ohn Lewis was raised in Albuquerque, studied anthropology and music at the University of New Mexico, and joined the Army in 1942. There he met drummer Kenny Clarke who introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie in 1946. While playing piano and arranging for Gillespie’s big band, Lewis completed his Masters degree at the Manhattan School of Music where he pursued an interest in Baroque music.
In 1948 Lewis spent time in Paris and developed a lifelong love affair with the city. He played with Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young before joining Miles Davis’ nonet in 1949 and arranging some of the material later included in Birth of the Cool.
In 1951 he and Clarke recorded with vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s quartet which became the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952, the longest standing small group in jazz, with bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay who replaced Clarke in 1955. As the group’s musical director, Lewis was responsible for the MJQ’s artful and elegant fusion of blues, jazz and European music, termed “third stream” music by historian Gunther Schuller. Lewis’ pioneering work brought the group popular and critical acclaim around the world, and in 1989 he was honored by the French government as Officier Des Arts et Lettres.
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s Lewis was active in many other projects: he directed the Monterrey Jazz Festival and the summer jazz program in Lenox, Massachusetts, wrote a ballet, premiered an orchestral work with a 30-piece brass orchestra, and scored several films, among them No Sun in Venice and Odds Against Tomorrow. He wrote incidental music for a stage show, scored episodes of Rod Serling’s TV series Night Gallery, and introduced Orchestra U.S.A. with Schuller to present original music.
After the MJQ disbanded in 1974 Lewis remained active throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. His score for Cities for People won first prize at the San Francisco Film Festival; he taught at City College of New York, lectured at Harvard, and served on the trustee board of Manhattan School of Music. In 1987 he recorded an album based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” with his wife Mirjana Lewis, a harpsichordist.
Lewis, considered a genius by many, was a pianist of economy and taste although his reputation as a composer and arranger often eclipsed his considerable talent as a performer. Many of his compositions have entered the jazz canon: “Django,” “Afternoon in Paris,” “Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West,” “Skating in Central Park,” and “Two Bass Hit” (written with Gillespie).
Albuquerque’s John Lewis Memorial Auditorium was dedicated in 2002.
- Sandra Burlingame