CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Superb-Lee: A JazzTimes Tribute to Lee Konitz (1927–2020)

Remembering the alto saxophone giant in his own words and those of our contributors

Lee Konitz
Lee Konitz at the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, Calif., November 1985 (photo: Brian McMillen – www.brianmcmillenphotography.com)

He was on the bandstand the night Birdland opened in December 1949. He was the last surviving participant in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool sessions, and in the only slightly less significant sessions for his mentor Lennie Tristano’s Crosscurrents. He was almost certainly—after Charlie Parker, of course—the most influential saxophonist of the 1950s, with a light, vibrato-less tone that still resonates in jazz today. Over a hugely prolific 75-year career, the distinctive blend of precision and soul that characterized his approach to improvisation entertained countless listeners and inspired countless musicians. And on Wednesday, April 15, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Lee Konitz died of pneumonia, with complications from COVID-19. He was 92.

JazzTimes has interviewed and written about Konitz many times through the years. Here are a few choice excerpts from past articles, both in his own words and those of our contributors.

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“There was a program at Lincoln Center. 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.” —June 1997

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No alto burner in the Bird-Stitt mode, Konitz luxuriates in melody and enjoys extrapolating on themes … And while his intonation may not always be laser-sharp, his singular alto voice contains the cracks and imperfections that made Billie Holiday’s and Miles Davis’ voices so poignant, compelling and human. —Bill Milkowski, November 2006

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

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

IVERSON: Ah, the good old days.

KONITZ: Yeah. Really old days, for me. —June 2011

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I’ve heard some folks carp about the lack of variety in Konitz’s repertoire, but I see it as an emblem of self-challenge—a strict poetic form against which he squares his creative license. I’ve heard Konitz play “Stella by Starlight” in person at least a dozen times, but not like he did at Newport [in 2014], with his phrases wheeling slowly toward resolution. At one point he took the saxophone mouthpiece out of his mouth but continued his improvisation, with an off-mic scat vocal just barely audible to those at the back of the tent. … [A] guy seated in front of me took out an iPad and pulled up the Lee Konitz entry on Wikipedia, shaking his head as he scrolled down the discography section for what seemed like an eternity. This was in keeping with the spirit of the set, a kind of magical mundane. —Nate Chinen, October 2014

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“I’m playing the most flexible instrument of all the instruments, and I’m trying to flex on it as much as possible.” —June 1997

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[On hearing Benny Carter’s “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” in a Before & After session] Schmaltz-o-rooney. Oh god. It might be good dance music, but I don’t feel like listening to this right now. I can’t imagine who’s guilty for that, but they had very serious intentions to reach the ladies. Music has many different functions and I don’t have time to witness all of them. —June 2010

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While there’s a sense of isolation, a stark loneliness, at the heart of his storytelling, he nonetheless basks in the intimacy of communication with his fellow musicians (and, by implication, with the listener), invoking a spirituality every bit as profound, if not necessarily as overt, as that of such free-jazz mystics as Coltrane, Ayler, and their latter-day disciples. —David Whiteis, January/February 2020

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“I would like to be a superstar and make all that money and travel first-class, but I haven’t quite made that. … I figured out a long time ago that I was going to win by default. I’d be the only one left: ‘Wow, he’s a great alto player!’” —June 1997

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“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. … 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. … 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.” —June 2007