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The Modern Jazz Quartet: 'Django'


MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Oooh, I challenge anybody to find a moment in all of American music that matches that one for sheer beauty. That's the Modern Jazz Quartet and the John Lewis composition, "Django," which is also the name of this CD. A.B. Spellman, why should it be in our Basic Jazz Record Library?

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Murray, Django was sort of an historic recording. There were a lot of divergent points in jazz in 1954, when this was recorded. There was the Cool Jazz movement, and the West Coast sound, which was formal, somewhat European, and very composed music, without a lot of heavy emotion. On the East Coast, you had the hard bop movement, which was this funky, hard-swinging music. And then you had the MJQ somewhere in between.

HORWITZ: Mm-hmmm.

SPELLMAN: It is an ensemble that is composed of musicians who were strong bebop stalwarts. They came out of the Dizzy Gillespie band, most of them. They are musicians who had a strong sense of the blues, which Milt Jackson can make out of anything. No matter what tune it is, Milt Jackson makes it a blues out of it immediately. There's John Lewis, who was a Dizzy Gillespie pianist, but who went off into this formality, which was in many ways akin to the West Coast musicians, but not it at all.

And so, when the MJQ came out with Django, then you got a new look at jazz, which caught on very, very fast in America. It was a very, very popular ensemble, and "Django" was it's biggest hit.


SPELLMAN: The Modern Jazz Quartet took such a divergent point of view in its whole presentation of music, that a lot of the jazz purists were offended by it. There was a sort of assumption that jazz musicians ought to be somewhat funky, that they had to be people who had suffered a great deal.

But here is someone who has taken the approach that no, we will play the music with dignity that serious music ought to have. And the MJQ was absolutely a dignified and very serious ensemble. There was also the fact that John Lewis was unashamedly interested in European composition — particularly baroque music. You'll hear a lot of references to Johann Sebastian Bach and other baroque composers in his style of writing. And that just wasn't done at the time. A lot of counterpoint... a lot of fugues in it.

HORWITZ: Right. You hear that in the John Lewis composition, "The Queen's Fancy."


HORWITZ: And so for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, we're recommending The Modern Jazz Quartet's Django. It's on the Fantasy Original Jazz Classics label. For information about it or for other selections in the Library, please visit our Web site at NPRJazz.org. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

A.B. SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz