The meaning of John Lewis
A great silence descended March 29, the day John Lewis died. And though it is most keenly
felt by jazz fans, the devotees of the classical tradition have reason to weep as well.
For John Lewis, that great and egoless font of creativity, occupies a position at the
front of a file of musicians who fought the worthy battle to bring jazz the respect that
has been accorded classical music for centuries.
His weapons were education, experimentation, an open mind, an expansive heart, and an
internal engine that kept his musical machine -- alone or in company with others -- in
constant motion. From my vantage point, he largely succeeded.
I read his obituary over morning coffee in Maryland and, before the day was over, I'd
scanned several more newspapers and wire services for their treatments of Lewis' life of
grand musical achievement.
Not a single obit failed to mention his importance as a bridge between the old European
canon and the younger American one. All jazz fans know how Lewis served for decades as the
pianist, principle composer and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and it was
primarily in those roles that his contributions to jazz are remembered. But he also was an
educator who took his long experience and intricate knowledge of both musical traditions
into colleges and universities and workshops. By doing so, he helped ensure that a new
generation of musicians would carry on the grand tradition that jazz has established
during the past century.
His touch at the keyboard was deft. His technique was unmistakable. His style was
impeccable. His elegance was palpable. There are few pianists in his league when it comes
to understanding the nuances of small-ensemble playing.
From 1945, when he joined the Dizzy Gillespie band, through nearly five decades with the
MJQ and up until the time of his death, his output as a composer is breathtaking and a
lesson for all who would assay the gem-studded mines of jazz, classical and Third Stream
Consider these compositions: "Two Bass Hit"; "Two Degrees East, Three
Degrees West"; "Afternoon in Paris"; "Vendome"; "Delaunay's
Dilemma"; "England's Carol" (variations on "God Rest Ye Merry
Gentlemen"); "Django"; "The Golden Striker"; "Skating In
Central Park"; "Little David's Fugue"; "The Cylinder";
"Concorde"; "Versailles"; "A Morning In Paris" (same chord
progression as "An Afternoon in Paris"); "Midsommer";
Now consider these compositions in their aural manifestations: the very sound of them is
fresh and experimental yet grounded so firmly in tradition and sound musical theory that
one hardly knows how to classify them. But the inability to classify is a hallmark of the
Lewis style. He understood his Mozart as well as his Monk. In addition to his stint with
Diz, he worked with such greats as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Lester Young and Illinois
Jacquet, soaking up every influence to be found along the way.
Those influences, married with his classical training, led to concepts that emerged
full-blown and mature with the advent of the MJQ in 1951. And he never underestimated the
intelligence of his audience, to the point where one almost feels that this sonic genius
felt himself to be merely normal and he accorded the same respect to his listeners.
From the day the MJQ was born, Lewis functioned as the quartermaster, insisting on
tuxedoes and decorum to underscore the importance of the group's music; the exemplar,
setting a tone of support that allowed maximum freedom to the soloist within the sturdy
architecture of the music; the conceptualist, uniting funk with the fugue; and the
tillerman, guiding his particular vessel on a steady course through the sandbars and over
the rapids of musical faddism.>
The MJQ -- Lewis, piano; Milt Jackson, vibraharp; Percy Heath, bass; and Connie Kay, who
replaced Kennie Clarke in 1955, drums -- now is down to only Heath, who still tours with
his famous brothers, Albert and Jimmy, but whose name is inextricably woven into the
memories of the elegant quartet that was Lewis' brainchild.
Yes, my friends, there is a great silence in the jazz world and our cousins in the
classical world have reason to pause in respect as well. The meaning of John Lewis as a
bridge, mentor, performer, and musical friend will resonate well beyond the 80 years that
encompassed his life. We've lost one of our lifelines to the muse.
It is a sad time on the bandstand.