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JazzTimes 10: Essential John Lewis Recordings

Career highlights from a pillar of 20th-century jazz

Charlie Parker’s centennial won’t come until August of this year, but already it has overshadowed any other such celebration in the jazz world. Among those pushed aside is the great pianist and composer John Lewis, born May 3, 1920.

Lewis is not a minor figure in jazz. He was a pianist, composer, and arranger par excellence, and was the guiding force behind the (leaderless) Modern Jazz Quartet, which endured for the better part of 50 years as a pillar of the music. He was also one of the key figures in the Third Stream movement, bridging the jazz/classical divide—especially in his fascination with fugue and careful attention to form in his compositions.

Some of the 10 performances below are individual tracks, some complete albums. With Lewis, sometimes a single short-form piece is a marvel unto itself; at other times, you need the full force of an album to get the picture.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring many of the John Lewis tracks mentioned in this JazzTimes 10:

1. Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra: 'Two Bass Hit' (The Complete RCA Victor Recordings; Bluebird, 1995 [originally recorded August 22, 1947])

1. Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra: 'Two Bass Hit' (<i>The Complete RCA Victor Recordings</i>; Bluebird, 1995 [originally recorded August 22, 1947])

Lewis’ only feature on this record—indeed, almost the only point where he’s even audible—is in the main theme, where he covers the response part of a call-and-response with the ensemble. In fact, the arrangement here is a feature for bassist Ray Brown. However, Lewis wrote “Two Bass Hit,” his first important composition, and the one that got him hired as the band’s arranger. (At that time, it was titled “Bright Lights”; he’d written it when he was in the army and co-leading a band with drummer/future Gillespie orchestra-mate Kenny Clarke.) And what he lacks in pianistic flair, he makes up for with the tune’s devastating hooks and unflagging excitement. It became one of the key bebop compositions, a hit (and early signature piece) for the Gillespie band and later a vehicle for Miles Davis and Lewis’ own Modern Jazz Quartet, among others.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.