“Inside information” from jazz piano legend John Lewis

The Modern Jazz Quartet, founded and led by the great pianist John Lewis, is one of my favorite jazz groups. But there is something about them that used to perplex me. When you listen to them, like on this concert video, you’ll hear a group that plays subdued, chamber music-like jazz. Very classically influenced, and with an “introverted,” controlled volume.

What used to confuse me was that the group was originally the rhythm section of the early Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, arguably one of the loudest, brassiest, and “extroverted” ensembles in jazz history. Here’s a great clip of them playing Dizzy’s exciting composition “Things To Come,” from 1946. (Check out the vibraphone solo by Milt Jackson, who also solos on the MJQ video I linked to above.)

I couldn’t reconcile the fact that the MJQ came out of Dizzy’s big band.

So when John Lewis and The Modern Jazz Quartet played a concert at my college while I was a student in the mid-1980s, I rushed backstage afterwards to clear this up with the great man himself. Mr. Lewis was cordial as he listened to my question. I asked him if he could help me understand the connection between the “big and brassy” Gillespie big band and the “soft and controlled” MJQ. He simply nodded his head and said, “Both are riff-oriented.”

Ah! There it was!!!

Although Lewis came of age in the bebop era and played on many classic bebop records, he also loved the older swing style, in particular the short, repeating “riffs” popularized by the horn players in big bands of the time. Indeed, one of his major contributions to jazz piano was the transference of this riff-oriented approach to the piano. Much of his playing with the MJQ involved playing short bluesy riffs on the piano, even in the context of the group’s large-scale “classical jazz” arrangements.

You can really hear his riff-oriented approach at 2:37 in this video of his most famous composition, “Django.” His piano playing here harks back to the swing-era big bands, even though the intimate sound of the MJQ is very different from them on the surface.

So there you go! From John Lewis to me to you. “Inside” information to help us both understand a big part of the jazz tradition!

If you want step-by-step jazz piano instruction, check out my jazz piano video course. I’ll also give you personal guidance to help you play standards and improvise fluently and with ease.


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