The Modern Jazz Quartet was formed in 1952 by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clark. Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clark and Percy Heath began playing together at different times in Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra from 1946-1952. Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clark in 1955 on the drums. The philosophy behind the group was to apply the disciplines of classical music to jazz. They hoped this would appeal to listeners of both styles. The specific musical goal is that each individual would improvise but the group itself would come together in a way described as baroque counterpoint. Lewis’s interest in baroque forms led to his composition of many fugues for the group which may be best represented by their album ‘The Comedy’, recorded in 1960.
John Aaron Lewis was born on May 3, 1920 in La Grange, Illinois. He grew up in New Mexico and studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico before serving in the army in World War II. After the army, John enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music and become involved in the New York jazz scene and met Kenny Clark who pushed him to join Gillespie’s Orchestra as a pianist and arranger. Some of tune Lewis arranged for Gillespie include “Emanon”, “Two Bass Hit” and “Minor Walk”. During that time period he also played with Illinois Jacquet and even influenced Miles Davis in doing a chamber jazz project in the late 1940s.
Milton Jackson was born in Detroit on January 1, 1923. He attended Michigan State University and after began playing with local groups in the Detroit area in the early ‘40s. After moving to New York he became known as ‘The’ vibraphone player for obvious reasons. He joined Dizzy’s Orchestra in 1946 and also played with Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron and of course John Lewis. MJQ the members, came together in 1951 and when Jackson signed with Prestige Records the following year, the group became known as the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Kenneth Spearman Clarke was born on January 9, 1914 in Pittsburgh, PA. He began his career playing with Leroy Bradley’s band and then joined Roy Eldridge in 1935. In 1939 he joined Teddy Hill’s Orchestra and here established himself as one of the key drummers in the bebop movement. Hill conducted at Milton’s Club in Harlem, where Clark played with Monk, Bird, Gillespie and others creating the new sound.
Percy Heath was born on April 30, 1923 in Wilmington, North Carolina and grew up in Philadelphia. After serving in the military, Heath joined Howard McGhee’s combo in 1947 appearing with such musicians as Fats Navarro and Miles Davis. Heath joined Gillespie’s Orchestra in 1950, where he met the rest of the Modern Jazz Quartet and the rest, as they say, is history