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 sound of Lewis and the MJQ was associated with the “cool” school headquartered on the U.S. West Coast. Hence, when Lewis made his first solo album, it seemed natural to turn it into an east/west summit of cool jazz. Lewis and MJQ bandmate Percy Heath (the “two degrees east”) work with L.A. saxophonist Bill Perkins, guitarist Jim Hall, and drummer Chico Hamilton (the “three degrees west”) on a polite, understated album of standards and one Lewis original (the title track). If it never exactly catches fire (that being beside the point), the album features beautiful and imaginative playing from all involved, including a splendid solo from Hall on “Skylark,” a killer from Heath on “2 Degrees East - 3 Degrees West,” and a remarkable display of resources from Lewis himself in a trio version of “I Can’t Get Started.”