The Modern Jazz Quartet

UPDATED 06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

Touring Europe in the late '50s, the Modern Jazz Quartet arrived at a London concert hall to find a small, wan-sounding piano onstage. Dismayed at having to play yet another "muffin," pianist John Lewis looked around and spotted a Steinway concert grand in a dark corner, its lid locked. When he asked to play it, the stage manager refused, adding: "That's for proper music." Resigned, Lewis made do. "After the concert," recalls Milt Jackson, the quartet's vibraharpist, "the man apologized to John. He said he'd never heard jazz sound like that before."

Until the Modern Jazz Quartet came along 31 years ago, no one had heard jazz sound quite "like that" before. Reacting to the excesses of the bebop era, the MJQ seemingly accomplished the impossible. It put an end to the endless solo and, while injecting jazz with new structure, including classical forms, maintained spontaneity by devising a unique way of improvising collectively. With its unorthodox instrumentation—piano, vibes, bass and drums—the MJQ shimmered, dazzling itself and its audience with a lyrical, elegant, lucid music that was undeniably "proper."

But if impressing skeptical British stage managers had been its goal and calling, the MJQ would not still be wrestling with the issues of money and status that attended its birth, its breakup in 1974 and its return to touring this year. Nor would jazz fans be flocking to the quartet's appearances at the Kool Jazz Festivals this summer, including a Carnegie Hall concert at the flagship New York festival next week.

For all its classicism, the group's integrity lies in its devotion to jazz basics. As Lewis defines it, "Rhythmically, jazz has nothing to do with Africa, or with Latin America. It has to do with some special and very delicate things that developed here, and which people should be busy trying to protect and preserve: swing, the blues and the element of surprise."

Since emerging from the ranks of the Dizzy Gillespie big band after World War II, the quartet has changed personnel only twice, and not at all since 1955. The roll call now, as then, consists of Lewis, 63, on piano; Jackson, 60, on vibes; Percy Heath, 60, on bass; and Connie Kay, 57, on drums. Such constancy is rare enough in big bands, but in small combos it is almost unprecedented.

Lewis provides much of the glue with his compositions, which are as challenging to play as they are affecting to hear. While striving, he says, "to balance all four instruments as in a string quartet," he writes and arranges highly personalized pieces designed to feature each member of the band. Sacha's March, named for Lewis' son (who will be a freshman at Harvard in the fall; he also has a daughter, Nina, 15), is a charming and tender piece centered around Kay's drums.

Playing in the MJQ is never dull. As Kay says, "We change stuff around all the time. Sometimes it isn't even on paper. Some strange dude could come along and play what's written, and he'd be wrong because it's not done that way anymore."

Lewis is a gentle taskmaster. He speaks softly, with a shy, hesitant tone, his words filtered through a constant smile. But the message—perfection—gets through. The MJQ has always been one of the most rehearsed bands in jazz. In the late '50s, when the quartet summered at Lenox, Mass., where Lewis helped establish the School of Jazz, the quartet rehearsed three hours daily, and Heath recalls "looking out wistfully at those sunlit trees. Oh, boy, it was torture."

If the rehearsal process isn't totally democratic, it is highly participatory. After all, each of the musicians is an acknowledged virtuoso ("They all play their ass off, that's all I know," says Kay), and they often suggest their own solutions to questions of nuance. The virtuoso factor also molds the group's sound. As Heath explains, "Anything John gives him, Jackson will interpret as Jackson. And I think John relies on that."

To the casual listener, the most prominent element in the MJQ's tapestry is Jackson's vibraharp, with its force, its reverberating warmth and its ornate, effortless flight. Subtler, but as important, is Lewis' piano, gently insistent, thoughtfully affectionate.

Heath and Kay are needle and thread, brightly sewing up the fabric, strengthening it, occasionally emerging from the seams to become the fabric itself. Both men get an unusually rich and resilient sound from their instruments. Heath plays a glorious 18th-century bass he found in Berlin in 1956 after a tip from a friend. He calls it "Rogeri," after its maker. Kay's drum kit is anti-newfangled: calfskin heads rather than plastic, a thick soft felt bass-drum beater instead of a hard wooden one. Kay painstakingly tunes his drums each time he plays them. "Unless a guy knows how to caress the skins, he should forget the drum solo, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "Most of them are a bunch of noise."

Jackson is equally proud of his vintage friend, a 1937 Deagan. He owns newer vibes but says none sound as good. "Most instruments used in jazz are of European origin," he adds. "Mine is one of the few from America. It was invented the year I was born, 1923." Only pianist Lewis must cast his fate to the winds. "He has to face a stranger every time," says Heath sympathetically. While Kay tunes, and Heath warms up Rogeri at length, and Jackson merely samples his Deagan, Lewis is often bent over a new keyboard, frowningly removing grunge with a damp towel.

In performance, visual contrasts and balances abound. Lewis purses his lips with determination at every turn of phrase. His solidly built body barely moves, seeming to compress with the force of his concentration. Kay, sitting tall and erect amidst his black pearl drums, also appears stationary, but as tranquil as a Buddha. When he "swings" the band, his head snicks left and right metronomically, and the corners of his mouth upturn under the ever-present dark glasses he wears to protect his light-sensitive eyes.

Heath and Jackson move. Heath, tall and buoyant and ardently attentive, bends his knees and dances cheek to cheek with his bass. He sweats profusely, not from the lights, he insists, but from the "sheer excitement" of touching Rogeri. Jackson is a sparrow, ever cocking his head. Between phrases, he may look bored, distracted. When he plays, legs straight, trim trunk angled forward over the vibes, his arms blur and his eyebrows flip up in astonishment. "There's the impression," the French critic André Hodeir once wrote, "that Milt is listening to himself play with an ear that is not at all complacent but that is, in a certain sense, charmed."

Jackson is that rarity, a natural. Growing up in Detroit, with little or no instruction, he sang gospel and became fluent on drums, piano, guitar, violin and xylophone. One of his earliest musical memories is of strumming his father's guitar to the rhythm his mother made tenderizing beef with a hammer. Kay grew up in Manhattan, listening to Cab Calloway broadcasts and drumming along on a hassock "until finally the straw came out." In Philadelphia, young Heath played violin and sang in a family quartet. Prejudice or segregation impinged on them all, but Lewis, growing up in Albuquerque, N.Mex., where people of Indian or Spanish descent were the scorned minority, saw less than the others. As Heath says, "His roots are different from the average black in America."

After World War II all four men gravitated to where the action was—New York, hotbed of bebop. To allow his brass players to rest their chops around mid-show, Dizzy Gillespie would present the rhythm section of his big band on its own. In 1946, that was Lewis, Jackson, Ray Brown on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. Audiences dug them, and they each other, so much that in 1951, after several intervening gigs, they made a record as the Milt Jackson Quartet. But "since none of us could afford to hire the others," as Lewis explains, "we decided to all hire each other." Brown left, replaced by Heath, and they settled on a suitably collective name.

In the disreputable nightclub atmosphere of the '40s, the image of jazz suffered, and the MJQ wished, as Jackson says, "to elevate the level of respect." Following its first recording in 1952, the quartet decided to shun nightclubs in favor of concert halls. They arranged their instruments in an arc that emphasized none more than another, and the musicians made their entrances together, two from each side of the stage. They wore tuxedos so that, as Lewis explains, "people didn't have to waste time trying to see what everybody looked like. You could just listen to the music."

Lewis, who had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in music from the Manhattan School of Music, became the group's musical director and guiding spirit. He began employing fugue (Concorde, Vendome), diminution and recapitulation (Django) and other classical devices. He wrote suites inspired by the Renaissance commedia dell'arte (Fontessa, and later The Comedy). But despite the group's American origins, most of the early cheering came from across the Atlantic. "The quartet's gift of painting orchestral colors with a deliberately restricted instrumental palette is masterly," raved the English critic Francis Newton. "And they never stop playing jazz."

Soon the cheering spread. At home, composer-critic Gunther Schuller declared that the MJQ had achieved a level of interplay "almost nonexistent in jazz since the great days of the Ellington band." But some, like Miles Davis, didn't dig. "The way they bring 'dignity' to jazz in their formal clothes and the way they bow," he once said, "is like Ray Robinson bringing dignity to boxing by fighting in a tuxedo." The MJQ's own drummer, Kenny Clarke, quit in 1955, calling Lewis' music "too bland and pretentious for my taste." Kay, a promising drummer who had worked with the distinguished tenor saxophonist Lester Young, replaced him.

As time went by the MJQ won over its detractors and achieved a lasting eminence. To do so, they toured. And toured. In 1957 they played 88 European concerts in four months. They lived on the road for three, four, even five months at a time. When they were caught in a Mexican earthquake in 1973, Heath fearlessly ran back into their evacuated hotel to make sure Rogeri was safe. An insurrection broke out around them in Argentina in 1962. Their last five concerts were canceled, and they were advised to stay in their hotel. Kay ventured out anyway to keep a dinner date. "I didn't worry about getting stopped," he says with a smile, holding up one long arm. "They could see I wasn't Argentine."

Meanwhile the four men's wives were raising their children without them. Not until the '60s did the group finally begin taking a summer vacation. Today Kay says ruefully of his sons, Connie Jr., now 26, and Noel, now 21, "I missed all the years when I could have taken them around." (Heath has three sons, Percy III, 32, Jason, 27, and Stuart, 22.) Time on the road grew more grueling, a cumulative headache of late flights, lost bags, cramped taxis, short beds and indifferent promoters.

The MJQ had become one of the highest-paid groups in jazz, and the four were all living comfortably. But as rock stars became increasingly popular and commanded unheard-of fees, the $4,000 to $5,000 that the group could earn for concerts began to seem thin gruel indeed. Moreover, the men had been paying through the nose to fly first-class, enjoy better hotels and restaurants, and dress in custom-made outfits from H. Huntsman & Sons on London's Savile Row.

Finally, in 1974, after some 30 records and 22 years with the group, Jackson decided to call the whole thing off. The others wanted to continue, but Jackson had become embittered and was convinced he could do better on his own. "People came to me and said we had to be four very rich cats," he says. "And why not? We looked like it, we sounded like it, and maybe in some people's minds we even acted like it. But where was it?"

"Milt is being shortsighted," Lewis told the New York Times the day before the group's emotional farewell concert in New York. "The rock stars he is talking about are in show business. They're entertainers. We are musicians."

The jazz world agreed—and mourned. Down Beat compared the breakup to "the abrupt disintegration of Mt. Rushmore." In the ensuing diaspora, each man fared differently. Lewis thrived, becoming a professor of music at New York's City College and exploiting "the opportunity to investigate the piano as I never did before." He also launched his own sextet, featuring flute, violin and guitar. Heath and younger brothers Jimmy, on sax, and Al, on drums, established the Heath Brothers band. Percy earned far less than in MJQ days, but he continued to grow musically. Kay toiled. He free-lanced with Paul Desmond and others, and became the house drummer at a New York nightclub, a job that only increased his distaste for such places.

Jackson, who had started a swinging, blues-oriented group of his own during the MJQ's summer breaks, now ventured out as a "single" as well, touring alone, picking up local rhythm sections—a jazz crapshoot. He eventually made more money than with the MJQ, but "There were nights," he admits, "when I wanted to strangle all three cats right on the bandstand."

Over the years the resentments against Jackson softened, but, except for several 1976 concerts, the group remained a memory until a financially tempting offer got them together again in Japan and briefly in the U.S. in 1981. Those concerts were followed by gigs in the U.S. in 1982.

This year, at long last, the MJQ is back on the road. Thanks largely to the efforts of Ray Brown, their new manager and old associate, they're earning from $10,000 to $20,000 a night in concert, and about the same for the rare week in a club. (Miles Davis is one of the few who command more.) Bassist Brown, 56, himself a member of the jazz pantheon, is point man for a crusade the MJQ has more or less always been conducting. He travels with them, insisting on things like limousines, well-tuned pianos and distortion-free sound systems. "I still hear, 'This is for serious music, that's good enough for jazz,' " he says. "I'm reversing that."

Though the improved payday convinced them to revive their hallowed marquee, it was no end in itself. Their music has never been more touching. The secret is not sterling technique, though that is a quality the group virtually embodies. Rather, it is something Jackson touched on in 1975 while lecturing to advanced students and faculty at Boston's Berkeley School of Music. Arguing that no one could ever be taught to duplicate his remarkable sound, he came to his impassioned point: "If it ain't here," he said, tapping his chest with one strong finger, "it ain't nowhere."

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