John Lewis - piano; Milt Jackson - vibraphone; Percy Heath - bass; Connie Kay - drums
Perennial favorites at George Wein's annual summer bash, the Modern Jazz Quartet played at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 with an intriguing variation on the lineup that featured Horace Silver on piano (subbing for John Lewis), Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. The following year they appeared at the festival with the more familiar lineup of Lewis, Jackson, Heath and drummer Connie Kay. That same unit appeared at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival with their unique approach to blending chamber-like delicacy with blues feel and jazz improvisation, and revisited the festival in 1965 and 1967. Their performance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival in New York took place outdoors at the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park.
They open their set with "Newport Miss," a catchy swinger written by Jackson for the 11th annual Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. With Heath walking insistently and Lewis comping steadily on top of Kay's syncopated pulse, Jackson unleashes a quicksilver vibes solo to spark the proceedings. Their second piece is only appropriate for their location, "Skating in Central Park." For this gentle, waltz-time theme composed by Lewis and recorded by Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall in their 1962 duet album, Undercurrent, Jackson takes the lead with a luminous vibes solo and is followed by Lewis, who turns in a measured, economical piano solo that is part Count Basie and part Floyd Cramer. Jackson's "True Blues" is a soulful, laid back number originally recorded by the group in 1952 for their self-titled debut. Kay initially underscores the proceedings with some supple brushwork as Heath lays down some deep grooving walking bass lines. Lewis' piano comping is sparse behind Jackson's profoundly blue vibes work as Kay switches to sticks and eases into a lazy, loose shuffle-swing feel. Lewis then brings his own blues-tinged chops to bear on a sparse but potent piano solo.
The buoyant groover "The Walking Stone" is a new MJQ number inspired by music of the West Indies. You can hear maybe a tinge of Sonny Rollins' calypso classic "St. Thomas" on this tune which was included on the group's live album from later that year, In Concert. Jackson's "The Legendary Profile" is a rare detour into soul-jazz, underscored by Kay's funky backbeat. They close their July 3 set with Jackson's blues-soaked theme song "Bags' Groove," which made its first appearance on a 1957 Miles Davis Prestige recording of the same name and was subsequently covered innumerable jazz artists including Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown, Sonny Clark, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Red Garland, Arnett Cobb, Lou Donaldson, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell and many others. The title of the song comes from Jackson's nickname, Bags. Heath also gets to stretch out on this Jackson signature.
The great vibraphonist would ultimately leave the group in 1974 to focus on a solo career, but the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet would reorganize in 1981 to play a festival in Japan (documented on Reunion at Budokan 1981 on the Pablo label). They followed up with a string of albums through the '80s and last recorded together on 1992's Celebration, an all-star project commemorating the group's 40th anniversary featuring guest appearances by singer Bobby McFerrin, vocal group Take 6, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, his sax-playing older brother Branford Marsalis, alto sax legend Phil Woods, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Albert "Tootie" Heath took over the drum chair after Connie Kay's death on November 30, 1994. But with Milt Jackson's death from liver cancer on October 9, 1999, the MJQ was effectively over. Musical director John Lewis passed away on March 29, 2001, and the last surviving member of the MJQ, bassist Percy Heath, died on April 28, 2005. (Bill Milkowski)