Modern Jazz Quartet

From New World Encyclopedia

The Modern Jazz Quartet (also known as the MJQ) was established in 1952 by Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano, musical director), Percy Heath (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums). Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1955.

The MJQ is the most perfect example of chamber music jazz. Composed of eminent musicians with a history of achievements in mainstream modern jazz, the group acquired an individuality of its own early on and was able to maintain it over decades. Thanks to the strong musical personality of its leader, pianist John Lewis, the extraordinary improvisational skills of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and the seamless rhythmic support of bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, the MJQ combined the qualities of genuine jazz with the classicism of baroque music, providing a unique experience of cool, quiet swing that never lacked emotion and equally never lacked control.


Jackson, Lewis, and Clarke had originally played together in a quartet while in the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra from 1946 to 1950. Together with Ray Brown they played during interludes designed to give the trumpeters time to recover from the challenging upper register trumpet parts. The same group recorded as the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951.

Jackson and Lewis originally shared the role of musical director but Lewis eventually took over the entire responsibility of this position. He was to remain the central force in defining the MJQ’s voice, while Milt Jackson blossomed as its star soloist.

In their middle years the group often played with classical musicians, but its repertoire consisted mainly of bop and Swing era standards. Among the original compositions from the band's book are "Django" by Lewis (a tribute to the Belgian gypsy jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt), "Afternoon In Paris," also by Lewis and "Bags' Groove" by Jackson (Bags was his nickname).

The group was first signed by Prestige and later in the 1950s with Atlantic. In the late 1960s, in between their two periods with Atlantic, they signed with Apple, the Beatles label (the sole jazz group on the label), and released two albums—Under the Jasmine Tree (1967) and Space (1969).

Jackson left the group in 1974 partly because he liked a freer flowing style of playing and partly because he was tired of playing for little money (compared to rock and roll stars). As there could be no Modern Jazz Quartet without the two principals Lewis and Jackson, the group disbanded. In 1981 the MJQ reorganized to play festivals and later on a permanent six months per year basis. The MJQ's last recording was issued in 1993. Heath, the last surviving member, died in 2005.

Modern Jazz Quartet's style

Chamber music jazz: precedents

If the MJQ remains as a unique gem in jazz history, it is not without some precedents. Since the 1920s, there has always been a current of musicians trying to “make a Lady out of jazz” (Paul Whiteman). Sometimes, this happened at the cost of spontaneity and vitality, perhaps jazz’s most important elements. It then led to forgettable results. But restraint and sophistication could also go hand in hand with swing and creativity. Whiteman’s pianist Frank Signorelli and violinist Joe Venuti are early examples.

The chamber music approach was quite naturally practiced by small ensembles, sometimes part of a larger orchestra. In the late 1930s and 1940s, Benny Goodman’s Trio, Quartet And Sextet provided the perhaps best example of small formations combining swing and classic elegance. Interestingly, Goodman’s Quartet included vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, the greatest representative of that instrument along with Milt Jackson. Artie Shaw’s competing Gramercy Five included a harpsichord and sometimes recorded with strings. Bassist John Kirby led a similar small combo around the same time. The Dave Brubeck Quartet is among the MJQ’s contemporary formations that bear some similarity in style.

The advent of the relaxed cool jazz style in the 1960s in response to the exuberant intensity of hard-bop provided a further element that would be essential to the evolution of the MJQ’s unique style.

The Modern Jazz Quartet would have its own short-lived successor and competitor, the Prestige Jazz Quartet. The latter never rivaled its model in fame.

The Third Stream

Third Stream is an expression coined by composer Gunther Schuller to describe a form of music composed of a mixture between classic music and jazz. In 1957, the MJQ would produce an album with strings under that name.

The MJQ’s unique voice

The enigma of the MJQ's music-making was that each individual member could improvise with an exciting vibrancy but, as a whole, the group specialized in genteel baroque counterpoint. Their approach to jazz attracted promoters who sponsored 'jazz packet' concerts during the 1950s. One show would consist of several contrasting groups. The MJQ were ideal participants because no other group sounded like them. They provided a visual contrast as well, attired in black jackets and pinstriped trousers.

The group played blues as much as they did fugues, but the result was tantalizing when one considered the hard-swinging potential of each individual player. Their best-selling record, Django, typified their neo-classical approach to polyphony.

The classic version

The MJQ gradually developed its distinctive style, gradually moving away from its bop origins. When drummer Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clarke, a bop pioneer and intensely rhythmic player, the group perhaps lost some dynamism but replaced it with the smooth, supple, understated energy that became its trademark. It is with Lewis, Jackson, Heath and Kay that the Quartet was most cohesive and produced many of its masterpieces. In the last few years (after 1994), Percy Heath’s brother Albert “Tootie” Heath replaced drummer Connie Kay who had passed away.

It is often said that Milt Jackson eventually came to miss the more spontaneous environment he had enjoyed in his early years and which he found again after leaving the MJQ, but it is undeniably within the very specific parameters of that formation that his lyrical playing flourished and reached its peak. Behind his thrilling improvisations, pianist John Lewis maintained a steady pace while adding to the excitement. Lewis interjected brief, repeated patterns of single notes with a crisp touch that equaled that of Count Basie. Lewis was a minimalist, for whom less was more, and he provided the perfect anchor for Milt Jackson’s solo flights. Connie Kay was a discreet and refined as Jo Jones had been with the Basie band and Percy Heath, one of the great bassists of modern jazz, completed the ensemble.

Partial discography

Some notable albums by the Modern Jazz Quartet:

  • M.J.Q. (1952) Prestige Records.
  • Concorde (1955) (first recording featuring Connie Kay on drums)
  • Django (1956)
  • Fontessa (1956) (first album on Atlantic Records)
  • Pyramid (1959)
  • Plastic Dreams (1971)
  • The Complete Last Concert (1974)


  • DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (Roth Family Foundation Music in America Book). University of California Press; 1 edition, 1999. ISBN 978-0520216655.
  • Feather, Leonard G. and Gitler, Ira. The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies. Da Capo Press, 1987. ISBN 9780306802904.
  • Harrison, M. “Looking back at the Modern Jazz Quartet.” In: Williams, Martin (ed.) Art of Jazz : Essays on the Development and Nature of Jazz, 1979. ISBN 9780306795565.
  • Hennessey, Mike. Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press (Trd); Reprint edition, 1994.
  • DVD: 20th Century Jazz Masters, 2003. Featuring the MJQ. ASIN: B0000A4GII.

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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