Modern Jazz Quartet: It All Comes Back Again

Looks like we’ve got a little MJQ redux on our hands these days. A few weeks ago, Lincoln Center presented an homage to the foursome, aligning Kenny Barron, Steven Nelson, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington to glide through “Django,” “Bag’s Groove” and other nuggets. Jim Hall sat in as well.  This week at the Village Vanguard, Paul Motian offers another perspective on the ensemble. Hope to have a live report on that this week. And Mosaic is about to reissue the MJQ’s esteemed Atlantic recordings. It seems a perfect time to drop a profile I wrote for Musician magazine back in 1991. The band was celebrating four decades of existence, and the arrival of MJQ: 40. Check how feisty Milt Jackson is. It’s not everyone who disses Elvis with a smile on his face. 

“You can’t take it with you,” declares Milt Jackson with a dead serious look in his eye, “so I’m not in it for the money. My satisfaction comes from knowing the music will have a legacy; future generations will enjoy it. The most important thing is what you do while you’re here.”

The Modern Jazz Quartet, the vibraphone master’s main means of expression for the last four decades, will undoubtedly cast a long shadow over music history. But they ain’t gone yet. Last night the foursome captivated a throng of fans at NYC’s Blue Note club by injecting a deep finesse into a scad of hard-hitting and lyrical blues pieces. By having tiny moves resonate with maximum import, they create an esthetic of subtlety. It’s a place where the triangle tings of drummer Connie Kay can chime like church bells. Or where a bowed bass line by Percy Heath can roar like a plane setting down. No wonder crowds have been responding to it for 40 years.

“I think the constant improvisational aspect of the music is what keeps people coming back,” says Jackson, “there’s always the question of how the creativity of the jazz act will come about each night. That’s what keeps us interested, too.”

“A large part of the attraction is the virtuoso element,” offers pianist John Lewis. “That’s what the music stands for. It’s been developing since the ’30s, and it came to fruition with the beginning of bebop; you had to either be a virtuoso or not play. And I’m not only talking about the solos; you had to be well equipped on every level.”

Lewis should know. Like Jackson, he was in the thick of things during bop’s baby days. Both were part of Dizzy Gillespie’s seminal orchestra. “One night Dizzy told the horn section to take a break because their lips were getting weak,” recounts the vibes player. “He said, ‘Jackson, you and [Ray] Brown are making more money than anyone else; start earning it.’ The audience reacted immediately.  We decided that when the band broke up, we’d stick together.”

With Lewis, Brown, Clarke on drums, 1952 became the year the Milt Jackson Quartet made its recording debut. It was also the year it broke up: Clarke and Brown split, replaced by Kay and Heath. “John didn’t want to be a sideman to me,” explains Jackson, “which is quite cool. But I didn’t want to be a sideman to him, either.”

“We had to get a name that was no one’s name,” says Heath. “But,” interjects Jackson in a candid whisper, “the hip people all know what the MJ stands for.”

What it stands for is quality and innovation. Applying the ardent blowing of bebop in a vibes/piano/bass/drums context was a radical move, shifting the way the music was heard. Lewis’ sophisticated tunes turned their back on the jam session mentality, relying on the canniness of his designs and the players’ collective poise.

“John wrote stuff that suited the instrumentation,” smiles Heath, “which often included European forms like fugues. I’d only been playing five years and they were a hard for me. Things like ‘Vendome’ and ‘Concorde’ are tough. I was coming out of a ‘gimme the chord changes and I’ll walk for a while’ mentality, and he said ‘Percy, you’ve got to get some lessons.’ It was constant rehearsal, grueling sometimes. I remember being up in Lenox, Massachusetts, where it was beautiful. I’d want to go fishing and John would say, ‘Okay, there’s a practice today at 1 pm.’ Real frustrating. But ultimately it pays off.”

Lewis, who believes his compositional tactics overshadow his pianist prowess, recalls that one of the main attractions was the fact that “it felt so easy at first, especially coming from Dizzy’s arrangements. At first we didn’t need to worry about writing music; Milton has always known plenty of tunes, believe me.”

It was Jackson that was often featured. “I had tried my hand at many instruments, but my father said I wouldn’t get anywhere being a jack of all trades. When I discovered the speed control on the vibes, and realized that it matched the vibrator technique of singers, I went all vibes. It was all I needed from that point on.”

Jackson’s take on bebop – that its rigorous turns should be approached with like-minded ardor –  helped bring some grit to the proceedings. “At heart, it’s physical music,” says Jackson, “That’s one of the things I learned playing with Charlie Parker. You put every bit of energy that you have into it. It’s fascinating to watch what happens to listeners; some nights we really reach out and grab people. When we first started, I wasn’t prepared for the Bach type of thing that John introduced. I was never a great reader. I finally learned how to read and now realize that it’s very important to our sound.”

The band members went their separate ways from 1974 -81, which only made them more sought-after. Finally, they just couldn’t say no to a prestigious and lucrative Tokyo gig. “We were doing our own things,” shrugs Heath, “but we had a meeting and determined that the parts didn’t equal the sum.” Lewis: “With all the traveling we’d done, the break was a chance to actually pay attention to our families. But getting back together felt just fine, too.”

MJQ:40, a retrospective of their Atlantic work, positions them as grand old men, players who have weathered many of jazz’s stylistic wrinkles “Could you imagine us playing fusion, or whatever it is they call it?” cackles Heath. But their current vitality suggests they don’t just rest on past accomplishments. After making records for the Beatles’ Apple label, jamming with Itzhak Perman, swinging the White House, and trading precision tips with the Kronos Quartet, they’re still looking around corners.

“None of that was half as exciting as playing with Charlie Parker, anyway,” scoffs Jackson. “Hey,” offers Heath, “our music is still changing. Lewis is still hearing parts of his tunes that he’s  unsatisfied with. Just when I think I’ve got something straight, it reads different.”

Such tinkering makes thinking on your feet a requirement, which might be why the MJQ projects such a sober demeanor onstage. “You know, with this music, if you don’t stop and listen to it, you’ve missed it,” says Heath. “We tried to leave behind the image of the entertainer with the constant smiling and the teeth flashin’. What we’re saying is, ‘let’s try to advance this art form.'”

“That kind of thing is for the media,” says Jackson. “They’re always deeming some people heroes and leaving others in the dust. I mean Elvis Presley – was he really that great? Hell, no! But he’s presented that way. I realized it’s not a black majority in this society, but it’s tough knowing that they’re always going to put someone else up front. It just takes a little bit more intelligence to get into this music.”

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