Lewis, John (Aaron)

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Lewis, John (Aaron)

Lewis, John (Aaron), seminal jazz pianist, composer; b. LaGrange, III., May 3,1920. His family moved to Albuquerque when he was quite young. Lewis saw Lester Young there with the Young family’s band in 1926. He studied anthropology and music at the Univ. of N.Mex. He moved to N.Y. by the mid-1940s. Drummer Kenny Clarke recommended that Lewis replace Thelonious Monk in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1946; Milt Jackson was also in the band. After the band’s demise, Lewis and Clarke stayed in Paris in 1947. Lewis was a steady freelance player and arranger in the late 1940s and early 1950s, working with Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker (1948), Miles Davis (nonet broadcasts in 1948 and recordings in 1949-51), and Lester Young. It is said that he wrote “Milestones” for Davis’s first recording session as a leader in 1948. He completed his studies at the Manhattan School of Music (M.A., 1953). Jackson led sessions with Lewis and Clarke in 1947 and 1951, and in April 1952, with Percy Heath playing bass. After these last recording sessions, Lewis accompanied Ella Fitzgerald on tour. Upon his return, Lewis, Jackson, Heath, and Clarke began recording in December of 1952 as the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), a group that over the course of 22 years became one of the focal points of both “cool” and “classical” jazz, a merger known as Third Stream. To this end he composed and arranged works that, while leaving room for jazz improvisation, included such formal devices as fugal counterpoint. He also composed extended compositions, requiring the additional forces of string quartet or orch., several movie scores (Odds Against Tomorrow, No Sun in Venice, a.k.a. One Never Knows, in 1958; A Milanese Story), and a ballet, Original Sin (San Francisco Ballet, March 1961). Significantly, the MJQ abandoned the usual nightclub habitat of jazz in favor of formal, tuxedoed performances in concert halls. The personnel were stable except that in 1955 Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clarke. The MJQ disbanded in 1974, but reformed in 1981, and have had several reunion concerts. In between Lewis led a sextet. He taught at the Lenox School of Jazz in the summers of 1958-61, and He has been a professor of music at City Coll. of N.Y since 1977. The MJQ owed much of its success to John Lewis’s compositions. As a soloist he is capable of creating ecstatic intensity on the blues. His interests in classical music, though often publicized, appear to be confined to the lighter dance aspects of Baroque and Renaissance music. He was the cofounder with Gary Giddins and conductor of the American Jazz Orch. from 1986-90.


Modern Jazz Society (1955); Afternoon in Paris (1956); Grand Encounter (1956); J. L. Piano (1956); European Windows (1958); Improvised Meditations and Excursions (1959); Odds Against Tomorrow (1959); Golden Striker (1960); Jazz Abstractions (1960); Wonderful World of Jazz (1960); Original Sin (1961); Animal Dance (1962); Essence (1962); European Encounter (1962); Milanese Story (1962); P.O.V.(1976); Evening with Two Grand Pianos (1979); Kansas City Breaks (1982); Bridge Game (1984); Chess Game, Vols. 1 & 2 (1987); Garden of Delight (1987); Midnight in Paris (1988); Private Concert (1991).


Nat Hentoff, John Lewis (N.Y., 1960); Thierry Lalo, John Lewis (Donzere, France, 1992).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Lewis Porter

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Lewis, John (Aaron)

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