Ten years after the end of World War II, Germany was still furiously rebuilding. Aided by American dollars, West Germany was eager to shore up its infrastructure and re-invent itself as a modern, democratic nation. The faster it was integrated into the West, the better its chances of staving off Soviet and East German influences and incursions. Cultural exposure and diversity was key to helping German society through its transformation. By 1956, the middle class was absorbing American music and reconnecting with its own classical tradition. Into this fluid environment came the Modern Jazz Quartet.
During its European tours in the fall of 1956, '57 and '58, the MJQ made stops in Stuttgart, Baden-Baden, Freiburg, Cologne, Pforzheim and other German cities. Dressed in tuxedos, the group—John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Percy Heath (bass) and Connie Kay (drums)—played high-art concert halls and positioned themselves as a chamber jazz group akin to Germany's small classical ensembles. Lewis, of course, had studied formally at the Manhattan School of Music in New York on the G.I. Bill after the war, and combining the staid and the loose appealed to Germans.
On The Modern Jazz Quartet: Germany 1956-1958 (Jazz Haus), we are provided with a taste of what the quartet sounded like recording in the studios of Germany's large regional radio stations during these years as well as live in concert. The result is a delicate and inviting album on which the group lingers on songs and gently rolls them around. Many of the songs are ballads, including Willow Weep for Me, I'll Remember April, You Go to My Head, Tenderly and I Can't Get Started. Also here are orchestral pieces—an 8:22 version of Lewis' beautiful masterpiece Midsommer, which conjures up images of the German countryside, and Jackson's swinging Bluesology.
Jackson [above] stands out throughout—he's forceful but never cluttered or loud. And Lewis has plenty of room to work his velvety chords and improvisation. Together—backed by Heath and Kay—there's plenty of exchange between the vibes and piano as Jackson and Lewis play off each other. Even God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen sounds rich.
The MJQ's role as ambassador has long been overlooked. On this new release, we hear why jazz was so effective in soothing a population in shock and winning over both the mass market and cultural elites.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Modern Jazz Quartet: Germany 1956-1958 (Jazz Haus) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's John Lewis' Midsommer...