Great jazz can be like a flurry of snowflakes. No two solos, or phrases, are alike, and the subtlest inflections attached to each note are one-of-a-kind. The greatest jazz players—the innovators—are also one-of-a-kind. Lee Konitz is this kind of player, a professional improviser on the alto saxophone for 50 of his 70 years. He has never been the hottest alto man or the fastest-moving. His impact on the scene has been glacial. In carving his own unique path, he has left the landscape of jazz permanently altered.
“There was a program at Lincoln Center,” recounts Konitz, sitting in an armchair in the living room of his Upper West Side apartment. “One of Wynton’s programs, with Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, and me, and Milt Jackson, talking about the ’50s. I mentioned something about paying lip service to creative approaches, but that if you really tried to do something different, you’d get put down like hell. Look at Ornette! Almost simultaneously, Phil and Jackie looked at me and said, ‘We hated you!’ I stood up and took a bow. I mean, I knew that. I hated myself, frequently, for not being part of their group.”