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:
The MJQ, which had disbanded in 1974, reunited in ’81 and continued touring through 1997. Two years after its permanent dissolution, Lewis made his solo piano masterpiece Evolution, on which “Django” is just one of many peaks. The solo format allows Lewis to revisit the stunning use of resonance he had previously employed on “Parker’s Mood” more than 50 years before, and this track has that in spades. What makes “Django” the focal point of the album, however, is the way in which Lewis breaks down the separation between concert refinement and free swing that had formerly characterized his most famous composition. Here, his playing exhibits both at once, simultaneously sounding like a conservatory recital and a deeply exploratory and cerebral improvisation in fractured stride. It’s John Lewis embodied, in other words.