I am listening to the double-CD of the Modern Jazz Quartet's final concert, recorded at the Lincoln Centre in November 1974. They have always been one of my favourite groups, a composite in many ways of the things that move me in music, beyond music. They're a major part of my continuum, a nexus that brought together Bach & bebop, that swung like all hell, very laid back but also very structured, an insistence on the melodic but at times they got real down & dirty. A group whose leader, the pianist John Lewis, insisted that they present with a strict dress code, tuxedos or lounge suits, to emphasize the seriousness of the music, to show that jazz had its place in the concert hall. But whose music didn't lose touch with its roots.
They were amongst the first records I bought well over fifty years ago, along with Miles & Monk & Mingus & Ellington & Sonny Rollins. & amongst those was an extended play 45 r.p.m. which had Django, Lewis' beautiful tribute to the great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhart, on it. (Lewis has just quoted from Dixie on the track that's on at present to remind me that humour was something else they had.) & Django is the next track up on this album that also includes Round Midnight, A Night in Tunisia, Bags Groove and the adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez. Any one of which would be enough, but all together…..
The first group I ever had was patterned on the MJQ. Not the instrumentation — I had a guitarist & a reed-player (a 14-year old prodigy who played flute & clarinet & baritone sax & later went on to play with Maynard Ferguson's big band amongst others) where the MJQ had piano & vibraharp — but Lewis was my great influence as a composer, & a structurer (if there is such a word) of the music & the way it was presented. (& now Lewis quotes from Charlie Parker's Now's the Time: You hear it every way / a dog will have its day / but when it comes to music / dogs ain't got a thing to say.)
I remember being invited, patronisingly, to perform at one of the Wellington Jazz Society's Jazz for Listening concerts. & now a big hand for these young men…..& I remember being so pleased when we blew the fuckers away. One of those nights…..
One of those many nights. In that place. At that time. I have said before that it was an ideal time & place to grow up in. A small city, with everybody living around the fringes of the inner city, close enough to walk wherever you wanted to go, open enough to have everybody drop in unannounced at all hours of the day & night. Where the poets mixed with the painters, & the musicians, & the actors, & the gays, & the hipsters, & the beats. & everybody knew everybody, & knew everything that was going on.
That was then, & in a sense is still now, for one seeks the thickness of the past when the present is so thin it will shatter if you put pressure on it. & I am feeling fragile, clearing the decks so there isn't too much weight around.
The MJQ album has finished. Bags Groove has died away. What other music by dead men shall I put on? I flip between Miles & Bach, pick Miles. Time After Time.
I have a need to weep.