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.
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.