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John Lewis

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25 Jun 2001, 17:13 UTC


I'm Steve Ember


And I'm Shirley Griffith, with the VOA Special English programPEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today, we tell about pianist John Lewis. Hecreated one of the most famous jazz groups in America, the ModernJazz Quartet.



John Lewis was known for his creativity. He was a skilled pianoplayer and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet for almostfifty years. He wrote and arranged all the music for the smallgroup. Mister Lewis was responsible for the group's sound and itsidentity.

John Lewis was interested in jazz, blues, and bebob, a music witha great deal of energy. Yet he was also greatly influenced by histraining in European classical music. Classical music is expressiveand intense, but is also structured. He thought jazz should bepresented the same way.

John Lewis combined classical music with traditional jazz tocreate songs for himself and the three other members of his quartet.He believed music should be simple and clear, yet played in ameaningful way. Here is one of the Modern Jazz Quartet's big hits,Django:



John Lewis was greatly influenced by the piano style of thefamous jazz bandleader, Count Basie. Like Basie, Lewis believed inmaking every note of music count. He depended as much on silence ashe did on notes to get his message across.

John Lewis often used a form of music called fugue [fewg]. Fugueis a series of opposing melodies used to create a complex effect.Mister Lewis also combined written music with music that the groupinvented as it went along.

This new kind of jazz attracted both lovers of jazz and classicalmusic. It also appealed to people who did not necessarily like jazz.Here is an example of fugue in the song, "Alexander's Fugue":



The Modern Jazz Quartet included John Lewis, Milt Jackson, PercyHeath and Connie Kay. The group made its first recording inNineteen-Fifty-Two. And they continued to play together, with aseven year break, until Nineteen-Ninety-Nine.

John Lewis was as concerned about appearances as he was about themusic. The musicians had to dress well for every performance. Theyplayed mostly in concert halls instead of small dance clubs. Lewisbelieved jazz should receive the same respect as classical music.


John Lewis was born in La Grange, Illinois, in Nineteen-Twenty.He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He started playing the pianowhen he was seven. As a teenager, he played professionally inchurches around Albuquerque. He soon was playing in local dancehalls.

Lewis studied anthropology and music at the University of NewMexico. In Nineteen-Forty-Two, he joined the army and served inEurope during World War Two.

After the war, Lewis moved to New York City and played in DizzyGillespie's big band. He also studied for his master's degree at theManhattan School of Music.


John Lewis played in the rhythm section of Gillespie's band.Other members were drummer Kenny Clarke, bass player Ray Brown andvibraphone player Milt Jackson. The four often performed togetherwhile the horn players in the band rested.

The four band members continued to work together after leavingDizzy's group in the late Nineteen-Forties. At that time, they werecriticized for not playing "true jazz." But they continued anyway.Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke soon left the group. Bass player PercyHeath and drummer Connie Kay replaced them. In Nineteen-Fifty-Two,the group became the Modern Jazz Quartet and established its ownidentity.


In Nineteen-Fifty-Six, the Modern Jazz Quartet played a series ofconcerts in Europe. The group helped make jazz popular with manymusic listeners in Europe. The members of the quartet had becomemajor stars by the time they returned to the United States.

The Modern Jazz Quartet continued to perform all over the worldfor sold-out crowds until the late Nineteen-Seventies. People lovedthe group's teamwork and their amazing sound. Listen as we play,"Vendome", another big hit:



Critics say John Lewis's "less is more" piano style and MiltJackson's energy on the vibraphone were the secret to the group'slong lasting success. Yet over the years, Mister Jackson expresseddissatisfaction with limits that were put on his talents. The groupseparated in Nineteen-Seventy-Four. However, the members of thequartet reunited after seven years. They played together until MiltJackson's death in Nineteen-Ninety-Nine.

In addition to his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewisworked for many years as musical director of the Monterey JazzFestival in California. He wrote the music for several Hollywoodfilms. He taught at Harvard University and the City College of NewYork. And he helped establish a jazz school in Massachusetts.


Through the years, John Lewis worked with some of the biggestnames in jazz, including trumpet player Miles Davis. Yet for all thepraise Lewis received, he was known for putting the interests of thegroup over the individual. John Lewis lived a quiet life with hiswife, Mirjana, in New York City. In March,Two-Thousand-One, he diedof cancer. He was eighty years old. His death officially marked theend of a historic period in modern jazz.



This Special English program was written and produced by CynthiaKirk. Our studio engineer was Roy Benson. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Shirley Griffith. Listen again next week for anotherPEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.

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