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Lee Konitz: New School

The saxophonist discusses his relationship with pianist, composer, and educator Lennie Tristano

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz (photo: Nick Ruechel)
Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz

(Excerpted from Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art by Andy Hamilton, University of Michigan Press, 2007.)

Lennie Tristano was one of jazz’s most remarkable innovators. A charismatic influence on a generation of mainly white players, the blind pianist had excellent technique and fertile musical imagination. His work was respected by many leading figures including Charlie Parker. Tristano was widely recognized as a compelling teacher, who demonstrated—against the accepted view up to that time—that jazz improvisation could be taught. Lee Konitz described Tristano as a “musician-philosopher” and a school of young musicians around Tristano became known as a cooler modern-jazz alternative to bebop, or at least an extension of it.

Tristano was born in Chicago in 1919. He was born with weak sight and became completely blind before being placed at the age of 15 in the Illinois School for the Blind. There he learned piano and also clarinet, alto and tenor sax, guitar, trumpet and drums. He began to work professionally at age 12, and entered the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, becoming a highly schooled musician with grounding in classical music as well as jazz. By 1943 he was teaching at the Christensen School of Popular Music in Chicago. His strongly held ideas on jazz improvisation, especially the need for rigorous construction above the creation of overt emotional effect, became the basis of the Tristano school. But although Tristano and Charlie Parker had a strong mutual admiration, critics soon began to contrast the former’s music as cool and cerebral. Konitz’s reminiscences paint a portrait of Tristano as a magnetic but troubled personality whose influence was a source of the saxophonist’s great originality, but which he eventually had to escape at some personal cost and with unresolved tensions.

Andy Hamilton: How did you meet Tristano?

Lee Konitz: I first met Lennie when I was playing with a dance band at a ballroom on the southwest side of Chicago. A friend of mine—a pianist named Joe Lipuma—was working at a pub across the street, the Winkin’ Pup. When I finished working I went over to hear him. The second band there was a kind of Mexican band, and Tristano was playing with them. I sat in with them, and spoke with him.

What struck you about his playing at that point?


He was playing a lot of locked-hands things, in the style of Milt Buckner—very interesting lines, really a very special conception. It didn’t quite fit the Latin context, but it was very hip!

When Tristano first heard you, you were playing tenor. He recollected that your playing was “horrible, atrocious.” He told you, “Forget the tenor, play alto.”

I don’t remember him suggesting that. To criticize me so strongly because I wasn’t cultivated yet doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe it’s a way of saying what a good teacher he was, to take [in and teach] a completely untalented guy. Whether he really made that quote or not is another question.

I think a lot of these interviews in the 1940s and 1950s—which quote you or Charlie Parker, for instance—put words into the musician’s mouth. As you say, if you were playing so horribly, why would he be interested in teaching you?


Well, he was earning his living from teaching, though I presume I was one of his earliest pupils. I was already improvising, without much knowledge. That’s what he liked about me, the fact that I was an improviser. The way I was playing then could be closer to the way a free improviser would play. I wasn’t sophisticated about changes or things like that.

What did studying with Tristano involve?

It was very basic theory. We went through the scales and chord sequences, and talked about music. He was a saxophone player originally, though no longer actively, but he understood how the saxophone worked. Most of all, he encouraged me to become familiar with the great players. It was my own sound that I developed first—though the sound can’t really be separated from the notes; it’s integrated with what you’re playing. But sometimes I could get a sound but not play an interesting phrase. I really looked forward to those weekly sessions. It felt like I was getting into another world, one that I wanted to get into. That was my first opportunity to really find out what it felt like to improvise, and that’s what Tristano was encouraging. Then I was able to play some situations in Chicago with him. The cocktail lounges, as we referred to them, had a lot of good music. I remember one place that had a revolving bandstand. There was a lurch in the stand, so every time we came to a certain place there was a little accent. I think I altered my phrases to accommodate that lurch!


What would a lesson be like—an average lesson, if there was such a thing?

It would mean playing a pattern of triads through the major and minor scales, and playing on a tune, and talking about and trying different sequences to experience different rhythm patterns—tapping three over two, or four over three, or five over four. Learning harmonic theory and conceptual training. Non-legato and legato articulations, accents, dynamics. Listening closely to the people who were serious players—I had to sing recorded solos—and talking about what was involved, besides hard work, in developing a meaningful expression.

Tristano played the tenor, and was playing it like Chu Berry early on, he said. I never really heard him play the tenor, except just briefly once. And he played Dixieland clarinet. Earl Hines was one of his heroes, and Art Tatum—the great pianists. He never talked about Louis Armstrong—he always started with Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian and especially Lester Young. [My composition] “Subconscious-Lee” began as one of the weekly [written] exercises. Tristano didn’t dwell on harmonic subtleties with me because I wasn’t that responsive—I didn’t play the keyboard at that time, I was a “one-note” guy. Warne started out on the piano.

It was unusual at that time for a jazz player to be taught more formally, rather than just hints and suggestions.


He was one of the first to get something together, to offer a course of study. Guys used to get together to practice and share their ideas, but this was kind of formal, and Tristano was the first to do that. As he mentioned in interviews, he learned how to teach through trying to communicate with the students. They gave him ideas, and in that sense I felt I was sharing in this process with him. I then started to teach quite early on, so I was also doing that, formally, before it was the thing to do in the school programs. Later, Muhal Richard Abrams functioned in that way as an inspiration to the young people in the AACM group. Barry Harris became a guru, and Sun Ra. Monk was also a guru to the people he played with, though he didn’t teach formally—and this was after Tristano.

In that situation, a great teacher is someone who has a strong creative vision, which they want to impart, but who recognizes the individuality of the student.

That was something he could do very well. Even though it was called a cult, none of his students really played alike. It was the opposite with Charlie Parker. No one really studied with Bird directly, but they all tried to play exactly like him. Bird’s phrases were so musical and so strong, that it was hard to vary them too much—for his imitators, it was satisfying enough to go through the motions.


The fact that Tristano was blind, what effect did that have?

The communication with a blind person goes through a higher level in some way. I was able to look in his eyes—he didn’t cover them—but there was just something extrasensory about it. Plus he was a great communicator; he really could make his points! He was very articulate, very well-read, and very opinionated, with a great sense of humor.


Yes. That’s where the cult idea came in, because people were really inspired by this man, parading around feeling they were kind of esoteric and special, which in part was true, since they shared his vision, too. A group of us were devoted to Lennie, and his example—the way he lived his life, the way he played, his great ability to hear and direct each of his students in a meaningful way.


What was the opinion of the bebop players about Tristano and his students?

They were curious. Bird certainly was curious, and Dizzy. Mingus would hang out with Lennie. They could hear something of importance. Lots of people came to study with him to find out what he was talking about—Bud Freeman, Phil Woods and later Alan Broadbent, Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach.

There was a feeling that he was the “witch doctor,” as Al Haig put it.

A lot of people caricatured him in one way or another. People who knew him casually, or didn’t know him at all, just judged him on the basis of his students’ behavior. Warne and I were not exactly show people—none of us were, really—and we must have looked and sounded weird!


You didn’t look like a hip bebop combo—you looked geeky, nerdy.

Yes, compared to all the hippest black musicians. I had my thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and Lennie was blind…. Warne didn’t look weird. We were last on that opening night at Birdland [Dec. 15, 1949], after Bird and Lester and a whole long list of bands—we were supposed to be the most modern, and we were, I guess. I’d love to hear that whole program again!

The impression I’ve got from you is that Tristano was also quite a difficult man.

He certainly was not difficult for me to get on with, during the course of my student and playing relationship with him. It got difficult after I left, a little bit.


Tristano was such a strong personality, there’s a danger of being dominated.

Yes, I felt that in many ways, with Tristano as a father figure. That’s what I really had to get away from eventually. But he certainly convinced me that, if I could deal with it, music was an honorable pursuit.

He provided a necessary corrective to an even more inconsequential figure, though—Charlie Parker.

Yes, probably so. But there was an identification with a white Italian-American rather than an African-American—that had something to do with it. I never felt like I fit in that area. Generous and hospitable as Miles Davis was, and Charlie Parker was always great to me, I didn’t really play with those guys that much, regrettably. Since that time with Tristano I’ve hardly studied formally. In all these years, I’ve felt that was enough information for me to continue to review, and try to absorb—which feels strange to me when I hear about all the formal studying that some people do. Compared to them I’m basically an autodidact.


It’s a paradox. Tristano taught formally, and yet the students didn’t play like him; Charlie Parker never intended to teach anyone, and yet his followers all played like him.

Bird’s ideas were taken really literally, and Tristano’s were more suggestions that could be developed in different ways. I can only think that the opportunity to speak about the music would have something to do with that.

Playing with Tristano

In his early career, Konitz worked mostly with Tristano’s groups. He began performing occasionally with the pianist during 1946 at Chicago venues. Tristano then left for New York City. When Konitz followed him in 1948, he found the jazz scene on 52nd Street very exciting, and heard Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. However, he soon began to acquire a reputation as the leading stylistic alternative to Parker for modern-jazz alto players. Reunited with Konitz, Tristano’s group expanded into a quintet, and then a sextet from 1948 with the addition of a new pupil, tenor saxist Warne Marsh. After some club appearances, the group had its first recording session in January 1949, which featured highly intricate original lines on standard material, including the first appearance of Konitz’s composition “Subconscious-Lee,” based on “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” and Tristano’s “Judy,” based on “Don’t Blame Me.” Then, in May 1949, a few weeks after recording with Miles Davis’ Nonet, Konitz was a member of Tristano’s sextet for the historic first recordings of free jazz, subsequently released as “Intuition” and “Digression.” Later, in 1949, Tristano’s group toured the Midwest and performed at Carnegie Hall. They appeared on the opening bill at Birdland, the club named in honor of Charlie Parker, on Dec. 15, 1949, in a show called “A Journey Through Jazz,” and stayed there for five weeks. However, between 1949 and 1955, while Konitz was becoming a prolific recording artist, Tristano and Marsh made few recordings, even fewer of which were issued at the time. Sidemen included the great modern-jazz drummers Roy Haynes and Kenny Clarke.


In 1951 Tristano opened his studio at 317 East 32nd St. in New York, meant to be the start of a music school, but it closed in 1956. There he made his first experiments in overdubbing: “Pastime,” “Ju-Ju” and “Descent Into the Maelstrom,” precursors of the better-known pieces on Lennie Tristano (Atlantic), which Konitz discusses below. In 1952 the quintet performed a concert in Toronto, and then Konitz left to join Stan Kenton. He rejoined in 1955, and the live recording at the Confucius Restaurant, New York, was released, together with some of Tristano’s multi-tracked pieces, as Lennie Tristano.

He did not play in a club again until 1958-59, when a quartet and then the quintet with Konitz and Marsh were re-formed at the Half Note. They were recorded there in 1959, but with Bill Evans substituting for Tristano, and worked at the club again in 1964—Konitz’s last collaboration with Tristano. During the 1960s Tristano devoted himself to teaching, and played in public less and less. When he did so, it was either solo or with Sonny Dallas on bass and Nick Stabulas on drums. The New Tristano for solo piano, Tristano’s last major recording and a further radical development of his art, appeared in 1962; in 1965 he toured Europe playing solo, and appeared in Berlin in a televised “Piano Summit” with Bill Evans, Earl Hines and others. In the 1970s he became ill and reclusive, and died in 1978.

Andy Hamilton: Tristano encouraged an approach different from the beboppers—more of a continuous flow with subtle rhythmic injections.


Lee Konitz: I think we were less “obvious” in many respects. The feeling for the musical line was very legato, with accents, breath or tongue, to flex it as much as possible. But it was as strong and intense as we could make it at any given moment. It wasn’t my goal to be subdued, laid-back. I wasn’t trying to establish that kind of a mood or anything. On a ballad, you know, the tendency is to get more into that kind of an area. But for the tempo pieces, I intended to play as intensely as possible.

This music gave us an opportunity to express ourselves. All the secondary considerations between black and white, hot or cool, rich or poor or whatever, happened after the fact that we were given a gift to work with, and were trying our best to do it well.

You’ve objected to the word “cool” as a description of your style.


I feel that in a positive way that’s a great description. If you’re talking about cool, you’re talking about Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker—all the people who could really play unaffected music. When it became affected—trying to be emotional or funky, trying to be something other than natural—then it became “hot.” But the real music was cool and really thoughtfully felt. The negative connotation is what was really used on us, as white un-passionate players. I didn’t appreciate that.

So “cool” was meant to imply a lack of intensity.

In the negative context, it definitely meant that—as opposed to Charlie Parker and Art Blakey, and whoever played the so-called black hot music. As a band, we were referred to as “The Six Blind Mice” sometimes. That was about as negative as you could get. We were trying to play the tunes that Charlie Parker was playing, standard tunes usually, and we wrote lines on those progressions—that’s all we played with Tristano. It was in the tradition of bebop, but hopefully an extension in some direction: longer lines or more harmonic additions, and rhythmic differences.


You think that “cool” is a reverse-racist putdown?

Surely. [Hot and cool] are loose terms. I’m not trying to play cool, I’m trying to play as hot as I can—and as cool as I can, as full of feeling as I can.

It’s often said that your music is “cerebral.”

I reject that entirely. I’m playing very intuitively, at best. Can you be an intuitive cerebralist, or cerebrally intuitive? If you’re intuitive, that means you’re not using your thought processes in some way.


When people say that your playing is cerebral, what do you think they mean?

They mean there’s no deep feeling. It’s thought-out and mechanical.

But if you ask these critics, “So you think the playing isn’t spontaneous?” I’m not sure what they’d say. It doesn’t make sense, really. They must think, “This guy isn’t feeling anything, because he hasn’t got sweat pouring off him, and he’s not making a lot of noise or moving around a lot.” But you can feel intensely, without giving all these manifestations of it.

“Thoughtful” is more of a positive observation, “cerebral” sounds negative. But I sweat sometimes, too!

People seem to believe that either you’re someone who thinks deeply or someone who feels deeply, you can’t be both. That’s wrong.


I hope so! The great players were very deeply in touch with their thoughts and feelings.

So you can be “cerebrally intuitive”!

“Intuitive” means you don’t really have a plan—starting to play, and with intense concentration putting one note after another. I really want to make that clear, about my approach to this music.

Because sometimes it’s embarrassing for me to admit this, but I don’t have a plan, usually. It’s become so habitual, I guess, that I just pick up my horn every day and start to play. And the process of playing will suggest things, and I’ll proceed from there.

“Cerebral” suggests a lack of feeling, and also conscious planning at every stage.


So that criticism always seems kind of strange to me. I was frequently inhibited in my playing, I can hear that—but then I was feeling frustration, or anger, or sadness.

You mean like on Live at the Half Note, when you didn’t feel you could play after Warne Marsh?

Yes—being afraid of high intensity. The fear of not being able to come up with something. I think that’s why a lot of people were surprised that I was able to play with Elvin Jones, because they didn’t think I could play with that kind of intensity. Me neither, I guess!

That might be a consideration. In fact there’s a further irony, because your music sounds “cerebral”—there’s no florid feeling—precisely because it isn’t consciously planned. Still, it’s going to take more effort from the listener.


This was definitely a showbiz consideration, in terms of communicating to an audience who might not know about the music. The fast tempos of bebop and very sensational double-time, etc., would attract immediate attention. I mean, that music was so highly sophisticated, it wasn’t like prostitution of the material certainly, but I always felt that sensational kind of aspect, and I realized the necessity for it. Whatever audience bebop got, which was certainly a small, limited audience, had to do in part, I think, with that kind of dynamic expression.

It’s striking how people are swayed by what they can see, the emotion in the player.

Of course. But you gotta do something when you’re up there. You’ve got to sweat, or gyrate, or play beautifully, or whatever you choose to do. Charlie Parker didn’t move a muscle when he was playing; he was like a statue. You’d see the little fat fingers just lifting up a little bit off the keys, and this dynamic stuff was pouring out of him. I never noticed him tapping his foot or anything. There was no wasted motion. That’s the most desirable way to me. But dance to your own music if it’s good music; that’s OK. You see Keith Jarrett going through those ridiculous gyrations, and playing great sometimes. Certainly, when he does a concert, 2,000 or more people come out to hear him. If singing along or standing up in the middle of a phrase helps that, fine. But he can play great, that’s the most important result. I’m not thinking of expressing sadness, or some picture-idea, or some way to make an emotional effect. When I play, I’m just thinking of playing a melodic succession of notes, with as accurate a time feeling as possible. I don’t feel very poetic. I hear of people seeing colors, or images, or some spiritual motivation. I’m just playing the music clear, warm and positive—that’s really my motivation.


I think that’s an important point—you’re not trying to create a mood.

No, not at all. When I play a ballad, and it sounds dead-ass or sad, I’m just trying to play a nice melody without forcing. When I hear Miles play that kind of thing, I think he is trying to make an effect. I just heard some early ballads that I did, that really sound very plaintive and melancholic. And I would bet that was one quality that Miles liked in my playing, that he also possessed.

Though as you said, he was aiming at that and you weren’t, particularly.

Yes, I was just trying to play, and that was the way it came out. I wasn’t trying to package it and sell it.


Was there actual hostility to Tristano’s music, or just indifference?

There was hostility and indifference. The criticism that it was like white European classical music wasn’t just from the writers—a lot of musicians were critical, too. Those that were critical were maybe the ones that Tristano was criticizing, who were out in the marketplace so to speak, being commercial, or trying to pay the rent.

Why do you think that Tristano didn’t get his due recognition?

Well, he was very critical and people criticized him in turn. And he was very petty, I think, about other people who were trying to do things differently. I remember him walking out in the middle of a Bill Evans solo in a little club in New York once. He stood up and we were obliged to stand up with him and leave. So there were ego problems there, and whatever else. He was a human being with frailties. But those that loved his music, and there were many, gave him his due recognition. He was very strong as an influence on me. But I was obliged, finally, to go out and think for myself, and I found out that I had to re-examine everything in some way.


You mean re-examine the way Tristano had influenced you.

To use the insight that he gave me to tap a more substantial place in myself, to find out what I was really hearing and not just doing things that I thought were the thing to do. But most of what he taught is still relevant to me.

But you drew away a little from your earlier style, in a way that Tristano didn’t like?

I left that situation to go and test my wings. I was no longer actively part of the group. And instead of encouraging me, they were putting me down for trying to do my own thing, which I was very disappointed about. That is supposed to be the last stage in the process: go off with blessings.

Do you feel you were belatedly finding things in Charlie Parker, that you were drawing on bebop more?

Not really, I was just trying to find out what felt comfortable to me. Playing with Tristano and Warne Marsh called for a certain discipline that I tried to accomplish. But left to my own devices, I was looking for what was more natural for me. I wasn’t trying to “break free” from Tristano as such, I was just trying to play what I could hear or feel. A lot of it meant getting more basic, and I’m still working on it every day, trying to find a phrase that sits in the right place and reverberates properly, comes from someplace and goes someplace. That’s a daily undertaking.

Tristano was very critical of most of the people that were out trying to perform, for good reasons sometimes, and not so good reasons other times. But he wasn’t out there where people could appraise him. He was home safely, studying and learning how to play. And he played great, you know. But he wasn’t willing to share it too much, except on a few records. I had the good fortune to work a lot, but Warne Marsh and a lot of his students were emulating him and not going out to work much, just practicing and teaching. And that’s not really where it’s at, I think. They were criticizing me for going out and playing with different people, and I thought, “Wait a minute. I’m out playing and they’re sitting home and criticizing me. There must be something amiss here.”

I’ve had to think about this quite a bit because of my respect for Tristano. Sal Mosca has followed Tristano’s way pretty much, as far as I know. I took some piano lessons with Sal. He gave up public playing for the most part in order to be a guru. And he was a great player, I think. And he criticized me for playing so much, with whomever. And I thought, “Am I prostituting my music by going out and playing it for people, and getting money for it? I’m playing the best way I know how to play, and trying to share it with others.” That’s still the name of the game.

It was an introverted kind of school.

Sure, ivory tower. But studying with Tristano and playing with him, I got a peek at what this world of jazz improvisation was really like, and how serious a procedure it is. I had no idea that so much was involved. And suddenly my life took on a very definite viewpoint that I’ve been able to follow to this day. I attribute that to the encouragement from Lennie. Finding a personal voice, so to speak, is the ultimate goal.

You’re really the opposite of Tristano in that you work in a huge number of situations, and he worked in very few.

Or not at all. So I go out and work with Italian musicians, with French musicians, and German musicians, and they can play pretty well these days, and I’m completely challenged. Obviously, over the years I haven’t had a feeling to have a band and travel with it, like Phil Woods has. I’m more lazy, maybe! And this is a very easy way for me to work. I just go by myself, and join these guys, and spend a nice time playing with them, and getting paid afterward, and I love it.

Your later relations with Tristano became difficult.

There was enough of the cult thing that seems inevitable with a strong leader, and I couldn’t identify with it. In the early ’60s I left New York—I was living in Tristano’s house—and went to California for a couple of years, with the intention of getting out of that environment, and seeing what was left after those years of being influenced by his very strong points of view.

That’s when I started to feel the friction; that I was like a traitor in some way. The encouragement that a student should have was not there at all. I heard that someone called Tristano once to get my number and he said, “We don’t mention that name here.” That was a very unfortunate reaction from him—I expected more than that. I think he was putting me down for leaving—like I broke up the band. But there was no band; we hardly worked. It was the art-for-art’s-sake path.

So what did he think you should do? Teaching?

Well, that’s the only other thing you could do. He knew that I had a family to support.

After you played with him for the last time in 1964, did you meet him again?

No. I spoke to him on the phone, one time in the ’70s, after not having communicated for years, about how George Wein wanted to devote an evening to his music, in Manhattan. Recently I discovered, from Connie Crothers, that he told her afterwards, “You’ll never guess who was on the phone!” He was smiling and happy. When she told me that, I just wept. George Wein wanted the whole group. First Lennie said we’d have to rehearse for a couple of weeks, and I said fine, and then he decided he couldn’t do it. I found out later that he just hadn’t been playing—he wasn’t well.

Was he jealous of your success, maybe?

Well, I saw that he had an ego problem. But I don’t think he was jealous. I think he was as close to being a purist as you could be, and what I was doing was not purist to him.

Could you sum up Tristano’s most important influence on you?

Tristano demonstrated for me the seriousness of trying to really play some personal music. When he was really playing his best, it was very inspiring. But his music was a little bit over my head in a way. I tried to get with him, but I didn’t feel that comfortable, frequently, playing at that intensity and those long lines that came out of the written kind of things that we did. I was very pleased to have discovered my profession, and have it recognized early on. I thought it was going to continue to grow, but it went its way after a few years. My feeling during that time was very positive, that I had chosen the right profession. But sticking with it over the years, I’ve had pretty full satisfaction, and I’m still going strong.

Note to Note: A Lennie Tristano Listening Guide

Intuition (Proper) – Tristano is featured in 1947 on his very advanced originals, some of which include clarinetist John LaPorta.

Crosscurrents (Proper) – Lennie Tristano’s classic 1949 recordings are on this definitive CD featuring Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and guitarist Billy Bauer. Cuts include “Wow,” “Sax of a Kind” and the earliest two examples of free improvisations in jazz.

Wow (Jazz) – This is a rare 1950 live set featuring Tristano’s sextet with Marsh, Konitz and Bauer.

Lennie Tristano/The New Tristano (Rhino) – Tristano is heard on adventurous piano solos from 1962, a live set with Lee Konitz in 1955 and four studio numbers from ’55 which, due to some overdubbing and manipulation of tapes, were considered very controversial at the time.

-by Scott Yanow Originally Published