John Lewis is one of the most underrated figures in the history of Jazz. He does not typically show up in lists of top musicians, composers or arrangers in the genre, but in the 1950s he was at the forefront of several developments in Jazz, among them Cool and the Third Stream. Starting with the Birth of the Cool, the 1949 Miles Davis Nonet sessions for which Lewis wrote some of the arrangements along with Gerry Mulligan, and through the classic recordings with the Modern Jazz Quartet, the group he founded with Milt Jackson, John Lewis demonstrated how Classical music can inspire Jazz musicians to focus on composition and arrangement.
John Lewis had many admirers among musicians in the 50s, among them Miles Davis. In 1956 Davis, interested in the Third Stream, a movement led by Gunther Schuller that looked to combine Classical and Jazz sensibilities, recorded a John Lewis composition named Three Little Feelings. Its style and tone remind me of the classic recordings Davis would make with Gil Evans, starting with Miles Ahead which he recorded a year later. Davis also praised John Lewis’ composition Django as one of the best compositions ever, and even recorded it with Michel Legrand on Legrand Jazz in 1958.
The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded Django on December 23, 1954 in one of the last recordings that included drummer Kenny Clarke. A few months later Clarke decided to move to Paris and was replaced by Connie Kay. That lineup stayed together almost 40 years until Kay’s death in 1994. Django is one of John Lewis’ most lyrical compositions. It is dedicated to Django Reinhardt who died in May 1953, a year before this recording was made.
While it is a blues, it owes as much to Bach as it does to the blues. Its structure is unique. It starts and ends with what to me sounds like a eulogy to Reinhardt, with a somber melody accentuated by single bass notes. It then follows a 32-bar cycle for the solos, but instead of a typical AABA form, each section made of 8 bars, it starts with two 6-bars A part, then an 8-bar B part, and ends with a 12-bar A-part, of which the last 8 bars are in a boogie rhythm. To create anticipation before each solo begins, there is a quick double-time section between solos. In the best of the John Lewis tradition, it is a well composed piece of music. In the year 2000 NPR included the composition in its 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.
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