John Lewis Biography

Pianist, Songwriter (1920–2001)
John Lewis was a classically trained pianist and composer-arranger. He was a co-founder and musical director of the renowned Modern Jazz Quartet.


Born on May 3, 1920, in La Grange, Illinois, John Lewis was a classically trained pianist who moved to New York City to join the jazz scene. As a co-founder of the legendary Modern Jazz Quartet, Lewis shaped the group's sound by blending classical elements with traditional jazz. The group is renowned as one of the most successful in jazz history. Lewis died on March 29, 2001, in New York City.

Early Life

John Aaron Lewis was born on May 3, 1920, in La Grange, Illinois, and was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He began playing piano at the age of 7. He studied music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico until he was drafted in the U.S. Army. While serving in Europe, Lewis met bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, who persuaded Lewis to join the New York music scene after the war.

In 1946, Lewis joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. His classical training combined with his fluency in complex bop harmonies made him a successful freelancer. He worked with Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and Miles Davis during his 1949 Capital recording dates, which were later heralded as "the Birth of Cool."

Modern Jazz Quartet

In 1952, John Lewis became the musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, also known as the MJQ. He co-founded the group with vibraphonist Milt Jackson; other members included Connie Kay on drums and Percy Heath on bass. Lewis served as the group's compositional leader, and his own classic background heavily influenced MJQ's sound. Known for Lewis's signature light touch on the keyboard and focus on the subtleties and eloquence of bebop, the group is often compared to Baroque chamber music. Their compositions are considered part of the Third Stream movement, where jazz and classical elements mingle. Lewis worked to elevate the status of jazz; he maintained that the group dress in tuxedos when performing, and preferred concert halls and recital rooms over clubs and other traditional venues.

The MJQ was tremendously successful. They played together until 1974 and then reunited in the '80s. Their 30-year career is one of the longest-running and most respected in jazz history.

Later Career

Lewis was a prolific compositionist. He wrote music for film, ballet, symphony orchestra, stage and television. His 1999 solo album "Evolution" was a critical darling and his most well-known composition, "Django," is still played by jazz musicians today.

Lewis made education a priority. After earning his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953, he founded the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. He served as musical director of the repertory American Jazz Orchestra from 1985 to 1992, and of the Monterey Jazz Festival from 1962 to 1965.

Lewis died of prostate cancer at the age of 80, in New York City. He was survived by his wife, a harpsichordist named Mirjana; his son; and three grandchildren.

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