Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 74 --: The Modern Jazz Quartet

The first sound you hear, on the first tune of the first recording session by the Modern Jazz Quartet, is the driving walking bass of Percy Heath, punctuated explosively by  Kenny Clarke's drums. And there's a surprise, not just because Clarke was the only musician to leave the group, but because you don't exactly think of the MJQ as a drum-dominated group. But here's Clarke, front and center on "All The Things You Are" - and perhaps, even more so on "La Ronde," the second tune to be recorded that historic day. Does that mean that the MJQ didn't start out as the ensemble-driven sound that we associate with them? Not at all. But they were, first and always, an ensemble of individuals. A lot of critics of the MJQ in later years, those who,complained that the group was too stodgy, too careful, too polite, tended to except Milt Jackson from this criticism, and say that he was a real individual, and what was he doing letting himself be tied down? Let's Bags be Bags! But they were all individuals, all powerful players all creators and improvisers and strong personalities.

Percy Heath, in an interview by Mike Zwerin in Paris in 2003, recalled the founding of the Modern Jazz Quartet from four musicians who had come together as the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Gillespie had featured them separate from the band, and they had also started playing club gigs as the Milt Jackson Quartet (originally with Ray Brown on bass).

In 1951 the Milt Jackson Quartet - Heath, John Lewis and Kenny Clarke (soon replaced by Connie Kay) - was driving home to New York after performing in some sad and disagreeable outlying club. All four of them - they were big men - were squeezed into Milt Jackson's tired old gilded Cadillac, which they had named the "golden dragon." Lewis said he was weary of this kind of life, and of the same old head-solos-head rhythm section format that went with it. He wanted to form a band that would be like a chamber group with four independent contrapuntal lines going simultaneously and be accepted in theaters and concert halls where jazz had never before been heard. The Modern Jazz Quartet was named then and there in the golden dragon.
So this was a powerful zeitgeist as the 40s turned into the 50s. Miles Davis, who had been a protege of Charlie Parker, was feeling it. John Lewis, playing in the Dizzy Gillespie big band, was feeling it. There had to be more than just the same old head-solos-head formula. It was time to break out of bebop.

As it turned out, bebop had a lot more life, and a lot more creativity, to share with the world, but these questing musicians were right too. John Lewis had been an integral part of the music that came out of those all-night sessions at Gil Evans's apartment, had played on the Birth of the Cool sessions and contributed three tunes. The nonet had failed commercially, but the idea that jazz could move in new directions was still a vivid one.

The quartet recorded two standards and two Lewis originals on that first session, both of which were to become staples of their repertoire. "La Ronde" was expanded into "La Ronde Suite," about which more later. "Vendome" is perhaps the most representative of the direction the group would become famous for, classical in structure and tightly arranged.

All four songs were released on 78 RPM and on a 10-inch LP -- one of the first Prestige LPs to take cover art seriously.The cover was designed by David X. Wilson, noted not only for his jazz album art, but for jam sessions at his illegal loft. From his obituary in the New York Times:

The loft, in an industrial building at 821 Avenue of the Americas, near 28th Street, became a gathering place for the greats of jazz, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as for utter unknowns who simply yearned to play.
Known simply as ''the Sixth Avenue loft,'' it was one of maybe a half-dozen places where musicians gathered at a time when various strains of jazz -- mainstream, bebop and cool, among others -- were percolating. Situated in the heart of the flower district, it was the epicenter of what became known as loft jazz.
''By most accounts, it drew the biggest names, showcased the latest talent and lasted the longest,'' said an article in the fall 1999 issue of Double Take magazine.
''Guys played with people they'd never seen before,'' Bob Brookmeyer, a trombone player, said in the article. ''Whites, blacks, old guys, young guys. Nobody cared about that stuff. We were all outlaws. Our profession wasn't considered respectable. There was a sense we were all in it together.''
There was no lock on the loft's front door, and it was considered bad form to arrive before 11 p.m. There always seemed to be many pretty young women present, and ample bourbon and marijuana. It was a spot where Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer or Willem de Kooning might show up, entourage in tow. ''The locus of mad freedoms,'' Mr. Young once called the scene that his rent bargain made possible.

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