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By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com 


Thursday, June 26, 2008.


For jazz, the sixties started in the fifties. 1959 especially. Ornette Coleman hit New York and Miles gave us Kind of Blue. Both of these events were the culmination of a number of experiments. Ornette did away with standard chord progressions while Miles explored modal harmony.


Things had changed, drastically. But whereas many people see 1959 as a beginning, that year might better be appreciated as a breakthrough of a long line of musical explorations.

Cecil Taylor, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, Lennie Tristano and others were looking for new structural forms for jazz. The reliance on the twin keystones of blues and swing was not sufficient. Musicians began to borrow new tonalities both from classical music and from non-Western music. Standard 4/4 swing shifted to odd time signatures; and, under the influence of African and African-heritage music - especially Afro-Cuban- the 3/4 and especially 6/8 became more and more common.

During that period, the Modern Jazz Quartet was at the forefront of experimental jazz.


I know the MJQ sounds old-fashioned and rather conservative today, but in the 1950s, the idea of using European musical forms in jazz was radical. I’m not talking about simply adding strings or playing softly. I’m talking about fugues and extensive use of counterpoint.
In the mid-to-late fifties all you had to write was “MJQ” and jazz heads would acknowledge that this was a major band that set many standards: the MJQ excelled at merging European forms with blues and swing. They also performed mainly in concert halls, dressed formally and performed tightly arranged, original compositions as well as fresh, albeit reverent, interpretations of bebop-era standards.

The MJQ was a direct outgrowth of the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. Between 1946 and 1950, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke (who was to be the first drummer with the MJQ) often played interludes and intermissions for Gillespie.

The MJQ functioned like a classical string quartet. The piano, vibes, bass and drum were a cool sound. Never harsh, seldom loud, and even when they played a straight blues their was a singular dignity and pride evident. They never sounded like they were from a juke joint or nightclub.


Moreover, in 1955, once drummer Connie Kay joined the band (John Lewis – piano and chief composer, Milt Jackson – vibes, Percy Heath – bass), the personnel did not change for nearly two decades (Milt Jackson left the band in 1974). Indeed, the unique synergy was so strong that Jackson returned and the band reassembled in 1981.


Eventually the MJQ would perform for six months during any given year up to the early 1990s. Their first recording had been in 1951. As the Milt Jackson Quartet, the MJQ did their last recording in 1993. Their longevity as a stable working band was also a major and unequaled accomplishment.
All of their experimentation, and some would say regimentation, notwithstanding, they also swung hard and in Milt Jackson, the MJQ had a master blues-based soloist. The secret of MJQ music was that no matter how much they used European forms, blues and swing were a signature element of their music.

The MJQ produced a number of jazz classics, chief among them “Django” - a homage to Django Reinhardt, a famous, Gypsy, jazz guitarist - and “Bags’ Groove” (“Bags” was Milt Jackson’s nickname).


The version of "Django" in the jukebox is taken from The Complete Last Concert, a 1974 concert recording that ended the first period of the MJQ forty-something year existence. The version of "Bags’ Groove" in the jukebox also features tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, one of only a few non-MJQ musicians to record as a featured soloist.


While noted for their fine interpretation of jazz standards, many people were surprised that John Lewis and the MJQ were supporters of Ornette Coleman’s radical musical experiments. The MJQ even named one of their albums Lonely Woman (an Ornette Coleman composition).

Once Miles and Coltrane blossomed, jazz went in different directions, but before the sixties it was the MJQ who seemed to be pointing the way ahead and who were one of the most lionized ensembles in jazz music.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.


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