Modern Jazz Quartet

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Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet.png
Modern Jazz Quartet in 1964
Background information
Also known as MJQ, Milt Jackson Quartet
Genres Jazz
Years active 1946–1974, 1981–1993
Labels Savoy, Prestige (UK Esquire), Atlantic, Apple, Douglas Records
Members Milt Jackson
John Lewis
Percy Heath
Connie Kay
Past members Kenny Clarke

The Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) was an influential music group established in 1952 and for most of their long career composed of John Lewis (piano, musical director), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath (double bass), and Connie Kay (drums).

Initially a side project for personnel from trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's hard-swinging big band, the MJQ gradually became a full-time endeavor and one of the more prominent jazz bands of the post-WWII era. Under Lewis's leadership they carved their own niche by specializing in an elegant, restrained music (touching on bebop, cool jazz, third stream and classical music) that used sophisticated counterpoint yet nonetheless retained a strong blues feel. They introduced several jazz standards, including "Django" and "Bags' Groove".

Initially active into the 1970s until Jackson quit due to creative disagreement and frustration with their busy touring schedule, the MJQ reformed intermittently into the 1990s.


Milt Jackson, John Lewis, and drummer Kenny Clarke had originally played together in a quartet while in the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra from 1946 to 1950. Together with bassist Ray Brown they played during interludes designed to give the trumpeters time to recover from the challenging upper-register parts. This line-up recorded as the Milt Jackson Quartet in 1951.

Bassist Percy Heath joined the line-up in 1952 and the group became known as The Modern Jazz Quartet after John Lewis took over as Musical Director, a position which Jackson and Lewis had previously shared.[1]

Connie Kay replaced Clarke as drummer in 1955.

In their middle years the group often played with classical musicians, but their repertoire consisted mainly of bop and swing era standards. Among the original compositions from the band's book are "Django" by Lewis (a tribute to the Belgian jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt), "Afternoon In Paris," also by Lewis, and Jackson's "Bags' Groove", the latter borrowing its composer's nickname.

The group was first signed by Prestige and later in the fifties with Atlantic. In the late 1960s, in between their two periods with Atlantic, they signed with Apple, the Beatles' label (the sole jazz group on the label), and released two albums: Under the Jasmin Tree (1968) and Space (1969). Both Apple albums were re-released on one CD at the end of October 2010, with a previously unreleased rendition of The Beatles' "Yesterday" (recorded during sessions for Space) added as a bonus track. The MJQ came to Apple through the first head of the label, Ron Kass. Kass was a jazz fan, and Under the Jasmine Tree was recorded in America prior to signing with Apple. The second Apple album Space was recorded at London's Trident Studios under the supervision of Apple A&R man, Peter Asher (of Peter and Gordon).

Milt Jackson, Village Jazz Lounge with the Bubba Kolb Trio, late 1970s.

Jackson left the group in 1974 partly because he liked a freer flowing style of playing and partly because he was tired of playing for little money (compared to rock and roll stars). As there could be no Modern Jazz Quartet without the two principals Lewis and Jackson, the group disbanded after going out with a rollicking concert in November at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.

In 1981 the MJQ reorganized to play festivals and later on a permanent six-months-per-year basis. When Kay's health began to suffer, he was replaced first by Mickey Roker and then by Albert "Tootie" Heath, Percy's brother. The MJQ's last recording was issued in 1993. Percy Heath, the last surviving original member, died in 2005.


The enigma of the MJQ's music-making was that each individual member could improvise with an exciting vibrancy but in toto the group specialised in genteel baroque counterpoint. Their approach to jazz attracted promoters who sponsored "jazz packet" concerts during the 1950s. One show would consist of several contrasting groups. The MJQ were ideal participants because no other group sounded like them. They provided a visual contrast as well, formally attired in their customary tuxedos.

The group played blues as much as they did fugues, but the result was tantalising when one considered the hard-swinging potential of each individual player. Their best-selling record, Django, typified their neo-classical approach to polyphony.


Dates put in front indicate the recording dates


Dates put in front indicate the date of first release

  • 1960: Plays for Lovers (Prestige)
  • 1973: The Art of The Modern Jazz Quartet / The Atlantic Years (Atlantic)
  • 2002: A Proper Introduction to the Modern Jazz Quartet: La Ronde (Past Perfect)
  • 2003: The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige & Pablo Recordings (Prestige/Pablo/Fantasy, 4 CD box)
  • 2005: The Modern Jazz Quartet & Jimmy Giuffre – Complete Recordings (Lone Hill, 2005)
  • 2010: The MJQ in the Movies (Giant Steps)
  • 2011: The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of The Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-64 (Mosaic, 7 CDs)
  • 2012: Original Album Series - The Modern Jazz Quartet (Warner, 5 CDs)


  • 2005: The Modern Jazz Quartet: 35th Anniversary Tour
  • 2007: 40 Years of MJQ
  • 2008: Django


External links[edit]