MODERN JAZZ QUARTET / “Django”
For jazz, the sixties started in the fifties. 1959 especially. Ornette Coleman hit New York and Miles gifted Kind of Blue to us. Both of these events were the culmination of a number of experiments. Ornette did away with standard chord progressions while Miles explored modal harmony. Things had changed, drastically. But whereas many people see 1959 as a beginning, that year might better be appreciated as a breakthrough of a long line of musical explorations. Cecil Taylor, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, Lennie Tristano and others were looking for new structural forms for jazz. The reliance on the twin keystones of blues and swing was not sufficient. Musicians began to borrow new tonalities both from classical music and from non-Western music. Standard 4/4 swing shifted to odd time signatures; and, under the influence of African and African-heritage music (especially Afro-Cuban) 3/4 and especially 6/8 became more and more common. During that period, the Modern Jazz Quartet was at the forefront of experimental jazz. I know the MJQ sounds old-fashioned and rather conservative today but in the fifties the idea of using European musical forms in jazz was radical. I’m not talking about simply adding strings or playing softly. I’m talking about fugues and extensive use of counterpoint. In the mid-to-late fifties all you had to write was “MJQ” and jazz heads would acknowledge that this was a major band that set many standards: the MJQ excelled at merging European forms with blues and swing. They also performed mainly in concert halls, dressed formally and performed tightly arranged, original compositions as well as fresh, albeit reverent, interpretations of bebop-era standards. The MJQ was a direct outgrowth of the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. Between 1946 and 1950, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke (who was to be the first drummer with the MJQ) often played interludes and intermissions for Gillespie. The MJQ functioned like a classical string quartet. The piano, vibes, bass and drum were a cool sound. Never harsh, seldom loud, and even when they played a straight blues their was a singular dignity and pride evident. They never sounded like they were from a juke joint or nightclub. Moreover, in 1955 once drummer Connie Kay joined the band (John Lewis – piano and chief composer, Milt Jackson – vibes, Percy Heath – bass), the personnel did not change for nearly two decades (Milt Jackson left the band in 1974). Indeed, the unique synergy was so strong that Jackson returned and the band reassembled in 1981. Eventually the MJQ would perform for six months during any given year up to the early nineties. Their first recording had been in 1951. As the Milt Jackson Quartet, the MJQ did their last recording in 1993. Their longevity as a stable working band was also a major and unequaled accomplishment. All of their experimentation (and some would say regimentation) notwithstanding, they also swang hard and in Milt Jackson the MJQ had a master blues-based soloist. The secret of MJQ music was that no matter how much they used European forms, blues and swing were a signature element of their music. The MJQ produced a number of jazz classics, chief among them “Django” (a homage to Django Reinhardt, a famous, Gypsy, jazz guitarist) and “Bags’ Groove” (“Bags” was Milt Jackson’s nickname). The version of "Django" in the jukebox is taken from The Complete Last Concert, a 1974 concert recording that ended the first period of the MJQ forty-some year existence. The version of "Bags' Groove" in the jukebox also features tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, one of only a few non-MJQ musicians to record as a featured soloist. While noted for their fine interpretation of jazz standards, many people were surprised that John Lewis and the MJQ were supporters of Ornette Coleman’s radical musical experiments. The MJQ even named one of their albums Lonely Woman (an Ornette Coleman composition). Once Miles and Trane blossomed, jazz went in different directions, but before the sixties it was the MJQ who seemed to be pointing the way ahead and who were one of the most lionized ensembles in jazz music. —Kalamu ya Salaam What the #*%&%^! is this?! OK. So waaaaay back when - we're probably talking fifteen years ago - I bought a 2 CD set by the Modern Jazz Quartet. I'm not sure why. I'd probably already bought, and liked, CDs by Miles and Trane and Bird and Monk and was just trying to hear another classic jazz band. The CD was The Last Concert - don't know how I picked that one. And I don't know how I missed the set of vibes right there on the cover, but I did. I got home all excited to hear some new (at least, new to me) jazz, pressed play and was like, "What the #*%&%^! is this?!" To me, it sounded like some half-classical, half-jazz cartoon music. I associated the vibraphone with chase scenes from Bugs Bunny or something. Luckily for me, I worked at a record store. I returned that bad boy the next day (it was expensive!) and that was pretty much the last I heard of the MJQ. Listening to it now, I like band. I like their swing - it's a lot more soulful than I remember it. Or maybe that's just the selections Kalamu picked. But even though I have a few later Milt Jackson tunes that I like due to sampling, I'm still not feeling the vibraphones. Thinking about it now, one of the Milt Jackson tunes I do like is "Enchanted Lady," and on that one, Milt's vibes have a lot of reverb and he's playing in a more spaced-out way - to me, it sounds indistinguishable from Roy Ayers. That, I can deal with on a soul/jazz 'instrumental pop' level. But the uptempo straight-ahead vibes? With all due respect to this legendary group, I just don't like the sound that instrument. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. I was just thinking about the guitar: another instrument I've never been able to get into in the context of jazz. Same for the violin. In fact, when I think about the jazz I really like, the lead soloist is either tenor/soprano sax, trumpet or piano. That's got nothing to do with right and wrong or good and bad, it's just my personal stereotype of what "jazz" is. I have to say though, I do think it's interesting that the MJQ were musical radicals at one time. Kalamu is right: to my ears, they do sound very buttoned-down and traditional.
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