The death of vibraharpist Milt Jackson on October 9, 1999, was a double loss for jazz, silencing a great jazz virtuoso and bringing to an end the 48-year run of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The MJQ’s windup was as quiet as its beginning on January 14, 1952. One might have expected great expressions of sorrow at the realization that there would be no more installments of the Swiss-watch telepathy perfected by the most durable chamber ensemble in jazz history. Created by Jackson, pianist and music director John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke, it underwent only two personnel changes. In 1955, Clarke left and was replaced by Connie Kay, who served 39 years until his death in 1994 and was succeeded by Mickey Roker.
Most assessments of the MJQ focus on Lewis’s Afro-fugues “Vendome” and “Concorde,” his immortal elegy “Django,” and Jackson’s showstoppers “Bag’s Groove” and “Blues-ology.” But Lewis’s achievement is far greater than the Bach-commedia dell’arte orbit that got him the most attention. For one example, consider the MJQ’s neglected but exciting variations on the Latin tinge. On The Sheriff, powered by Kay’s elegant traps, the foursome sweetly swings bossa nova rhythms on Luis Bonfa’s “Carnival” and Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras.” Collaboration, with guitarist Laurindo Almeida, expands on the Brazilian beat with renditions of Jobim’s “One Note Samba” and Lewis’s contrasting continental tango, “Trieste.”
A reverent reading of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez bears comparison with the more celebrated version by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on Sketches of Spain.
Another undervalued dimension of the ensemble’s inventiveness is suggested by the sacred syncopations of Jackson’s Mahalia Jackson-inspired playing on the harmonically advanced version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” retitled “The Spiritual,” on Live at the Lighthouse. A secular tangent of those rhythms emerges on Plastic Dreams, in the funky blues-boogalo “Dancing,” bringing to mind Connie Kay’s days with Ruth Brown and other Atlantic r&b performers.
On the other end of the socio- musical spectrum, consider Space, one of two little-known albums the MJQ made for Apple, the Beatles’ label; the diligent dissonances on two celestial tracks, “Visitor From Mars” and “Visitor From Venus,” articulated the political anxiety of the times. Like Ellington, Lewis synthesized world music into his jazz conception. “Under the Jasmine Tree,” introduced on the Apple album of that name, is an intricate interpretation of the Afro-Moorish rhythms of Morocco.
One of the great pleasures of the MJQ’s records is the opportunity they afford to track the development of its classics. Compare the studio recording of “Blues in B,” on Blues on Bach, with the electrifying live reading on Night at the Opera—the only recorded performance with Mickey Roker, then subbing for the ailing Kay. In a Crowd, recorded at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1963, features supercharged performances of Lewis’s Gypsy melody “Winter Tale” and the title track, a stop-time blues riff that Lewis dedicated to Martin Luther King.
That shout-out to Dr. King was appropriate for a group as pioneering as the MJQ. Significantly, the MJQ worked much of its magic during the social breakthroughs of the Civil Rights era. In the mid ’50s, the group’s sonic séances had gone over the heads of club owners and patrons, so Lewis and company took their music to the most hallowed concert halls in America and Europe, employing a MarianAnderson-like dignity to breach many barriers. When they returned to clubs, the MJQ’s power over audiences was guaranteed. At the same time, Lewis helped innovate a musical lexicon that combined the principles of European classicism with jazz improvisation, as evidenced in Third Stream Music, in which the MJQ appears with the Beaux Arts Quartet. The MJQ’s impact is heard today in the work of Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, the Kronos Quartet, Chick Corea, and many others.
For five decades, the Modern Jazz Quartet enchanted music lovers, proving that jazz could swing and sing with a complexity and elegance and—when called for—a funkiness (listen to the way Branford Marsalis samples “La Ronde Suite” in “Breakfast at Denny’s,” on Buckshot LeFonque) that covered all bets and was at home everywhere and with everyone.