John Lewis - piano; Milt Jackson - vibraphones; Percy Heath - bass; Connie Kay - drums
Formed in 1952 by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke, 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. The following year they appeared at George Wein's festival with the more familiar lineup of Lewis, Jackson, Heath and drummer Connie Kay, the same unit that appeared at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. Their genteel, neo-classical approach to counterpoint, blending blues and fugues, marked the MJQ as one of the most inventive and successful jazz groups of the '50s and '60s.
They open their July 3rd set with "Django," John Lewis' touching tribute to the Gypsy guitar great Django Reinhardt and title track of the MJQ's 1956 album on the Prestige label. Jackson, a dyed-in-the-wool bebopper, shows his more refined side on this luminous number while Lewis provides elegant accompaniment. Next up is the old jam session standby "How High the Moon," a blowing vehicle that allows Jackson to stretch out while retaining the chamber-like delicacy that was an MJQ signature. They next premiered two episodic works by Lewis based on Commedia dell'arte characters from 16th century Italy - "La Cantratice" and "Harlequin." Both contrapuntal pieces would subsequently appear on the MJQ's The Comedy, a refined third stream album that displeased bop purists while expanding the boundaries of jazz in new ways. Their rendition of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" is handled with reverence and is dedicated to the composer, who was in attendance on this evening. Their rhythmic interpretation is slightly different than Monk's original, bringing a new twist to that timeless melody by incorporating an almost tangoesque lilt to the proceedings. And they close their 1959 Newport set with a cool reading of the Gene de Paul jazz standard "I'll Remember April," a tune introduced in the 1942 Abbott & Costello movie Ride 'Em Cowboy (a film that also featured Ella Fitzgerald singing "A-Tisket A-Tasket"). The tune was subsequently covered by everyone from bop legends Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet, George Shearing, Chet Baker, Dinah Washington and Keith Jarrett. But the MJQ successfully puts its own refined stamp on this well-worn standard.
Vibraphonist Jackson 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.
But on this glorious July night in 1959, playing at the peak of their powers, the members of the MJQ weaved an elegant spell over the appreciative crowd at Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island. (Milkowski)