NEW YORK — It has been said of John Lewis that he may be the most rational and imperturbable artist in his field--or, more properly, fields, since he is active in too many areas to be pigeonholed. As jazz musician, composer, teacher and architect of the so-called Third Stream movement in music, he has been in total control at all times of these often interwoven occupations.
This week he will show up in two capacities at New York's JVC Jazz Festival. Tonight at Carnegie Hall, he will direct the Modern Jazz Quartet, augmented at times by the New York Chamber Symphony, in a program that will include "Three Windows," a newly updated work comprising three of the themes he composed for the Roger Vadim film "No Sun in Venice" in 1957.
On Thursday, he will appear in the Great Hall at the Cooper Union as musical director of the American Jazz Orchestra. Organized last year, the 18-man ensemble is a bird of a very different plumage, dedicated to the preservation of great orchestral jazz works of the past six decades. The personnel includes some of New York's heavyweight jazzmen: Britt Woodman, Jimmy Knepper, Eddie Bert, Frank Wess, Dick Katz (sharing the piano chores with Lewis), Ron Carter, Mel Lewis, Lew Tabackin.
"This will be our fifth concert," Lewis says, "and it's a sort of sampler of the four previous ones, in which we presented the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Claude Thornhill and Jimmie Lunceford. We feel this orchestra is serving an important purpose, bringing live performances of some of the most important big band music. Recently, Benny Carter came in from Los Angeles for a program of his great works, past and present. At this week's concert, Ken Poplowski will play the clarinet part in a concerto dedicated to Benny Goodman written by Bob Brookmeyer."
Although this New York-based project occupies Lewis' time occasionally, it is the MJQ that remains front and center in his concerns today. The group is celebrating what has been called its 35th anniversary, a figure arrived at by ignoring the seven years (1974-81) between its dissolution and reorganization. Formed in 1952 by Lewis with bassist Percy Heath, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and drummer Kenny Clarke, the group has undergone only one personnel change: Clarke left in 1955 and was replaced by the present drummer, Connie Kay.
"The reason we got back together," Lewis recalls, "is that the Japanese people insisted. They kept calling on us for a tour. I was quite happy at home with my wife and children, teaching at City College of New York and going to Monterey every September to serve as musical director of the festival. But the Japanese made us an offer we couldn't refuse, so we played 10 concerts and enjoyed being back together so much that we thought we'd try it maybe a few months each year. Now, of course, we're together on a full-time basis--in fact, we have bookings through April of 1988."
His MJQ schedule has necessitated the abandonment of two other major activities: He dropped out three years ago as Monterey's musical director and is no longer teaching at City College.
The knowledge Lewis has acquired came through a set of conditions somewhat unorthodox for a jazzman--or for a black artist. "My great-great-grandfather settled in New Mexico early in the 19th Century.
"I was born in LaGrange, Ill., but raised in Albuquerque; my father was an optometrist. I can't say I learned much about the black experience in New Mexico; there was a very small black population. But there was an interest in both jazz and classical music. The head of the music department at the University of New Mexico, where I studied music and anthropology, was a Ms. Grace Thompson, who also founded a local symphony orchestra.
"We had wonderful teachers all through school. Life was really rather idyllic, and there was always a sense of the quest for knowledge. Through one teacher I learned about Bach, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky. But it was while I was in the Army, in Europe, that I really began to get involved in jazz.
"In Paris, I met Kenny Clarke, who really helped me get started. I also heard Django Reinhardt there and was enormously impressed."
Lewis had been back in civilian life a short while when he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band, introducing his "Toccata for Trumpet and Orchestra" at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Over the next five years, he continued his studies at the Manhattan School of Music, became an integral part of Miles Davis' short-lived but catalytic "Birth of the Cool" band, sang with a choral group and gave piano lessons. Except for a few months when he toured as Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist, he was active mainly from 1952 as mentor and guiding force behind the MJQ.