John Lewis Biography

John Aaron Lewis, 3 May 1920, LaGrange, Illinois, USA, d. 29 March 2001, New York City, New York, USA. A formally trained pianist from a very early age, Lewis studied music and anthropology at the University of New Mexico. first took an interest in jazz after meeting Kenny Clarke. In 1946, both men joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band with Lewis writing charts in addition to his rhythm section duties. In the late 40s and early 50s, Lewis continued his musical studies and also accompanied numerous important jazz artists including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Milt Jackson. His association with Jackson continued with their group taking the name, the Modern Jazz Quartet, in 1954. The MJQ stayed in existence until 1974 after which Lewis turned to teaching. In the late 80s the Modern Jazz Quartet re-formed and Lewis also worked with his own sextet and as musical director of the American Jazz Orchestra, a group especially dedicated to the performance of big band music and which played and recorded such important pieces as Benny Carter’s ‘Central City Sketches’. In the 80s Lewis was also musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, a role he gave up as his long-lived playing career continued to blossom.

Although he began his jazz career in bebop, a style that was always apparent in his playing, Lewis’ classical training and extensive musical studies emerged in many of his compositions, which employed eighteenth and nineteenth century European musical forms. He also insisted on tuxedos for the MJQ’s performances, and wherever possible performed in classical concert halls and recital rooms rather than clubs.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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