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Thelonious Monk, John Lewis, "Two Bass Hit" and the origins of the MJQ

Alyn Shipton, in "Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie" describes the hiring of a pianist for Dizzy's 1946 big band: "Dizzy had a one point hoped to get Bud Powell for the piano chair in the band. When that idea fell through, he persuaded Thelonious Monk to join, and, despite habits almost as erratic as Powell's, Monk is to be heard on the band's initial broadcasts... Monk clearly had no intention of conforming to the usual role of the comping piano player.

Ray Brown, doubling up with laughter at the memory, recalled how Monk would sit stock still as the band ran down one of its charts: 'Monk is a subject in itself. I mean, most piano players in most big bands sit down and they play with the band, you know. But Monk would just sit there like this. And all of a sudden there'd be a pause from all the trumpets and everything, Monk would go "plink!" like that, and everybody would go "Yeah!". He was really wild, really different. But he didn't stay because most of the time he would come an hour late, and sometimes he wouldn't show up at all. So we really wanted someone who was there all the time – and playing all the time, too!' Monk's tenure with the band lasted about a month, and early in June Kenny Clarke introduced Dizzy to an army acquaintance of his whom he thought might be a suitable replacement... 

Clarke, quoted by Ira Gitler in "Swing to Bop" recalls what followed: "Dizzy's big band just started a set of rehearsals that I was participating in. I told John [Lewis] to come and watch one of them, and to bring the arrangements we had played in the Army. He came and sat down shyly in a corner of the studio. I introduced John to Dizzy and told him that John had brought some arrangements. Dizzy stopped the rehearsal and gave the band one of John's arrangements to play. It was 'Two Bass Hit', which at that time we had named 'Bright Lights'. When the band finished the piece, Dizzy said to John "you're hired as arranger." That's how a long friendship began between John and me.

"One night we were playing at the Apollo Theater – Monk was the band's pianist at that time. Thelonious and I got there late and the band was already set up. Milt Jackson was at the drums and John Lewis at the piano. I slipped behind the curtain and slid into Milt's place. Thelonious had to pass in front of the stage to get the piano. The audience would see him, and that would attract Dizzy's attention. So Monk waited in the wings. Dizzy turned around and saw me playing. He said, "How did you get here?" I answered, "Don't worry about it. I'm here, and I'm playing." He looked in the direction of the piano and saw John. He asked me where Monk was. I said I didn't know. He went into the wings and spotted Thelonious waiting. 'I'm throwing you out,' he told him. That's how John Lewis became the pianist of the big band!"

The rhythm section of the 1946 Gillespie band (John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson and Ray Brown) became the "small group within the big band", playing short sets when the brass and reeds needed a break or sometimes even when the big band was not playing. They went on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) in 1951, with Percy Heath later replacing Brown. In June 1953 the MJQ recorded "La Ronde", a John Lewis rearrangement of "Two Bass Hit" featuring Clarke on drums, a nod, one imagines, to the happy events of June 1946.


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