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February 10, 1989 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1989-02-10
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MJQ: Elegance
and excellence
n modern jazz

By Brian Bonet
"I'm telling you history, baby."
That's what vibraphonist Milt
Jackson said after retelling 37 years
of excellence and elegance - the
story of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
But I didn't ask for history, at
least not all of it - my interview
was only supposed to last 10 min-
utes. I just wanted to ask some spe-
cific questions concerning the Mod-
ern Jazz Quartet's past.
Jackson thought I wanted the
group's entire history.
He said, "Man, that will take all
day. You should have done your re-
I said, "No, I just want to ask
you some specific questions about
It was too late. Jackson had al-
ready begun. He started by telling
me how the quartet took shape in
1952, when they backed the Dizzy
Gillespie Orchestra, whose brass
section spent most of its time
blowing in the upper register. He
said if I knew anything about horn
players, I knew their lips get tired.
That's when Dizzy would showcase
his talented young vibraphonist and
rhythm section.
"Dizzy had us play - just the
four of us - while he gave his horn
players a breather," explained Jack-
son. "Plus, because of the amount of
money Dizzy was paying us, he
said, 'Man, you gotta work harder."'
According to Jackson, Dizzy got
his money's worth. "I knew we had
something the first night we played.
We went over as a huge success."

And the rest is history - Modern
Jazz Quartet history- history I had
read from album liner notes, news-
paper clippings, and jazz history
books prior to the interview. But I
didn't interrupt the musician. His-
tory becomes brand new when it's
told by someone who has shaped it.
It's a quality that has made oral his-
tory a jazz tradition.
Jackson continued. He explained
that bassist Percy Heath was an
original member of the Modern Jazz
Quartet - not bassist Ray Brown,
as is commonly believed. Brown
was with the group earlier, when it
was known as the Milt Jackson
Quartet. Heath, Jackson said, would
like the record set straight, even
though he keeps quiet about it. "I
don't know why, but Percy doesn't
like me to tell people that it bothers
him. But I'm going to tell you the
Then we talked about John Lewis
- the band's pianist, perfectionist,
and music director. Lewis is also a
scholar, having earned two degrees
from the Manhattan School of Mu-
sic, one of the nation's leading con-
servatories. It is Lewis who is
largely responsible for the quartet's
structured music, borrowing Euro-
pean conventions via a classical
music upbringing and a fascination
with music from the Renaissance
and Baroque Period.
Jazz with strict structure was a
revolutionary idea in the early
1950s, especially for a small combo.
Lewis' experiment appeared to go
against the music's roots by limit-

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'When you go to hear
symphony music, don't
you wear coattails?
[Our] music is as
dignified as the sym-
-Modern Jazz Quartet
Vibraphonist Milt
ing improvisation, the source of
jazz's vitality since its creation.
But Lewis had a purpose.
Through this "structural jazz," Lewis
wanted to widen the jazz audience by
giving them "more of a reason for
what's going on."
Drummer Kenny Clarke didn't
buy it. He felt too restrained under
Lewis' musical direction. He left the
band and was replaced by Connie
Kay in 1955. But it appeared another
clash of ideologies, between Jackson
and Lewis, was inevitable, and
would lead to an early demise for the
The quartet began as Jackson's
band. Originally MJQ stood for the
Milt Jackson Quartet, highlighting
the passionate improvisations of the
group's young vibraphonist. Jackson
was emerging as a founder of the
bebop school, garnering a reputation
as the music's premiere vibraphon-
ist, bending notes and producing
power on an instrument previously
thought of as unversatile and there-
fore incompatible with jazz.
Lewis was Jackson's counter-
point. His playing is spare and, de-



Bassist Percy Heath, Vibraphonist Milt Jackson, Drummer
Connie Kay, and Pianist John Lewis (top photo, from left)
today and as they appeared in the group's early days.
liberate, and often sounds restrained. Lewis are from different schools.
He sketches thoughtful notes with "First of all, were two different peo-
his piano, shaping the music by ple, two different personalities.
constantly giving hints to where he When we formed the group it was a
is going.
Jackson doesn't deny that he and See MJQ, Page 20



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