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About The Modern Jazz Quartet
In the late 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band was in high demand. With the group playing long, extended sets that lasted late into the evening, his overworked horn section often tired, requiring multiple brakes to play at the high level expected of them. As a result, Gillespie’s rhythm section, which consisted of vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Ray Brown and pianist John Lewis, often played their own sets during these intermissions, independent of Gillespie.

By 1950, the group grew accustomed to playing in the quartet format, and soon began touring as the Milt Jackson Quartet. Two years later, Percy Heath replaced Ray Brown, and in 1955, when Connie Kay stepped in for Kenny Clarke, the Modern Jazz Quartet was born.

Originally Jackson and Lewis co-led the group, but Lewis eventually took over all the responsibilities. Lewis’ composition, simple in nature but rich in texture, highlighted the intricate, rhythmic soloing of Jackson and created a signature sound that was as much based in classical form as jazz, yet their improvisational spirit kept them firmly rooted in a restrained bop style they are known for. Lewis also created innovative counter melodies to play underneath Jackson’s soloing that emphasized the quartets compositional creativity and made them true bop innovators, simultaneously respected within both jazz and the mainstream. 

Often playing and experimental with classical musicians and orchestras, the group earned fame playing respectable jazz music in an era when rock and roll was becoming predominant. In 1974, financially frustrated and musically constrained by Lewis’ musical vision, Milt Jackson quit the MJQ. In 1981, the group reunited, leaving more time for individual side projects, and continued touring through the 1990s. As Connie Kay’s health began to fail, Mickey Roker also played drums for the quartet. Having released a number of albums throughout their half-century existence, The MJQ exemplified the jazz spirit and stands as a venerable example of how tradition and innovation can merge into a deeply beautiful sound.
Milt Jackson Biography
Detroit’s Milt “Bags” Jackson began his career learning to play the guitar, piano, and singing gospel before he became the world’s most influential vibraphone player. While playing with a local jazz group, Jackson was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie and joined his orchestra shortly thereafter, later on playing in his big band as well.
In 1952, Jackson and the other members of Gillespie’s rhythm section formed the Milt Jackson Quartet, often playing together while Gillespie’s horn players were taking breaks. In time the group began playing independently of Gillespie, and when Percy Heath replaced Ray Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet was born. The group became a fixture on the jazz circuit for the following 20 years, until Jackson became financially frustrated and left the group, although they subsequently continued to play together less regularly for another 2 decades.
Jackson was the first and foremost vibraphonist of jazz’s Hard Bop style. As a performer, his legacy is remembered primarily by his ability to use the dynamic range of his instrument in conjunction with a unique rhythmic philosophy that showcased a wide and expressive spectrum of sounds in paced inter-connected musical phrases. This ability was best exemplified when he played at slow tempos, as the Jackson created a warmer sound that avoided the shimmering sound displayed on earlier vibraphone recording. Another signature of Jackson was working 12 bar blues rifts into his jazz solos.
After his departure from the MJQ, Jackson recorded for all of the major jazz labels, and wrote a number of well-known jazz compositions, such as Bag’s Groove, that’s simplistic conception stood in stark contrast to the complex soloing that had defined his earlier career. Milt Jackson’s illustrious career came to an end 1997, when he succumbed to liver cancer, leaving behind a legacy as the original bop vibraphonist and the most influential since Lionel Hampton.
John Lewis Biography
Composer and Pianist John Lewis was born in LaGrange, Illinois in 1920. Classically trained, Lewis became fascinated with jazz after meeting bebop drummer Kenny Clarke in the Army. Upon his homecoming in 1946, Lewis moved to New York and started to write lines for and play with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.
While attended the Manhattan School of Music, Lewis developed and intense interest in eighteenth and nineteenth century classical European music and form. This created an almost secondary relationship with jazz music for Lewis, whose compositions became increasingly based on classical forms as opposed to the jazz structure. This evolution in Lewis’ individual vision created a compositional style that used delicate and sparse compositions to create depth without being dull or simple.
In the early 1950s, Lewis, along with fellow veterans of Gillespie’s rhythm section Clarke, Milt Jackson, and Ray Brown formed the Milt Jackson Quartet. When Brown left the band, Percy Heath replaced him and the Modern Jazz Quartet was born. Lewis became the bandleader and the quartet achieved to a string of successful albums and tour that continued for the next 4 decades.
Aside from touring with MJQ, teaching, and being musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, Lewis spent the latter part of his life composing music for big bands and orchestral projects that displayed the duality in his writing, most notably the American Jazz Orchestra, until he passed away in 2001. A true jazz explorer, Lewis stretched the definition of both classical and jazz music into an organic blend that enhanced both of the genres.
Percy Heath Biography
After serving in the Air Force as one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, Percy Heath bought a standing bass and began to pursue musical excellence, enrolling at Philadelphia’s Granoff School of Music. After graduating, with his brother, saxophonist Jimmy Heath already entrenched in New York’s Jazz world; Heath found work performing with Howard McGhee’s Band, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker before joining Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1950. Two years later, Percy replaced Ray Brown in a quartet offshoot of Gillespie’s group, and the band that would bring Heath to prominence and cement his legacy, the Modern Jazz Quartet, was formed.
Besides performing around the Globe and recording with the MJQ for the following 4 decades, Heath garnered a reputation as an in-demand house player in New York Jazz world, recording for over 200 albums for the Blue Note and Prestige. In 1975, while on a break from MJQ, Heath and his two brothers in Jazz, Jimmy and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath formed the Heath Brother Band, where Percy often put his bass aside to perform with a cello.
Despite numerous accolades, honorary degrees, and having played for an audience of two U.S. presidents, it was not until he was 81 years old that Percy Heath finally released his first album as a leader, just one year before he died in 2005, after losing a second bout with cancer. Entitled A Love Song, Heath’s premiere album leaves behind an appropriate addendum to Heath’s accomplished life and the poised, straight ahead playing style that Percy Heath is remembered for.

Connie Kay Biography
Born in Tuckahoe, New York in 1927, drummer and percussionist Connie Kay was the backbone of the Modern Jazz Quartet for nearly 40 years. Self-taught, Kay played with Miles Davis, Cat Anderson, and Sir Charles Thompson in the 1940’s before joining the Lester Young Quintet for a six year stint that ended in 1955. During this period, Kay also found work playing with jazz juggernauts such as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and Coleman Hawkins, before replacing Kenny Clarke as the drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1955. He remained with the group until they began what is known as their seven-year vacation after Milt Jackson quit the group in 1974.
After the MJQ separated, besides playing with Tommy Flanagan and Benny Goodman respectively, Kay also became the house drummer for Eddie Condon’s club. He then returned to the MJQ for the remaining 13 years of his life, before unfortunately passing away in 1994.
Renowned as a player the world over, Kay’s signature sound was the result of precise cymbal work, creating a crisp, dry feel that stemmed from his impeccable hands and a special drumstick that helped add a hollow, organic resonance to his sound. Kay would often not touch the snare and tom drums of his drum sets for a number of songs in a row, playing with a confidant restraint that added the cool swing and feeling that shaped the individual sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Mickey Roker Biography
Born in 1932, Miami native Granville Williams “Mickey” Roker grew to become a highly influential traditional swing-bop jazz drummer and a legend in the Philadelphia music scene in the ensuing decades. Born into impoverishment, Roker relocated to Philadelphia when his mother passed away in the early 1940s. Living with his uncle, he development a taste for jazz and soon became immersed in the rich musical tradition his new home had to offer, particularly influenced by the late Philly Joe Jones.
Roker developed his talents as a drummer in the Army’s bugle corps. After being discharged, Mickey originally found work in local rock and roll groups before switching over to jazz, playing for Jimmy Heath and Jimmy Oliver.
During this same period, Mickey married his wife, Priscilla, who subsequently gave birth to Roker’s children.
Noted for combining the root and movement of swing with the hard and driven attack of the hard bop period, Roker noted on many occasions that he had no interest in the avant-garde, saying that his role was to help build the tunes and stay within the mainstream.
As part of Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra, Roker had often played with founding MJQ members John Lewis and Milt Jackson, and after subbing for Connie Kay for many years as the original drummer aged, Roker took over the position and the joined the famed MJQ in earnest after Kay’s passing.
Besides playing with everyone from Sonny Rollins to Joe Williams, Roker appeared on countless jazz albums for Blue Note as a sought after studio musician. As Roker aged, he settled into a 10 year engagement at Philadelphia’s famed Ortliebs Jazz Club, where he played nearly every night, hoping to help set the new tone and keep the jazz traditional alive for future generations to come.