I knew nothing about the Modern Jazz Quartet (or the MJQ as they were known) when I first read mention of them in relation to an album they had made in 1966 with the vocal group The Swingle Singers called ‘Place Vendome.’
I hurriedly went to my jazz emporium of choice, namely ‘Rays’ in Shaftesbury Avenue and picked up a couple of their mid price vinyl albums. On them I discovered the tracks ‘Concorde’ and ‘Django’ -dedicated to guitarist Django Reinhardt – and well, it was a done deal.
This was jazz, but not like any other I had recently discovered. This was almost classical chamber music in comparison to the work of Miles, Chet, and Monk that I was mainly buying. This was in the main restrained, controlled music, but which every now and then would open up and they’d be swinging like a door on an outside khazi on a particularly windy day.
The core members of the MJQ, pianist John Lewis, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson had met when part of the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946. The two musical like minds connected and began to put together their own set up.
At first Ray Brown was on bass along with Kenny Clarke on drums, but when they both left by 1955, Percy Heath took over bass duties and Connie Kay the drum stool.
Lewis became the musical director of the group. He had gained bachelors and master’s degrees in music from Manhattan School of Music. A quiet man, he was known for always seeking perfection, but always left room for Jackson, to be well, Jackson.
‘Anything John gives him, Milt will interpret as Milt, and I think John relies on that.’ – Percy Heath.
They had recorded as the Modern Jazz Quarter for the fist time in 1952 and among those recordings was the track ‘Vendome.’ Their music, unlike a lot of what had gone before, at first found it hard to get above the general crowd noise at clubs. They needed quiet whilst they were playing. To achieve this, they decided to play softer and softer and conversely that had the desired effect. The crowd, curious as to what was happening, would stop talking and instead checked out what was in front of them.
What they discovered was conservative music served up my men dressed conservatively and slowly it worked its magic.
In 1956 they had signed to Atlantic Records with Nesuhi Ertegan as producer and then began to explore Europe. They had developed the sound of baroque jazz and became among the first jazz outfits to move from small clubs to concert halls.
They presented this music wearing tuxedos, and in later years, they wore matching blazers as part of their matching band uniforms.
Lewis explained that by doing that ‘people didn’t have to waste time trying to see what everybody looked like or what they were wearing. They could just listen to the music.’
The MJQ were equal members within the group, each with unique responsibilities within the set up. Lewis as mentioned was musical director, with Jackson taking care of PR. Heath, in charge of finances and Kay looked after transport and hotels.
In 1957 they performed 88 gigs in four months across France the UK and Germany and went down a storm. Notable albums then followed including ‘The Sheriff’ ‘The MJQ plays George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and ‘Place Vendome’ in 1966 with the swingle singers as mentioned up top. From that please check out ‘Little David’s Fugue’ and ‘When I am Laid in Earth.’ Simply sublime.
They then left Atlantic to sign up briefly with Apple in 1968, yes that Apple, but it didn’t last long and they went back to Atlantic within two years.
The group split up in 1974 with Jackson citing frustration at the lack of financial success that all those years on the road had failed to bring him, when compared with the money earned by rock stars at the time.
In truth the MJQ were earning good money compared to most on the jazz circuit, and enjoyed first class air travel and hotels and suits from Savile Row. They had also recorded some 30 albums by that time.
The members often played together during the spilt however and in 1981 they reformed after a tempting financial offer from Japan. It is said, they went on to earn between $10,000 and $20,000 per gig from then on, with only Miles Davis in a position to command more.
I would have seen them a few years after their return at The Royal Festival Hall and though they were senior men by then, it is a gig I have always remembered fondly.
Connie Kay died in 1994 to be replaced replaced by Mickey Roker and Percy Heath grew tired of touring in 1997 to be replaced by his brother Albert. They finally called it a day later that year.
Milt Jackson died in 1999, John Lewis in 2001 and Percy Heath in 2005.
Finally a story I found whilst researching which made me smile.
When touring in London in the late 1950s, they arrived to find a small, weak sounding piano onstage. John Lewis spied a Steinway concert grand in the corner and asked to play that for the gig instead.
The concert stage manager refused, stating ‘That’s for proper music.’
‘After the concert,’ recalled Milt Jackson ‘the man apologised to John. He said he’d never heard jazz sound like that before.’
Amen to that.
The Mumper of SE5