Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

The Modern Jazz Quartet                                                                                 Courtesy of Mosaic Records

If you scour the various histories of jazz’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, you would be hard-pressed to find any mention of The Modern Jazz Quartet. The times did not inspire fiery screeds from the MJQ, but evocations of the Italian Renaissance. There’s little to nothing in contemporary interviews with its members that suggest any palpable reaction to specific events or the struggle, generally, on their part. Evidence suggests that what you saw and heard is what you got: Four buttoned-down men who created an impeccably mannered music perfect for penthouse cocktail parties and moody European films.

However, a counter argument can be made, one that very well may have been shouted down during the ‘60s: The MJQ pursued a foundational agenda every bit as important as any jazz artist’s, if not more so. Notions of all art being political notwithstanding, its goal was essentially cultural – the recognition of jazz as legitimate music. Certainly, there were political ramifications to this issue, as the “legit” rap against jazz was essentially one of disqualification, like a literacy test at the polls. Rather than rail against these barriers, the MJQ simply passed through them, wearing tuxedoes.

As the politics of jazz simmered in the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, the standing critique that the MJQ marginalized jazz’s African-American essence to emphasize European sources hardened, threatening the MJQ with irrelevancy. The case that the MJQ was out of step with the times in brief: Charles Mingus recorded “Fables of Faubus” approximately three months before the MJQ recorded pianist John Lewis’ “Django” at the Music Inn; Coltrane recorded “Alabama” two months after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, while it took the MJQ an additional month to record Lewis’ “In a Crowd,” originally penned for Eripando Visconti’s film, A Milanese Story.

The MJQ succeeded in becoming an institution of sorts, but not a dynasty; with no heirs, their trademarked synthesis of jazz and classical music now has little to no direct bearing on the state of the art, chamber jazz having become a wide-ranging sub-genre. Despite the MJQ’s fame and longevity, their repertoire has not been championed. Perhaps the most cutting irony of the MJQ’s legacy is that their strategy for institutional access and legitimatization has been most consequentially pursued by Wynton Marsalis, who promoted jazz’s African-Americentric narrative with exclusionary zeal.

A Clemens Kalischer photograph reprinted in the booklet for Mosaic’s The Atlantic Studio Recordings Of The Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-64 says much about the MJQ, even though the shot is not of the group. Taken at a 1959 Lenox School of Music faculty party at the Music Inn, the shot shows Milt Jackson playing piano instead of vibes, back to the camera, while Jimmy Giuffre sits in a chair, playing clarinet with his eyes closed. Giuffre is grooving; his relaxed countenance stands – or in this case almost slouches – in stark contrast to the propriety MJQ projected in much of the music included in the 7-CD collection.

The box set is cause to retest the standard, somewhat dichotomous narrative that the MJQ was a cooperative, even though their creative dynamic was all but exclusively between the Bach-inspired Apollonian Lewis and the Bacchic bebopper Jackson. The idea that the MJQ was a cooperative took a beating as early as Joe Goldberg’s Jazz Masters of the 50’s (1965; MacMillan); unintentionally, given Goldberg’s pro-musician bona fides. Bassist Percy Heath kept the tuxes pressed; drummer Connie Kay booked the transportation and hotels; when Lewis assumed announcing duties in addition to carrying the books, Jackson had nothing to do but show for the gig. Furthermore, after bop innovator Kenny Clarke left in February 1955, Lewis “began coaching young Connie Kay … who was willing to adapt himself to Lewis’ ideas.”

Although Jackson did not voice his dissent publicly, word spread privately among his colleagues about his unease with Lewis’ emphasis on counterpoint, particularly when the vibes pioneer soloed. “Milt hated it. Hated it,” box set annotator Doug Ramsey quotes Jimmy Heath. “He wanted John to accompany him, not play contrapuntal lines against what he was playing. That distracts … But it worked.” Whatever tug of ideas may have occurred between Jackson and Lewis in the MJQ’s first years, Lewis’ visionary dominance was well established with “Versailles,” the opening track for the MJQ’s first Atlantic album, Fontessa. Combining nimble, effervescent swing and well-crafted, minimally filigreed counterpoint, “Versailles” is a prime example of the cinematic quality of Lewis’ writing, as he creates an appealingly fresh, sun-bathed atmosphere. More importantly, the interaction between Jackson and Lewis has a sublime virtuosic effortlessness.

By the second session for Fontessa in February ‘56, Jackson’s “Bluesology” was already proliferating as a blowing vehicle. On the ‘49 septet version issued by Savoy, Jackson’s chiseled blues lines benefit from pianist Walter Bishop’s conventional comping and Roy Haynes' groove-mining drumming. Jackson’s blues sensibility is also well reflected by the aptly named “Soulful,” a track he recorded for Savoy in January ‘56 (and compiled with “Bluesology” on the CD, Meet Milt Jackson), less than three weeks before a rejected, now lost take on “Bluesology” was waxed at the first Fontessa session; with a quintet including Clarke and tenorist Lucky Thompson, Jackson cogently taps the blues root of modern jazz. The MJQ’s version of “Bluesology” is far afield from these sides; with a more convivial bounce and Lewis’ Basie-like economy leavening the pianist’s counter lines, it’s a decidedly sunnier reading that can be tallied as one for Jackson’s side of the MJQ equation.

However, Fontessa, which also included strong Jackson solos on “Willow Weep for Me” and “Woody ‘N You,” is arguably the vibist’s high-water mark during the MJQ’s Atlantic years; the ‘57 eponymous, third album for the label, notable for the inclusion of Jackson’s signature composition, “Bags’ Groove,” and his sprinting “Baden-Baden” coming close. But, by then, the MJQ’s sound had become increasingly formatted, even seeping into the latter album’s take on “A Night in Tunisia,” the flag-waver Lewis, Jackson and Heath first played together in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. The performance is a clear instance of how Lewis shaped the MJQ’s sound through a subordinated role for percussion. Clarke would have dropped a bomb or two every chorus.

Something of the same could be construed about Heath’s role in the group compared to original bassist, Ray Brown, who wielded his chops more freely. Once a busy freelancer, Heath began to limit his session work outside the MJQ; The Magnificent Thad Jones (Blue Note), recorded in July 1956, a little more than a month before The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn, is one of the very few he made during this period. His solo on “Thedia” – described as “a happily placid unison theme” by annotator Leonard Feather – is noteworthy for how Heath created crisp forward motion primarily through melody; the difference between this solo and the bulk he recorded with MJQ being that he’s actually being nudged by the date’s drummer, Max Roach.

The fairest basis to gauge an ensemble is their performance in optimum conditions. The Music Inn in Massachusetts – the site of the fabled Lenox School of Jazz that counted Ornette Coleman among its students and the MJQ’s summer home beginning in the mid ‘50s – meets that threshold. Not only did the MJQ record two volumes including performances with guest artists at the rambling resort, but tracks included on One Never Knows (No Sun in Venice) and Pyramid, as well as the ‘57 tracks with Giuffre’s trio with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph Pena  included on Third Stream Music. Respectively, Giuffre and Sonny Rollins joined the MJQ on the first and second volumes of Music Inn performances, an intriguing contrast as Giuffre shared Lewis’ penchant for jazz’s “subtle aspects,” while Rollins was – and remains – the master of the sweeping gesture. It’s telling that the MJQ takes it up a notch when Rollins solos on “Bags’ Groove;” their shifts of rhythmic feel prompt the tenor colossus to broaden his tone and stretch long notes with gusto one moment, and play with sly finesse the next. The quintet’s take on “A Night in Tunisia” out-capers the earlier version. Rollins’ riff-based phrases and use of quavering notes to punctuate longer lines that echo the proto-bop of Coleman Hawkins – Rollins’ final squall has to be a unique outburst in the MJQ’s discography.

As satisfying as they are, the performances with Rollins are anomalies; those with Giuffre are far more germane to Lewis’ agenda and really speak to the history-changing upside of his approach. While Giuffre’s folksy bent may seem quite distant from Lewis’ classicism, the three quintet tracks show a considerable overlap in temperament. Despite their formal differences, Giuffre’s “Fun,” which darts between hoe-down tinges and pensive contours, and Lewis’ “A Fugue for Music Inn,” a quiet improvisational tour de force, exude an assured, elastic feel. While Giuffre’s influence on present-day chamber jazz far exceeds Lewis’ in some quarters, these performances – as well as an affecting reading of David Raksin’s “Serenade” that contains no improvisation – demonstrates how essential that common ground was to the sub-genre’s evolution.

Lewis’ most ambitious projects were collaborations with composer Gunther Schuller included on Third Stream Music (1957-60) and The Modern Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (‘60); few of these tracks have grown in stature over the decades, even Lewis’ “Da Capo” and Giuffre’s “Fine,” performed by a septet comprised of the MJQ and Giuffre’s trio on Third Stream Music. The former is a string of vignettes and segue-ways; a liltingly wistful theme stated by Jackson could have been developed into a satisfying stand-alone piece. However, Lewis doesn’t give the component parts sufficient breathing space, resulting in a cut-and-paste feel. Giuffre’s “Fine” typifies the “blues-based folk jazz” that permeated his groundbreaking Atlantic album, Jimmy Giuffre 3; but, the presence of the urbane MJQ is strangely dilutive.

Lewis’ compositions on Third Stream Music that feature – ahem – legitimate musicians are surprisingly fresh-sounding. Sure, there are a couple of wince-inducing moments, particularly the French horn motive bookending “Exposure,” which sounds as dated as incidental music for an episode of Star Trek. However, there are some threads connecting “Exposure” and “Sketch” that seem more brilliant now than ever, particularly the interludes on both where Lewis plunks out hesitant, yet plucky single-note lines with minimal support from Kay – something of a synapse between Basie and Mengelberg. “Sketch” also features some appealing, robust passages for the Beaux Arts String Quartet. His only contribution to The Modern Jazz Quartet and Orchestra is “England’s Carol,” a puzzling make-over of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” a piece Lewis inexplicably returned to throughout the MJQ’s run.

The main events on both albums were Schuller compositions. The rap against “Conversation,” which appeared on Third Stream Music is that the jazz and classical elements merely co-exist. If indeed there is a lack of a grand synthesis, it simply conveys the contemporary perspective; such pieces, after all, marked only the beginning of an experimental movement based on dialogue. The first minutes of the piece alone places this critique in question, as Schuller’s writing for the Beaux Arts String Quartet – which far surpasses Lewis’ in terms of motivic development and nuanced orchestration – slowly brings the MJQ to the foreground in a supple manner. The bulk of the MJQ contribution is in the second half of the ten-minute piece; Jackson and Lewis solo cogently over slightly tart, mid-tempo changes, with edgy scored asides from the strings eventually signaling the conclusion of the piece.

“Conversation” is a far more persuasive piece than Schuller’s “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra.” The opening movement is weighted towards jazz elements, some of which are endearing, like the brass and woodwind-propelled, Ellington-tinged groove; but the jazz touches, which trigger occasional, momentary associations with Gershwin and Bernstein, push more incisive orchestra scoring to the margins. The figures Schuller sends darting about Lewis and Jackson’s blues choruses in the second movement also have the kernel-like potential of yielding engaging music on their own if given space. Increasingly through the second and third movements, however, there’s an accumulation of orchestral materials that strain to be bluesy. Compounded by an early ‘60s stereo image where the relatively dry sound of the quartet is canopied by a cavernous orchestra sound, the music sounds painfully dated at times as a result, a problem Andre Hodeir’s “Around the Blues” surprisingly eludes, a rare instance where contrivance – in this case, a work where the orchestra literally performs around, not with, the quartet – registers as authentic. Schuller’s most enduring, vital contributions to the articulation of Third Stream remain “Abstraction” and “Variants on a Theme by Thelonious Monk (Criss-Cross),” included on John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music: Jazz Abstractions – Compositions by Gunther Schuller and Jim Hall (1960; Atlantic).

For the remaining four years covered by this collection, the MJQ stuck with the tried and true with a few notable exceptions: a yearning-free take on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” for the ‘62 album of the same name; a bright, limber version of Bonfa’s “Carnival” for The Sheriff (‘63); and 1964’s Collaboration with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, who raises the temperature of the swing a couple of degrees on Lewis’ “Silver” and provides a credible sway for Jobim’s “One Note Samba” and Ferreira’s “Foi a Saudade.” The bulk of the collection’s last album – The Modern Jazz Quartet Plays George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – was recorded during the Harlem riots of July 1964, a fortnight before the bodies of three freedom riders were dredged up in Mississippi. Further evidence of the MJQ being woefully out of step with the times? It ain’t necessarily so. The MJQ rode a different circuit to freedom. They understood that freedom is useless without dignity, another word for legitimacy. With the exception of Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams, no artists brought more dignity to jazz than the Modern Jazz Quartet. There isn’t a box set big enough to deal with that.

Transparent Productions

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