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By Bob Weinberg
Darrell Grant assays the jazz and classical alchemy of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Attired in crisp tuxedos, The Modern Jazz Quartet cut an impressive image on stage, connoting an air of high-minded seriousness about its art. During its 40-plus-year run, the MJQ represented an aspirational pinnacle for how jazz could be perceived, as its members — pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay — took their signature blend of blues, bop and Bach into venues where Black musicians, let alone Black jazz musicians, were seldom seen. Presentation was vital.
“The MJQ were really invading the space of European classical music, and they were playing in symphony halls where orchestras played,” observes pianist and educator Darrell Grant, whose MJ New quartet recently released Our Mr. Jackson (Lair Hill), a tribute to the style and substance of the MJQ. “So I think in order for their music to be accepted on par with those groups, for people who would be inclined to reject it merely because of the color of their skin, wearing those suits sort of empowered them. It signaled to the audience the dignity with which they expected themselves and the music to be treated.”
When Grant, who heads the jazz studies department at Portland State University, assembled the MJ New — vibraphonist Mike Horsfall, bassist Marcus Shelby and the late Carlton Jackson on drums — a decade ago, he and his bandmates “followed suit,” donning tuxes on early gigs as a “way to channel all that class,” he jokes. However, he points out, unlike their predecessors, they didn’t need to prove their bona fides, and eventually the tuxes stayed in the closet. “At a certain point, we just decided, ‘OK, it’s time,’” Grant says. “We’ve established ourselves enough to not imitate [the MJQ] anymore and really strike out on our own.”
The MJ New accomplishes just that on Our Mr. Jackson, which begins and ends with a swinging rendition of Milt Jackson’s classic “Bags’ Groove,” but hardly reprises the MJQ’s greatest hits. Along the way, the quartet offers expert, emotionally stirring performances of Terence Blanchard’s “Wading Through,” Mary Lou Williams’ “Cancer” from her Zodiac Suite, and Grant’s own “Crossing the Bridge — Vanport,” a moody piece inspired by a vital Black community that cropped up during World War II and was later washed away by a flood.
Titling the album Our Mr. Jackson honors both Milt Jackson, whose centennial was celebrated in 2023, as well as Carlton Jackson, a beloved elder statesman of the Portland music scene, who died in 2021. (Cecil Brooks III now plays drums with the band.) “He’s just one of those people you can’t really count how important their contribution was,” Grant says.
Grant, who interacted with many a jazz legend during his time in New York in the 1980s and ’90s, never had the opportunity to meet Milt Jackson or John Lewis, the leading — and opposing — forces powering the MJQ. The vibraphonist made no secret of his preference for bop over Bach, contributing to the tension between him and Lewis that made their music so intriguing. A tennis fan, Grant uses an analogy between the sport and the MJQ’s music to explain how parameters are what make each so compelling. “Your choices are constrained,” he says. “And within that constraint, you can be incredibly creative and inventive and spontaneous. But the box is there, and the box focuses you so that you can bring all that creativity to bear. And I feel like, with another kind of vibraphonist, maybe the MJQ would not have swung hard enough to make that music into the engine that it was. They pushed each other in that way.”
Growing up, Grant admits, Lewis wasn’t in his Mount Rushmore of piano heroes, as he wore the grooves off records by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. “As famous as the MJQ were,” he says, “for me, as a young person, that was some old people’s music.” Then, years later, he tried to play it. Delving into the MJQ’s catalogue proved illuminating. Grant put every MJQ record he could find on a Spotify playlist and was amazed at the depth of the selections. Transcribing the music gave him an even greater appreciation, as did watching video of the MJQ.
“If you watch John Lewis, he’s like the Buddha. He doesn’t move,” Grant notes. “He sits at the piano. And I’m like Horace Silver, I move around. You can’t play this music like that. Honestly, it really impacted my playing. Because I realized, ‘Oh, I need to activate my core. I need to sit still. And I need to focus.’ And so it really was an incredible exercise to try and swing like John Lewis. So that’s when it really became a passion.”
Classically trained from the age of 7, and with a master’s in applied classical music from the Eastman School of Music, Grant also connects with Lewis on his melding of jazz and classical sensibilities. Lewis was among the pioneers of what came to be known as “Third Stream” jazz, while the MJQ defined the term “chamber jazz.”
“I think the thing that I have in common with John Lewis is a love of counterpoint,” Grant surmises. “I’m not a mathematical person, but I do love the interweaving of conversation and the interesting intersections that happen when these lines come together. That’s just a natural way that I compose. So obviously hearing [the MJQ] do that, it’s like, ‘Well, I wanna try that!’”
Featured photo by Yaara Perczek.