The Modern Jazz Quartet managed that rarest feat of all: to make great art that pleased the serious listener as well as it did the general public. The M.J.Q., as they were known, featured vibraphone, bass, drums, and piano, and yet had the breadth of an orchestra and the intimacy of the most delicate chamber ensemble. Even when they played music written by others, it sounded as though it had been written for them, but they played mostly original compositions by musical director John Lewis, about whom too much can never be said. His was one of those quintessentially American lives a tale of someone who truly invented a life based on a love of music.
John Lewis is certainly a unique figure in American music. Born in 1920, he grew up in New Mexico, graduating from Albuquerque High School in 1937, and from the University of New Mexico in 1941 with a degree in anthropology. Before he joined the army, Lewis encountered both tenor saxophonist Lester Young and composer, bandleader, and pianist Duke Ellington. They were to be formative influences�Young for showing how improvisation can have all the hallmarks of great composition, and Ellington in terms of how to set the music down on manuscript paper without sacrificing its spontaneity. Both these men also reveled in musical counterpoint. And throughout his life, Lewis thrived on the frisson that one good idea engendered. In fact, many of his achievements can be viewed through a prism of action and reaction. Lewis was an avid student and admirer of European music, and used it as a model from which to launch his own penchant for variations. He managed to retain the flavor of some these influences, yet created an idiom that was intrinsically American. Lewis could made a quartet sound like an orchestra, and knew how to make an orchestra swing and move on a dime like the best small jazz groups.