



Blues on Bach (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Complete last Concert (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Dedicated to Connie (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Celebration (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Pyramid (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Fontessa (Modern Jazz Quartet) Atlantic
Concorde (Modern Jazz Quartet) OJC
Django (Modern Jazz Quartet) OJC
Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Pablo and Prestige Prestige
Echoes - Together Again (Modern Jazz Quartet) Pablo
Sheriff (Modern Jazz Quartet) WEA / Warner
Third Stream Music (Modern Jazz Quartet) Wounded Bird
Modern Jazz Quartet 1957 Wounded Bird

Goldberg Variations Part 1

Universal / Philips
Goldberg Variations Part 2 Universal / Philips
JS Bach Preludes and Fuges Vol 2 Universal / Philips
JS Bach Preludes and Fuges Vol 3 Universal / Philips
Evolution Atlantic
Evolution Pt. 2 Atlantic
Golden Striker Collectables
Jazz Piano International Collectables