The Evolution of a Pianist: An Interview with John Lewis

By Brian L. Knight

After fifty years of playing and composing, pianist John Lewis is attacking the jazz idiom with the same youthful enthusiasm that he possessed when he moved to New York City in the 1940s. One of Lewis’ first gigs was sitting in with Gillepsie’s big band in 1946 where he played piano and wrote arrangements. After his introduction to the trumpeter, Lewis continued an impressive career in which he recorded "Parker’s Mood" with Charlie Parker, played with Miles Davis for the now famous "Birth of the Cool" album and was one/ fourth of the long running Modern Jazz Quartet. With vibist Milt Jackson, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Percy Heath, the Modern Jazz Quartet became one of the most popular jazz bands ever as they toured the world and recorded numerous successful albums. Throughout the Modern Jazz Quartet’s long tenure (1952-1974), it was Lewis’ brilliant compositions that kept the band pushing forward.

Lewis is also one of the biggest proponents of the "Third Stream" which was the blending of both classical and jazz styles. This fine ability and vision led to Lewis’ involvement in work outside of the Modern Jazz Quartet such as composing scores for films, leading big bands and arranging for orchestras. Despite being active in the music industry for over 50 years and reaching many pinnacles of success, Lewis remains very active as a musician: he still leads orchestras, plays the occasional concert and to top it all, he has released Evolution(Atlantic Records). On this album, Lewis revisits tunes from throughout his career – "Django", "Afternoon in Paris", and many others. This time around, Lewis approaches these songs from more of the point of view as a solo pianist more than musical composer. From his home in New York City, which he has called home since his arrival in Gillepsie’s band, the Vermont Review spoke to Lewis about his latest album.

New York City, where he has called home for over fifty years

Vermont Review: After playing music for over fifty years, you must have given countless interviews. Are you a fan of them?

John Lewis: A fan of interviews? Not so much, I am more of a fan of music playing.


VR: Your latest album, Evolution, features you alone on the piano. How often do you play solo piano?

JL: Not too often, but I do play concerts.

VR: Which do you prefer, working with a band or solo on the piano?

JL: Things are different now. I spent most of my life working with the Modern Jazz Quartet and that was just about a lifetime project. Since that is not possible anymore, I have spent more time with the piano, which I have fallen in love with. It is a wonderful instrument, which I knew all along but I didn’t have time to devote to it.

VR: Have you ever ventured with the electric piano or synthesizers?

JL: That is another instrument to me. It is a keyboard instrument. It really is not a piano. It should have another name, we just got to figure out one. The harpsichord is not a piano. The organ is not a piano. I don’t think the keyboard should be called a piano because they are not. It is an useful instrument just the same.

VR: Does the name of your album reflect any personal evolution?

JL: Yes I have. We all do and should. That is exactly what the title refers to.

VR: Evolution has a lot of great tunes, one being "Afternoon in Paris", which has been in your repertoire for some time. Was that tune written in Paris?

JL: That tune was written many, many, many years ago. The original recording, I think was with JJ Johnson and Sonny Stitt. That is what I think. I am not sure about it. It was so long ago. Then it was recorded on an album later in Europe with some young European musicians and the album was called Afternoon in Paris.

VR: What do you think of Paris? Have you ever spent any time there?

JL: Yes, I just come back from there.

VR: Were you vacationing?

JL: No. Half of the time was spent playing a solo concert and half the time conducting a band.

VR: Did you get any free time?

JL: Very little, but I have been Paris many many times. Lots of times in France I should say.

VR: Another tune on Evolution is "Django", named after the guitarist Django Reinhardt. Did he have an influence on you as a musician?

JL: Not an influence, but he was a great wonderful musician and one of the most powerful musicians for his instrument that I ever heard.

VR: Did you ever get a chance to play with him?

JL: No, I heard him play. He came to the United States on a tour as a guest of Duke Ellington. This had to be, I think, around 1957. At the time I was playing and arranging for Dizzy Gillepsie. We were playing down on 52nd Street at the Famous Door and he used to come down and spend all night with us. And even sometimes when he was working, we had to push him out to go do his job.

VR: You just mentioned Duke Ellington. There is a tune on Evolution called "For Ellington." Did you ever play with the Duke?

JL: No, because Ellington was a piano player of course.(laughter)

VR: I guess you can mark one against me with that question. You seem to revisit him quite a bit with your work with the Lincoln center Jazz Orchestra and assorted tunes.

JL: The Modern Jazz Quartet also recorded an album. It was all Ellington stuff except for the song "For Ellington" and a piece that Milt Jackson wrote for the album.

VR: Jumping up to the Modern Jazz Quartet. This may be the second na´ve statement of the day, but I will ask anyway: Did the Milt Jackson Quartet become the Modern Jazz Quartet because they shared the same initials?

JL: No. The name that we wanted was not available at the time. It was already copyrighted by another company. We were calling it the New Jazz Quartet so we had to settle for the Modern Jazz Quartet.

VR: So the initials were a coincidence?

JL: Yes.

VR: The cover of Evolution features a picture of an ice fishing shack. Are you an ice fisherman.

JL: No, I am not but a very good friend of mine is – Oscar Peterson.

VR: Where does he do his fishing?

JL: Up in Canada. He has his favorite spot – he doesn’t tell anybody.

VR: So if you just got back from France and you stay busy with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Do you play live a lot?

JL: On occasion. Nothing like the kind of tours that the Modern Jazz Quartet did. We were constantly touring all the time. Too much.

VR: Like many musicians, you spent some time in the Army. Just as the army imposes character discipline, did it also provide playing discipline?

JL: No. I had that going before I joined Army.

VR: Who was responsible for teaching the piano?

JL: I guess my grandmother who raised me. Then my first teacher was a cousin of my mother who was a music teacher.

VR: You are credited with the bridging of classical and jazz music forms. Which came first for you?

JL: Both music at the same time. It is not a question of liking one or the other. Before require work and I had great experiences hearing and sometimes participating in classical performances…….and jazz performances. The wonderful thing about jazz though is that I have been able to, because I have had a nice long life, watch the music develop a language. To be able to express a great many human experiences – that is another exciting element that jazz has had for me.

VR: Like your album title suggest, jazz has evolved tremendously since your first involvement. Is it still changing?

JL: It is still enriching itself. It has a mainstream now. It has a tradition that it can draw from.

VR: One of the first songs that you wrote was "Toccata" for Dizzy Gillepsie. Do you ever revisit that tune?

JL: (laughter) No. I haven’t heard that one for a long time.

VR: Your work with Miles Davis in the late 1940s with his nonet is heralded as the "Birth of the Cool". In retrospect, those sessions are considered landmark. Did you think they were landmark at the time?

JL: No. We were really all having a wonderful time with music. That is what we were interested in doing at the time.

VR: Both you and Miles Davis possessed an economical approach to playing music. Is it difficult to have two economical players in the same band?

JL: It is not difficult. If you have to be in the same band playing, you will reach some agreement about how you each will play. And you don’t do that by speaking about it, you just play.

VR: I guess the same theory would apply when you played with Charlie Parker?

JL: He was a virtuoso player. That was one of his principal techniques of expression – virtuosity. He was very different from most virtuosos because it was the most musical virtuosity I ever heard.

VR: You scored a lot of scores for films. Compared to bands, was this challenging?

JL: Yes, very much so but I enjoyed it. It is challenging and hard work. You have to work very fast. I had opportunities to do about three different ways of creating scores for films. There is no real standard. There is no standard for what is a producer for a film or what is director for a film. They are all individual acts of creation.

VR: You have been a bandleader/arranger for most of your life. Is there anymore enjoyment in leading than there is in playing?

JL: If it necessary that they can do that, you do it in order to get the enjoyment out of the playing. (laughter) Otherwise, I am happy to have somebody else do it as long as they do it well.

VR: What do you do when your are not involved with music.

JL: Spending time with my family.

To suggest a John Lewis album is a tough task, as he was involved with countless albums with Dizzy Gillepsie, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Illinois Jacquet and many more. For a bare bones look at both Lewis’ compositional skills and playing style, Evolution (Atlantic Records) is a great collection of his works.