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Lee Konitz: A Q&A by Ethan Iverson

The alto master in conversation with the Bad Plus pianist and prolific jazz blogger

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz (photo: Rolf Freiberger)
Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Paul Motian
Left to right: Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Paul Motian (photo: John Rogers)
Lee Konitz at Birdland
Lee Konitz (photo: John Rogers)

If you’re trying to imagine what jazz sounds like in a dream state, a new ECM disc titled Live at Birdland will get you there. A collection of standards recorded at the club in December 2009, the album features 83-year-old alto saxophonist Lee Konitz with the peerless lineup of Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

Konitz, pianist Mehldau and bassist Haden had traveled this road before, in the ’90s for the Blue Note trio albums Alone Together and Another Shade of Blue, and, with the addition of the famously elastic drummer Motian, Live at Birdland finds their chemistry working at ethereal new heights. That striking empathy, the unsung pioneer Lennie Tristano, and Konitz’s unending search for melody are just a few of the topics the saxophonist covers during this conversation with Ethan Iverson, the Bad Plus pianist and prolific jazz blogger.

An edited version of this interview appears in our new June issue.

Ethan: There’s that great book by Andy Hamilton [Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art, University of Michigan Press] that features interviews with you. It gives a remarkable insight into you and the music you make.

Lee: Thank you. I wouldn’t have written a book like that myself. It’s in interview form for a reason, but Andy was so simpatico that I went on and on.


Ethan: It’s a good manual for the young musicians that you still work with all over the globe. Have you gotten any feedback about the book?

Lee: I have gotten positive feedback. It’s very rewarding to hear people say that they like it. I was hoping that it will be a text in the libraries at various music schools.

Ethan: One of the ways that the book is most helpful is that it’s trying to explain the way that you play today, which isn’t the way that you played 40 or 50 years ago. It’s a new form of music where you just start with pure improvisation and search for a melody at all times.

Lee: I was doing that for 40 or 50 years also.


Ethan: But I don’t think the rhythm sections were involved in the same way they are now.

Lee: No, it was a more traditional rhythm section. With the latest record on ECM with Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, it’s about communal improvising, which, as you know, we can do in this kind of format.

Ethan: What do you feel when a piano player plays a chord?

Lee: I can’t describe what I feel, because it’s different for every chord. I’ve stopped trying to analyze what it is and just react to the sound of the chord. When I sit alone, I play a cluster or something and I sing something and I check the notes that I sang, maybe in a six- or seven-note phrase, and very frequently it has little to do with that chord or cluster. I think we’re free to do that if we put the notes together in a musical way.


Ethan: It has something to do with intuition, I believe.

Lee: It has a lot to do with intuition, of course, but knowing as much as possible and being familiar with these sounds and the possibilities of what you can do with them, if it’s not restricting, it’s an advantage too. You know that, I’m sure. Usually piano players would certainly know that sooner than saxophone players.

Ethan: Why do you say that?

Lee: Because [as a pianist] you’re structuring the tune the whole time with your two hands. Sometimes when I hear a piano player and bass player talking about changes real fast, I can’t follow it. “Two, 5, 7, 11…” I say, “Wait, a minute, I don’t know what that’s about right now.”


Ethan: I do think very few pianists can play one thing with their left hand and a completely different idea in the right hand the way Brad Mehldau can.

Lee: He certainly does it on this record. He’s amazing. He had just finished a concert tour and his chops were in prime form. I asked him afterward if he ever played like that on a record and he said no. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by what they hear. Have you heard any of it?

Ethan: I have heard it. And I also saw it live on two nights. It’s great.

Lee: Have you heard him play like that before?


Ethan: I’ve heard a lot of Brad over the years, so I know what he is capable of. On this record he’s levitating above the harmony almost constantly and in a fascinating way.

Lee: Can I interview you? How would you describe that?

Ethan: I think that Brad is very comfortable with the original harmony so that he can overlay, not just one degree away from the harmony and form, but two or three degrees away from the form. For example, suppose you’re playing in D-minor. Brad is comfortable not just playing in E-minor, but perhaps in F-sharp-minor and perhaps both at the same time, even though it’s still really D-minor. That may be b.s., though.

Lee: I’m sure it’s one of the possibilities. I just wonder how many of these possibilities are clearly outlined as possibilities or if he’s intuiting into that so ingeniously. It’s a combination of both, of course.


Ethan: All of you—Charlie, Brad and yourself—seem to follow the melodic line more than the changes, which is really the higher space of playing.

Lee: I really appreciate that. When you called, I was just listening to a homemade record someone gave me of Warne Marsh practicing. He was just playing six tunes with no indication of the melody. I have not figured out any of the pieces. I’m sure they’re songs like “All the Things You Are” and all that, but I can’t hear it. He’s just playing, which was apparently a large part of his practicing.

Ethan: It seems like there’s a repertoire of those certain tunes for that purpose.

Lee: Right, some don’t invite that kind of embellishment.


Ethan: You seem to be very concerned with the original melodies as well as the original form. For example, you tell all your students to listen to Frank Sinatra.

Lee: That’s right. He was one of the fine singers of those great songs.

Ethan: Do you ever think of the lyrics when you play these melodies?

Lee: Not really. If anything, I kind of make up lyrics as I go along, but mostly syllables rather than actual words.


Ethan: You’re healing syllables as you play?

Lee: More like scat singing—[scats musical phrase]—instead of “You’re the sweetest thing I ever saw…” and all that.

Ethan: Well, you are so connected to your singing. Your singing and your playing are quite indistinguishable, I would say.

Lee: I think I play better than I sing. Singing is a special technique to really do it. I can sing along, but it’s practice as much as blowing the horn.

Ethan: Sure, singing is part of your practice.


Lee: It’s more important each time I pick up the horn. I figure I should really sing more first, until the music that I feel is clarified enough to pick up the horn and play with that feeling.

Ethan: Have you always sung scat solos and so forth?

Lee: Yes, but not enough to have [real] confidence. With recent jobs with the Minsarah group, I vocalize sounds-maybe the duet with the arco bass solo or something like that—just getting a little more confidence to add that voice to the music.

Ethan: I was really impressed when we played a gig together in Pori [Finland] last year. Before the gig you invited the band to your hotel room to sing and tap together. I’ve seldom been with other musicians who took warming up for the gig that seriously. Then, when you heard me play a Bud Powell solo on the backstage piano, you got a little angry at me because you felt we’d been opened up by the singing, and there I was putting mechanical licks back into my playing.


Lee: Those [bebop runs are] certainly a part of our practice routine, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate at that time.

Ethan: I guess it was just my nervousness, playing with Lee Konitz. I wanted to make sure something came out.

Lee: Well, it always does.

Ethan: Part of this rhythm in the scatting is really connected to Louis Armstrong.


Lee: Absolutely, yeah.

Ethan: Do you think about him when you scat?

Lee: In some way, I suppose. I think mostly about the possibilities and the imperfections of so-called bebop scatting that I hear most people doing. It makes me think of the right kind of syllables to use and all the pitch-imperfect possibilities to avoid.

Ethan: So you’re actually worried about singing in tune when you’re singing?

Lee: Absolutely.


Ethan: You’re always worried about playing in tune too.

Lee: That’s a pain in the neck. I played along with a Jamey Aebersold record before, and I had to push my mouthpiece way in before I felt in tune. This is usually the danger point, because I can exceed the pitch of the piano and all that. I hear it way up at the top of the pitch and I’m stuck with it. Otherwise, if I’m playing flat I don’t enjoy that too much.

Ethan: I must say that I’ve never heard you play out of tune live or on record.

Lee: Thank you very much for saying that. I can’t think of the man who reviewed the record I made for Enja with the Minsarah group [Live at the Village Vanguard], who said that he’s tired of hearing me play flat. I didn’t appreciate that inaccurate information. If anything, I play sharp, not flat!


Ethan: Certainly with the sound of the blues that’s in jazz, scat singing and saxophone playing, there’s got to be a little intonational up and down to get that feeling in there.

Lee: Absolutely. I picked up a bunch of duo sets of records at the store next to where I’m staying. A two-record set of Benny Carter, Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw and all those people I grew up with but that I never heard enough of, really. To hear Benny Carter, whom I said was schmaltzy [in a Before & After session], and yes, his ballads get a little schmaltzy to me, but, boy, his alto and lead solos and arrangements are beautiful.

Ethan: I think for that generation the ballads could get sweet, but it might have been a reaction to the heavy swing and blues that they were devoting most of their time to.

Lee: Johnny Hodges bent his notes but somehow he didn’t get all virtuosic, and just played beautiful melodies and variations on the melody with a lovely sound. That’s what really rang the bell for me in the beginning.


Ethan: You were a Johnny Hodges fan?

Lee: Yeah, absolutely.

Ethan: What about the rest of the Duke Ellington saxophonists?

Lee: Well, Ben Webster was great in that band. He and Hodges were the main saxophonists in that band for me. Harry Carney was good in his own way, but wasn’t as important for me.

Ethan: All the soloists in that band played melody, so it’s refreshing to still hear that.

Lee: Those tunes really invite playing the melody on, I’ll tell you—”Lush Life” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” Although, I made a record with “Prelude to a Kiss” with a trio of Kenny Werner, Ron McClure and Bill Stewart. Kenny played pretty free harmonically and that became another kind of version.


Ethan: Is it a conscious decision for you how much abstraction or newness you’re going to put into an interpretation when you start? It’s very different to play the melody of a ballad or play very out on it, as you know.

Lee: I usually start out with the hope that it will go in a new direction. When it doesn’t, I try to make the notes as meaningful as possible. That means for me playing less to start out with. That has proven very effective for me. Lately, some of the music I’ve been playing in the group with the Minsarah guys—whew boy, we’ve had awfully good communication. It’s been great fun.

Ethan: In a sense, I feel like you want the musicians you play with these days to take a chance and go to a new place right away.

Lee: That would be nice, but if they don’t, it needs to be all there with whatever place they choose to be in. If it’s very familiar, that’s nice—like a good, strong 4/4 feeling. I don’t invite this usually, as you know. And I miss that. I hate to ask for it, but it’s always welcome to me. But it also has to be more percussive or whatever. Sometimes when it goes into a straight 8, I find myself playing “Tico Tico”—a reminder of a Latiny thing that happens sometimes.


Ethan: I don’t associate you with too much straight-8 music.

Lee: Sometimes it happens with this rhythm section with [Minsarah members] Ziv Ravitz [drums] and Jeff Denson [bass]. I react to it in a positive way, but sometimes I would prefer straight 4.

Ethan: You grew up in an era when it was almost always straight 4 in anyone’s band.

Lee: In Lennie’s band it went out from there and got very away from 4.


Ethan: You mean like on the free-jazz tracks, “Intuition” and so forth?

Lee: That was obvious, but playing a regular tune, it might get very intense and open up and stop the 4s.

Ethan: I don’t think that’s on record much.

Lee: No, not too much.

Ethan: You’ve embraced interacting with younger musicians and whatever ideas they might have about breaking up the time.


Lee: It’s usually fun.

Ethan: At the same time, there’s nothing like a good solid 4 once in a while.

Lee: I have one of these little dictation machines, a $49 machine with digital pitch control and a bunch of tracks. I have Lester Young solos, Wayne Shorter solos from Live at the Plugged Nickel, some Jamey Aebersold records, some Warne Marsh. I can listen to it at the different speeds. I haven’t had that facility because I don’t use a computer.

Ethan: It’s fun to hear those solos slowed down, isn’t it? You can hear what the notes are, finally. What I find amazing with people like Lester Young or Warne Marsh, is that even when you take their fast lines and slow them down, it sounds swinging–it’s still so rhythmically accurate.

Lee: They somehow slowed it down in their learning of the lines, and they’ve gradually sped it up as they felt each note. I think that’s the process. I’ve been invited in August to be part of a workshop in Denmark and then immediately after to go to a week’s workshop in Slovenia. I had been invited to do that a few years ago, but I didn’t do it maybe because I wasn’t feeling well or whatever. I’m looking forward to that kind of intensity.


Ethan: What do you feel you can tell younger musicians at a workshop like that?

Lee: First of all, why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they’ve picked up the instrument they picked. The importance of singing before picking up the instrument, in terms of playing a melody or embellishing a melody until you come into a new area or a new melody—those gradations in developing a solo.

Ethan: Level one is playing the melody very straight?

Lee: You’ve got a rhythmic freedom and an articulation freedom. And vibrato or no vibrato, in terms of articulation, to be able to play it like you’re really enjoying anew those very familiar melodies, like the standards.


Ethan: Do you find that younger musicians know the standards less and less at this point?

Lee: They know them well enough that we can get together not having played together and play those “All the Things You Are” kind of tunes, which has made it possible for me to work with younger guys.

Ethan: I’ve had some experiences at those camps where you can’t even call tunes anymore. I was thinking of what I most would like to ask you, and it’s something I don’t think you can answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway, because you are such a melodic musician. I think you’re tapped into the idea of melody as much as anyone I’ve ever heard. What makes a good melody?

Lee: I think that’s a secret we’re all trying to discover. I listen to a Brahms symphony, and all of a sudden I hear this magnificent melody and I wonder where that came from, as you do, I’m sure. Analyzing it for intervals is no way really. It’s what we’re all looking for. The end product of whatever we’re doing is at least a good melody. Then there are the great melodies, like those so-called standards in jazz or those classically oriented great melodies in Tchaikovsky and Bartók that we relish so. I can’t analyze it, can you?

Ethan: No, I can’t really, and I didn’t think you would be able to either. But I think that it’s important to remember that you can’t analyze it. That’s part of the secret, in a way.

Lee: You can imitate it to a certain extent. That’s one way of analyzing it. The writing of melodies on top of old standards like “Lullaby of Birdland” or “Love Me or Leave Me” certainly makes it possible to use all that material to play a new good melody.

Ethan: Perhaps surprise is very important too. Sometimes you’ll be playing a beautiful mid-register melody on your saxophone and then you’ll play some high notes that burst through the texture. They’re almost jarring, but they’re still very melodic and very exciting.

Lee: They’re jarring to me too sometimes. That’s why I stuff the bell with washcloths to take some of those overtones away. Today when I was practicing, when I found the right spot on my neck with my mouthpiece, the high notes were, like, brilliant, but in tune enough that I didn’t have to squeeze them out, so to speak.

Ethan: It’s unbelievable that you put that cloth in your bell.

Lee: That really works for me. I’ve heard various comments from people playing around Europe or wherever, and most of them say they enjoy the contrast. I do that on the record with Brad and those guys.

Ethan: Yes, but your tone is so strong even through those cloths. You stick all that cloth in there, but it’s still about the strongest saxophone sound I’ve ever heard. It’s mysterious to me because you’re thought of as this “cool” player, and I’ve even read that you have a “classical” sound.

Lee: I try to sometimes, not in the way that the classical players play, but in terms of being a pure sound rather than a jazzy, affected sound.

Ethan: I think that with anyone who grew up playing in big bands like you did, there’s a different kind of sound. It’s not loud, but it’s very strong.

Lee: I think so. It’s a matter of survival in the big bands. When I was with Stan Kenton, don’t forget that there were 10 brass behind me, so I had to take a deep breath and…

Ethan: Isn’t there some story about you taking a solo one time and you didn’t play one note?

Lee: That was with Claude Thornhill. I was stoned at that point, I think.

Ethan: Ah, the good old days.

Lee: Yeah. Really old days, for me.

Ethan: Tell me about the musicians you’re playing with on this new record for ECM.

Lee: Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. I think there are some very nice pieces on this record for everybody, especially Brad. I think he really played brilliantly on it. He has a great feeling at my invitation to play along contrapuntally with me, which dresses up what I’m playing beautifully. I couldn’t quite do that with Brad [when he was soloing], because there’s a certain invitational feeling to ask someone to join in. And Brad is such a brilliant soloist, he’s got it covered. One time I jumped in on one tune [“All the Things You Are”] and everybody thought it was a disaster except me, after the fact.

Ethan: I liked it.

Lee: Thank you, but Brad thought, “What’s the big idea jumping in when I’m playing a solo?” And he was doing it on every tune, at my invitation.

Ethan: Paul Motian told me the first time he played the Vanguard was in your band on New Year’s Eve in the mid-1950s.

Lee: Wow. I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember doing something like that.

Ethan: And you and Paul are together on that Half Note session with Bill Evans, Warne Marsh and Jimmy Garrison.

Lee: We also made a record recently with the fine French saxophonist Alexandra Grimal. She invited Gary Peacock, Paul and me to join her.

Ethan: And there’s a nice trio record with Steve Swallow. One of my favorite records is Paul’s On Broadway, Vol. 3, with you, Joe Lovano, Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. In fact, you even played “Tiko Tiko” on that, as I recall.

Lee: That was Joe’s suggestion. Unfortunately, we didn’t play any solos.

Ethan: That might be fortunately, don’t you think? It mixes it up on the record in an interesting way. I think Paul shares with you the idea that when you start a piece, it’s going to be a new event.

Lee: He certainly does do that, yes—changing into more of a percussionist than a timekeeper, he certainly opens up all those possibilities. I should remind you that Paul used to play sometimes with Tristano, so there’s a long history with him.

Ethan: Yes, he loved Tristano’s music.

Lee: I never heard that from him.

Ethan: Well, he’s a hard guy to get direct answers out of sometimes, but I know that he remembers those years fondly. He’s even quoted in print talking about how impressed he was with Tristano’s playing and also with you and Warne Marsh. He told me that one night playing with Marsh, he couldn’t believe what Warne was playing.

Lee: He could be unbelievable, I’ll tell you. Some of that is on that record with Jimmy Garrison and Bill Evans [Live at the Half Note].

Ethan: I think that’s one of the great records. It’s some of the best Bill Evans I’ve ever heard.

Lee: I agree with you. That record didn’t come out for many years, because they didn’t think it was good for Bill Evans.

Ethan: I much prefer that record to the Bill Evans record Crosscurrents with you and Warne, because it’s in the moment and you can tell that it’s not the piano player’s date. Everyone is just working to make the music happen at that moment. In fact, Bill sounds quite influenced by Tristano at times on that record.

Lee: I think that came out and it limited him a little, trying to live up to that standard. But I think his laying out for me was a pitch problem, because I was above the piano.

Ethan: Really? Maybe. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. You don’t sound sharp to me on that record. You know who sounds great on that record is Jimmy Garrison.

Lee: We didn’t talk about any tunes. We just played those lines and he just roared right through it. It was great.

Ethan: Yes, he’s fabulous.

Lee: Another situation with Lennie was with Art Taylor and Gene Ramey. I don’t think they discussed the tunes at all, and they were most respectful toward Lennie and me. Just wailed through it. You know that record, Confucius.

Ethan: Sure, because there are a lot of tunes on that session that didn’t come out at that time. We talked about Brad and Paul on this record. What about Charlie?

Lee: Charlie plays beautifully on this record. It’s the best soloing I can remember him doing. He really sounded inspired. He’s such a consummate player that sometimes it sounds like he’s playing what he really knows. But here it sounds like he was really improvising.

Ethan: He seems to respond to Brad’s freedom by just taking it out further. Like on “Solar,” it seems like it’s in tempo but by midway through Brad’s solo it’s completely dissolved.

Lee: Brad really thrived on that, he said.

Ethan: I’m impressed with Brad being able to go in there easily. I think all four of you are ready to take it a step further out at a moment’s notice, which is really a lovely way to play.

Lee: Charlie, Brad and I made a record in 1997 [Another Shade of Blue], and this is 14 years later and that really went a long way.

Ethan: It’s hard to believe it was that long ago. It feels like it was yesterday that the trio records came out.

Lee: We had very little opportunity to play together after that. We did a few concerts. I was always a little disappointed that that didn’t develop more, but I’m happy that we got together again. Now Paul doesn’t travel at all, so if there’s a chance to do some touring, we’ll have to get Jeff Ballard or someone else to do it.

Ethan: It’s true. Paul doesn’t even play in Brooklyn.

Lee: He said that once, that he had to go to Brooklyn and he wasn’t sure he could do that.

Ethan: Is there any direction you’d like to see this music go in?

Lee: In July I’m joining with the Minsarah trio and the WDR band in Cologne, and Michael Abene has agreed to reduce the band to more of a chamber type of band and have the quartet play the way we play. I insisted on that; then, hopefully, somehow connect with the written music. I’m looking forward to that project very much. He’s a real jazz musician. He sounded very positive when I explained what, more or less, I was hoping could happen.

Ethan: He’s a wonderful arranger, for sure.

Lee: I don’t know his arranging that much. I was with Paul Heller today and he plays saxophone in that band. And he really likes Michael very much and he is looking forward to this project also.

Ethan: Could we play some word association? I’ll say a name and you just react. Let’s go back to the beginning. Jimmy Dorsey.

Lee: Jimmy Dorsey, a really fine clarinet and alto player, was famous for “Oodles of Noodles.” He had a book that I would practice out of and one of the pieces was called “Oodles of Noodles” and I never forgot that title. He was also a great clarinet and saxophone player, both classically and with jazz.

Ethan: Frankie Trumbauer.

Lee: He was, of course, Lester Young’s influence and played beautiful C-melody saxophone. He and Bix Beiderbecke might have been the first cool jazz.

Ethan: Bix Beiderbecke.

Lee: Bix Beiderbecke was a great musician but unfortunately had bad habits and didn’t live long enough to really develop it. But he played beautifully on the trumpet and the piano.

Ethan: Duke Ellington.

Lee: Duke Ellington was a great bandleader. I don’t know who did all those arrangements. I can’t imagine Duke sitting there laboring over the arrangements. I know he had a staff of arrangers. Of course, Billy Strayhorn was a great partner. I think he did a lot of the composing and arranging, I would guess.

Ethan: What about Duke’s piano playing?

Lee: I enjoyed it, but he wasn’t my favorite piano player.

Ethan: Lester Young.

Lee: Lester Young was one of my favorite improvising musicians. Sometimes, when I would study and play along with him, I wished I was playing the tenor more. I tried and I did enjoy playing along. Just today I was listening to some of the records he made with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and they’re just beautiful. He’s my favorite, I would say.

Ethan: Roy Eldridge.

Lee: He was another one of my favorite trumpet players and probably the hottest player ever in jazz. He was a real singer, as Louis was. They played what they could sing.

Ethan: Benny Carter.

Lee: Benny was a beautiful musician. As I said earlier, getting to hear a bunch of songs I never heard before just in the last few days, I was so pleased to verify that. Before that I was always talking about a great solo he played on “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me,” with Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. That was a very brilliant solo. It didn’t sound improvised, but a beautifully composed solo.

Ethan: Charlie Parker.

Lee: Charlie Parker was the master of the alto saxophone in the ’40s. He was affected by the substances he used. I think that it kind of excited his music to a breaking point sometimes, but he was so brilliant that it was always musical. It ended up being stylistic. And I think he was stuck with that material. When he heard everybody playing and writing like him, he was obliged to reinvent himself. I think he was too sick to do that. So he left town, I think.

Ethan: Bud Powell.

Lee: Another great musician who was certainly influenced by Charlie Parker, but put it into piano music. He was also a troubled soul. Did I tell you the story about the Birth of the Cool band? Someone sent me a picture recently of Lennie, me and Billy Bauer, and in the picture, on the piano, was a baritone saxophone and a trumpet. Sy Johnson, the arranger, reminded me that I played in Lennie’s band and the Birth of Cool band that night. I had always said that the Birth of the Cool band only played one solid week, but it was one week and one day, I found out a few weeks ago. I heard that Bud Powell, who was in the Birth of the Cool band, played a great solo on “Move.” Afterwards, everybody congratulated him and he was sitting in a daze at the piano. Gerry Mulligan got up and very graciously embraced him and kissed him on the lips, and gently walked with him off the stage. I thought that was a very gracious thing to do.

Ethan: Any time Bud plays on those changes, you know it’s going to be great.

Lee: Lennie named his son after Bud.

Ethan: Lennie Tristano.

Lee: He was a brilliant player and a brilliant theoretician. And a brilliant teacher, as far as being able to treat each student individually and not just deal with the standard theoretical material—to encourage them to improvise. I am deeply indebted to that influence.

Ethan: Billie Holiday.

Lee: She was great even when she was at the end, when she was doing Lady in Satin. When she was singing with Lester Young and happily improvising the way she did, it was very unique and lovely.

Ethan: Did you ever play with Jo Jones?

Lee: I did one recording for Norman Granz with Jo Jones and Ray Brown in the rhythm section. Ralph Burns wrote arrangements for a variety of songs. I told Norman that I was under contract and couldn’t play a solo. And he said, “That’s OK, you can play a solo.” And I did. Have you ever heard that?

Ethan: No, I don’t think I have.

Lee: There are some nice things on it. It’s on a double-CD set with Jimmy Giuffre and the saxophone section. And the thing I did with Bill Russo’s string writing called An Image. And the piece that Jimmy wrote for himself and played on. And then there are some of those Ralph Burns arrangements.

Ethan: That’s a good name to ask you about. Jimmy Giuffre.

Lee: He was a beautiful musician. Someone said once that he was going to teach at a university, and they said, “I wonder who will teach the upper register?” That was when he was down at the lower register. He was a fine musician and I enjoyed having some situations with him.

Ethan: Paul Bley.

Lee: I haven’t heard about him recently. He was fun to play with, sometimes difficult to play with, but he tried to keep it fresh.

Ethan: You told me once that he could play a chord and you would immediately be somewhere else.

Lee: I would just hear a cluster, I would go. I felt like General Cluster.

Ethan: I wish there were more recordings of Paul Bley playing with Sonny Rollins.

Lee: I guess we all do. I went to hear them at a club at an afternoon session in San Francisco, when I was living there. Sonny hadn’t showed up, so Paul played a couple tunes. For some reason I had my horn with me; I don’t usually carry my horn with the intention of sitting in. I played a couple tunes with him, then Sonny came in and the next set he blew the house down. It was as free as you could be. I was hoping that it was inspired by what we were doing.

Ethan: I wish I could have heard that afternoon.

Lee: I don’t think anybody recorded that afternoon.

Ethan: As Eric Dolphy said, a lot of the best stuff is gone in the air. Originally Published