Lewis, John Aaron

Lewis, John Aaron
▪ 2002

      American composer and pianist (b. May 3, 1920, La Grange, Ill.—d. March 29, 2001, New York, N.Y.), brought elegance and charm to jazz while leading the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) to musical and popular success for over four decades. He played piano in a spare, graceful style, and his compositions included sophisticated modern melodies as well as breaks, ostinatos, riffs, and other devices from the early jazz and swing eras. Lewis, inspired by bebop and Bach, was especially noted for creating forms derived from classical music; he joined Baroque canons and fugues to modern improvisation. Lewis grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and studied music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico; later he attended New York City's Manhattan School of Music (M.A., 1953). After army service during World War II, he became a vital figure in the bebop avant-garde, playing in and composing (“Two Bass Hit” and “Emanon”) for Dizzy Gillespie's big band and accompanying Charlie Parker in classic recordings; Lewis also helped create the cool jazz idiom by composing for Miles Davis's 1948 Birth of the Cool nonet. In 1952 Lewis began leading the MJQ, one of the longest-lived of all jazz groups. It featured Lewis's piano interplay with the great vibraphone soloist Milt Jackson, accompanied sensitively by Percy Heath, bass, and Connie Kay, drums, and it was active until the late 1990s, apart from a 1975–80 hiatus. Lewis's compositions for the MJQ included songs (his most famed was “Django”), fugues (“Concorde” and “Vendome”), extended works (The Comedy and A Day in Dubrovnik), and film scores (Sait-on jamais? [No Sun in Venice] and Odds Against Tomorrow). Apart from the MJQ, the versatile Lewis encouraged Third Stream music, which united jazz and classical elements, by composing for orchestras and small ensembles and by coleading Orchestra U.S.A. (1962–65). He was musical director of the Monterey (Calif.) Jazz Festival (1958–82) and of the American Jazz Orchestra (1985–92), a repertory big band. Meanwhile, he also played his intimate style of piano in a variety of jazz combos; in his last major concert (New York City, January 2001), he played unaccompanied solos and directed the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

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Universalium. 2010.

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