The case for renaming Albuquerque’s “Civic Plaza” after jazz giant John Lewis (who grew up here)

There’s a fun feel of community pride, and joy, in the wave of front page stories in Albuquerque newspapers in 1971 when jazz great John Lewis, founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet, brought the group to his home town to play with the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall.

Lewis grew up in Albuquerque, and studied classical piano at the University of New Mexico before his advanced studies at the Manhattan School of Music and, perhaps more importantly, playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the years following his military service during the World War II.

John Lewis Plaza

Mr. K at BetterBurque is the one who suggested “John Lewis Plaza”. I was confused when first told that John Lewis grew up in Albuquerque. Wikipedia’s “John Lewis (disambiguation)” page is long. There are quite a few other notable people bearing that name.

But in 1971, on the Popejoy stage, there was no such confusion.

“In Memoriam”, Lewis’s Tribute to his university music teacher

The 1971 Popejoy concert was the first public performance of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s song “In Memoriam,” Lewis’s tribute to his University of New Mexico piano teacher, Walter B. Keller.

The story is great. Lewis and Keller hadn’t seen one another for 20 years when they crossed paths in Barcelona the year before. Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet were playing a concert there, and Keller happened to be there, on sabbatical, studying liturgical music.

Lewis’s classical roots are a key part of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s music, which bridged the bop jazz combo world with those classical roots he learned from Keller, pulling jazz out of the dive bar (to borrow from music scholar Carla Rupp’s thesis on the Modern Jazz Quartet) and into the concert hall.

Keller died a month after the chance meeting, and the following November Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet chose Popejoy for the premier of “In Memoriam”, a piece Lewis wrote in Keller’s honor. The piece was the title song from the band’s 1974 album In Memoriam.

The best bit was Lewis, at what the Albuquerque Tribune described as a “soiree” for the symphony board after the concert, presenting Keller’s widow, “Mrs. Walter B. Keller,” (in the newspapers of the day, she had no other name) with the score.

That’s someone worth naming a civic plaza after.





  1. Mr Fleck,
    Regarding John Lewis and the MJQ, I agree with the Civic Plaza suggestion. Lots of music goes on there. The theater and auditorium in the South B’way Library has his name, but I’d like to see APS name a school for him. We have several middle schools named after a number of little known dead presidents, so APS wouldn’t even have to build a new one. And since Lewis attended UNM, it’d be nice to see some recognition there; I’d go for the Popejoy Hall lobby.
    Peter B. Ives
    PS: By the way, another famous Black figure who lived in Albuquerque (for three years) was the diplomat Ralph Bunche.

  2. Not to knock anyone who had an illustrious career in music, especially jazz/classical but Civi Plaza already was named after local Spanish/rock music great Al Hurricane, who passed just a few years ago. We’ll need to find another venue to name for John Lewis.

  3. Charles – It’s the stage at the north end of Civic Plaza that’s named after Al Hurricane – Al Hurricane Pavilion. The plaza is just boringly named Civic Plaza.

    Peter – Thanks! I didn’t know that re South Broadway Cultural Center, a pilgrimage is in order.

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