Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Lee Konitz 1927–2020

A giant of the alto saxophone and a key figure in jazz history is dead at 92

Lee Konitz (photo by Joel A. Siegel)
Lee Konitz (photo: Joel A. Siegel)

Lee Konitz, an alto saxophonist whose 75-year career was both prolific and profoundly influential in the history of jazz, died April 15 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. He was 92.

His death was first reported on the Facebook page owned by Birdland Jazz Club in New York, and confirmed late in the evening of April 15 by his son, Josh Konitz, who spoke to National Public Radio. The cause of death was pneumonia, with complications from COVID-19.

Konitz was the last surviving participant in the Birth of the Cool sessions, the recordings that cemented trumpeter Miles Davis’ career and established the genre known as “cool jazz.” Konitz was a principal figure in that genre. He was also an important name in the then-still-new school of bebop, where he made a splash simply by developing a style that didn’t ape the sound or vocabulary of Charlie Parker. Indeed, after Parker, Konitz—with his vibrato-less, light sound that often resembled a soprano saxophone—was almost certainly the most influential saxophonist of the era. (The two were often portrayed as rivals, but were in fact close friends and mutual admirers.)

In addition, Konitz was the most significant and visible apostle of pianist Lennie Tristano, whose theories and experiments led to an alternative stream of bebop jazz that continues to resonate in the 21st century. Virtually his entire career was spent collaborating with an improbable variety of musicians in an equal variety of contexts. He was a teacher and mentor to several generations of younger players, including contemporary figures such as pianist Dan Tepfer; saxophonists Grace Kelly, Brad Linde, Ohad Talmor, and Mark Turner; and bassist Jeff Denson, whose former trio Minsarah became Konitz’s de facto band in the 2000s.

“I loved him … he was my mentor, hero, dear friend and like my surrogate grandfather,” says Denson. “He could be really tough at times (and sometimes in front of the audience) but he was very sweet too. I can’t overstate his importance to my musicianship and career.”

Leon Konitz was born October 13, 1927 in Chicago, the third of three sons to Jewish immigrants from Austria (his father Aaron, a laundry owner) and Russia (his mother Anna). At 11, fascinated by fellow Chicagoan Benny Goodman, Konitz began playing clarinet. A year later, he was inspired anew by Lester Young and switched first to tenor, then alto saxophone. (He would also eventually learn to play the soprano sax.)

Beginning his career in 1945 with a brief stint in Teddy Powell’s big band, he then worked for two years with Jerry Wald. In 1947 he joined Claude Thornhill’s orchestra. It was with Thornhill where he first gained attention, particularly with his daring solo on the band’s recording of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” It was also, fatefully, where he met the orchestra’s staff arrangers Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan.

Mulligan would recommend Konitz in 1948 to Miles Davis, who was forming a nonet to explore some classical-influenced concepts with Evans and Mulligan. Davis hired Konitz after hearing his lighter but nonetheless chance-taking tone and noting the rarity of an alto saxophonist at the time who didn’t attempt to sound like Parker. Their work together was documented on the 1949-50 sessions for Capitol Records that became known as Birth of the Cool. (Konitz recalled being surprised at Davis’ billing on the record; he had always thought it was Mulligan’s band.)

Also in 1949, Konitz appeared on what is generally regarded as cool jazz’s other foundational text: Lennie Tristano’s Crosscurrents sessions. Konitz had first met and worked with Tristano in 1946, and over the next several years he thoroughly absorbed the pianist’s theories about harmony, rhythm, and “pure improvisation.” They would continue to define his music for decades to come.

Cool jazz quickly became associated with the U.S. West Coast, and accordingly Konitz moved to Los Angeles in 1952 to join Stan Kenton’s band. After two years, he returned to New York, where he resumed working with Tristano and his associates, particularly pianist Sal Mosca and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh. However, he soon found the Tristano sphere to be restrictive, and worked to expand his horizons—becoming a prolific leader in his own right.

Although Konitz had been leading recording sessions since 1949, he began doing so with newfound determination on the 1956 quartet album Inside Hi-Fi. Thenceforth, he would lead hundreds of sessions—with duets, trios, quartets, big bands, and string sections, almost none of which lasted long enough to be considered working groups. He took a sabbatical from the jazz scene from 1961-64, during which he taught in California, and spent much of 1965-66 in Europe. When he returned to New York in 1967, he made an intriguing and often remarked-upon series of duet recordings with such musicians as violinist Ray Nance, guitarist Jim Hall, and valve trombonist Marshall Brown, who would become a longtime (if intermittent) collaborator.

Konitz enjoyed a restless 1970s and ’80s, during which he worked as regularly in Europe as in the United States; the latter half of the ’70s found him in one of his rare working groups, a quintet that reunited him with Warne Marsh, as well as with pickup bands, a nonet, and a newly regular series of duets. He also began experimenting in the avant garde, collaborating with Andrew Hill, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, and Derek Bailey.

Duo projects became increasingly common in the 1990s, as Konitz worked with a diverse swath of players from drummer Paul Motian to pianist Marian McPartland to trumpeter Clark Terry. He was awarded the Jazzpar Prize, a Danish award that was the self-described “Oscar of jazz,” in 1992.

He continued his exploits into the 21st century, playing and recording with everyone who would have him. If anything, his bookings increased: He worked intermittently in a quartet with Motian, pianist Brad Mehldau, and bassist Charlie Haden (as well as in a trio without Motian), and with pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner. In the late 2000s, the Europe-based trio Minsarah invited him to play with them, and that collaboration lasted for several years.

In his last dozen years, Konitz was most frequently in the creative company of pianist Dan Tepfer. The two worked in duo settings as well as with small and large bands and in orchestras. An appearance at the 2013 Winter Jazzfest in New York found Konitz and Tepfer performing with the Harlem String Quartet.

Konitz had no interest in retirement. Despite health issues, including a massive stroke that he suffered in Australia in 2011, he carried on intrepidly, celebrating his 90th birthday with a gala concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Noting that his old age found him busy as ever, Konitz remarked, “They all want to get me now, while I’m still around.”

In addition to his son Josh, he is survived by another son, Paul; three daughters, Rebecca, Stephanie, and Karen; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Read Ethan Iverson’s extensive 2011 JazzTimes Q&A with Lee Konitz.

Read the JazzTimes review of Konitz’s final studio album.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.