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Mon, 05.03.1920

John Lewis, Pianist, and Composer born

John Lewis

John Lewis was born on this date in 1920. He was a Black jazz and classical composer and keyboardist.

From La Grange, Ill., Lewis grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and began piano studies at 7. He studied anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico and met drummer Kenny Clarke in the army in 1943 while they were stationed in Europe.  After the war, they moved to New York and worked in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Lewis worked with Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, and Miles Davis and contributed to Davis' historic Birth Of The Cool sessions in 1948-'50.

In 1952, Lewis, Kenny Clarke, vibraphonist, and bassist Percy Heath, all members of Gillespie's rhythm section, formed the chamber-jazz combo, the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis earned a Master's degree in Music Theory from the Manhattan School of Music in 1953 and led the group for 27 years before disbanding in 1974. They reformed in 1982 and worked regularly until the death of drummer Connie Kay in 1994. The Quartet's incredible five-decade run ended with Milt Jackson's death in 1999.

Lewis's deep piano conception blends smooth bop lines and Bach-style counterpoint with an encyclopedic musical mind. Those attributes enabled him to lead the Modern Jazz Quartet as its musical director and reign as one of the most gifted composers and improvisers for over 50 years. His memorable arrangements include Django, Vendome, and Concorde.  Lewis composed soundtracks, chamber pieces, and orchestral works, recorded Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations, and co-founded the American Jazz Orchestra. John Lewis died of prostate cancer in New York in 2001.

To Become a Musician or Singer


A Century of Jazz by Roy Carr
Da Capo Press, New York
Copyright 1997
ISBN 0-306-80778-5

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