The Modern Jazz Quartet was established in 1952 by Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano, musical director), Percy Heath (bass), and Kenny Clarke (drums). Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1955. Through the years the quartet had performed in several jazz styles, including bebop, cool jazz and third stream.
Milt Jackson, John Lewis, and Kenny Clarke had originally played together in a quartet while in the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra from 1946 to 1950. Together with Ray Brown they played during interludes designed to give the trumpeters time to recover from the challenging upper register trumpet parts. This line-up recorded as the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951.
Bassist Percy Heath joined the line up in 1952 and the group became known as The Modern Jazz Quartet. Jackson and Lewis originally shared the role of musical director but Lewis eventually took over the entire responsibility of this position.
In their middle years the group often played with classical musicians, but their repertoire consisted mainly of bop and Swing era standards. Among the original compositions from the band's book are "Django" by Lewis (a tribute to the Belgian jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt), "Afternoon In Paris," also by Lewis, and "Bags' Groove" by Jackson (Bags was his nickname).
The group was first signed by Prestige and later in the fifties with Atlantic. In the late 1960s, in between their two periods with Atlantic, they signed with Apple, the Beatles' label (the sole jazz group on the label), and released two albums: Under the Jasmin Tree (1968) and Space (1969).
Jackson left the group in 1974 partly because he liked a freer flowing style of playing and partly because he was tired of playing for little money (compared to rock and roll stars). As there could be no Modern Jazz Quartet without the two principals Lewis and Jackson, the group disbanded. In 1981 the MJQ reorganized to play festivals and later on a permanent six months per year basis. The MJQ's last recording was issued in 1993. Heath, the last surviving member, died in 2005.
The enigma of the MJQ's music-making was that each individual member could improvise with an exciting vibrancy but in toto the group specialised in genteel baroque counterpoint. Their approach to jazz attracted promoters who sponsored "jazz packet" concerts during the 1950s. One show would consist of several contrasting groups. The MJQ were ideal participants because no other group sounded like them. They provided a visual contrast as well, attired in black jackets and pin-striped trousers.
The group played blues as much as they did fugues, but the result was tantalising when one considered the hard-swinging potential of each individual player. Their best-selling record, Django, typified their neo-classical approach to polyphony.
* M.J.Q. (1952) Prestige Records
* Ben Webster and MJQ - An Exceptional Encounter (1953)
* Django (1953-55)
* Concorde (1955) (first recording featuring Connie Kay on drums)
* Fontessa (1956) (first album on Atlantic Records)
* No Sun in Venice (1957)
* Modern Jazz Quartet: 1957 (1957)
* Third Stream Music (1957)
* Pyramid (1959)
* Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
* Longing For The Continent (1959)
* European Concert (1960)
* The Modern Jazz Quartet & Orchestra (1961)
* Lonely Woman (1962)
* The Comedy (1962)
* In a Crowd [Live] (1963)
* Collaboration with Almeida (1964)
* Plays George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1964)
* The Sheriff (1964) (Atlantic Records)
* Place Vendôme The Modern Jazz Quartet and The Swingle Singers (1966)
* Blues At Carnegie Hall (1966)
* Under The Jasmin Tree (1969) (Apple Records)
* Space (1969) (Apple Records)
* Plastic Dreams (1971)
* Paul Desmond with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Live in New York (1971)
* Blues on Bach (1974)
* The Complete Last Concert (1974)
* Echoes (1984)
* For Ellington (1988)
* Dedicated to Connie (Released 1995. Recorded live in Slovenia in 1960)
* La Ronde: A Proper Introduction to the Modern Jazz Quartet (Released 2006)