John Aaron Lewis was an American jazz pianist and composer best known as the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Born in LaGrange, Illinois and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, John Lewis learned classical music and piano from his mother starting at the age of seven. He continued his musical training at the University of New Mexico and also studied anthropology. He served in the Army in World War II. While stationed in France on a three-year tour of duty, he met and performed with Kenny Clarke. Clarke was an early developer of the bop style and Lewis composed and arranged for a band he and Clarke organized. Lewis returned from service in 1945 and resumed his university studies.
In the fall however, John Lewis went to New York where he found work in 52nd Street clubs with Allen Eager, Hot Lips Page and others. After that year, he joined Dizzy Gillespie's bop-style big band where Clarke was the drummer. Lewis developed his skill further by composing and arranging for the band as well as attending the Manhattan School of Music. In January 1948, the band made a concert tour of Europe, interrupting Lewis' studies. Lewis stayed in Europe for a time after the tour, writing and studying piano. He returned to the United States and started working for Charlie Parker in 1948 (playing on the famous recording "Parker's Mood"), Illinois Jacquet from October 1948 to 1949, Lester Young from 1950 to 1951, and others. He participated in the second Birth of the Cool session with Miles Davis in 1949 but was unable to attend the first because of an engagement with Ella Fitzgerald, whom he accompanied. Al Haig substituted for him, and the band did not include a pianist for its third session in 1950. Lewis arranged the compositions "Move" and "Budo" (immediately released as singles in 1949) and contributed one tune, "Rouge", to these seminal sessions.
In 1951 John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Clarke, and Ray Brown formed the Milt Jackson Quartet. In 1952 Percy Heath replaced Brown on bass and the Modern Jazz Quartet was born, in which Lewis served as music director and pianist. In 1953 Lewis finally obtained his Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. At first the MJQ worked only intermittently, so Lewis took on other engagements, such as continuing to accompany Ella Fitzgerald. Later, his musical energy was centered on the MJQ, for which he wrote and performed with from 1954 to 1974. He also directed the School of Jazz at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, annually in August from 1957 to 1960.
From 1958 to 1982 John Lewis also served as music director of the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and in 1962 he formed the cooperative big band Orchestra U.S.A., which performed and recorded Third Stream (jazz/classical combined) compositions (1962–65). After the MJQ disbanded temporarily in 1974, he held teaching positions at the City College of New York and at Harvard University. He also performed solo recitals and duo recitals with Hank Jones and others and continued composing. By the early 1980s he was performing with the reunited MJQ and with a sextet, the John Lewis Group, and, in 1985, with Gary Giddins and Roberta Swann, he founded the American Jazz Orchestra. In the 1990's he continued to teach, compose, and perform, both with the MJQ and independently. He participated in the Re-birth of the Cool sessions with Gerry Mulligan in 1992 (and was this time able to play on the entire album). He was also involved in various Third Stream music projects with Gunther Schuller and others, as well as being an early and somewhat surprising advocate of the music of Ornette Coleman. John Lewis died in New York City after a long battle with prostate cancer.
John Lewis was among the most conservative of bop pianists. His improvised melodies, played with a delicate touch, were usually simple and quiet; the accompaniments were correspondingly light, with Lewis’s left hand often just grazing the keys to produce a barely audible sound. His method of accompanying soloists was similarly understated: rather than comping - punctuating the melody with irregularly placed chords - he often played simple counter-melodies in octaves which combined with the solo and bass parts to form a polyphonic texture. Occasionally, Lewis played in a manner resembling the stride styles of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, all the while retaining his light touch.
Many of John Lewis’s solos had a degree of motivic unity, which is rare in jazz. For example, in "Bluesology" (1956) each chorus of his solo builds on the previous one by establishing a link from the end of one chorus to the beginning of the next. His 64-bar solo in "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (1957) derives almost entirely from its first two bars, which in turn derive from the first four notes of the theme. As the solo progresses Lewis subjects its opening motif to inversion (bar 9), chromatic alteration (bars 47 and 57), and a variety of other alterations in pitch and shape (bars 25-6, 41), which nevertheless retain their links with the basic figure.
John Lewis was similarly conservative as a composer, for his music drew heavily on harmonic and melodic practices found in 18th-century European compositions. From the 1950s he wrote a number of Third Stream works combining European compositional techniques and jazz improvisation. Most of these were written for the MJQ or for the quartet with instrumental ensembles of various sizes and published by MJQ Music. Among his best pieces for the MJQ are "Django" (an homage to gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, first recorded in 1954, the year after Reinhardt's death), the ballet suite The Comedy (1962), and especially the four pieces "Vendome" (1952), "Concorde" (1955), "Versailles" (1956), and "Three Windows" (1957), all of which combine fugal imitation and non-imitative polyphonic jazz in highly effective ways. Other notable compositions that have become standards include "Milano" (1954), "Afternoon in Paris" (1956), and "Skating in Central Park" (1959, from the film score he wrote for Odds Against Tomorrow).