In the 1920s and 30s it was the saxophone – and principally, the tenor – that established itself as the predominant frontline instrument in jazz, even pushing aside the clarinet (later to be discarded almost completely by the be-boppers, with a few exceptions such as Buddy DeFranco and Jimmy Giuffre).
Although there were truly great alto saxophonists in the pre-World War II era (Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter immediately spring to mind) it was with the advent of bebop that the alto saxophone really came to dominate jazz, under the all-pervading influence of the genius Charlie “Bird” Parker.
As with Louis Armstrong in the late twenties and early thirties Parker’s influence was both a blessing and a curse in that, if the alto was your choice of instrument, it was all too easy to fall completely under Bird’s spell and therefore difficult to escape the trap of becoming a mere imitator or clone.
As a result, some players, eager to establish their own musical identity, took a different route.
Lee Konitz (b. 1927) embarked from the start on a markedly different path, employing a lighter and more even tone with phrasing that incor-porated longer melodic lines. In an interview with Ira Gitler in the early 1960s Konitz remarked, “I avoided getting that familiar with Bird be-cause already there were all the Bird imitators”. In truth, Konitz was almost certainly more enamoured of Lester Young and, Hear Me Talk-in’ to Ya” was quoted as saying, “Then there was the sound of Lester on the old Basie records – real beautiful saxophone sound, pure sound. That’s it, for alto too.”
After a stint with Claude Thornhill’s band in the late 1940s he became a student of the controversial piano player Lennie Tristano (1919–1978) who, while devoted to Parker and Bud Powell, encouraged his pupils to develop their own styles and to avoid resorting to clichés and mere licks.
The recordings Konitz made for Prestige and Capitol with Tristano and tenor player Warne Marsh are impressive not just for the unison passag-es played by Konitz and Marsh (at times it’s difficult to discern who is playing, such is their like-mindedness) but also for the historically im-portant “Intuition” and “Digression”, performances that were complete-ly improvised with no pre-arranged melody, harmony or rhythm, ten years before the advent of Ornette Coleman and the free jazz move-ment.
Konitz also participated in the short-lived but legendary Miles Davis group that featured arrangements by Gil Evans and an unusual, for the time, instrumentation that included French horn and tuba and has since become known as the “Birth of the Cool” band. Konitz had worked with Evans when the latter was arranger for the Claude Thornhill band so was a natural choice for the line-up.
Although Konitz’s playing, with its lack of vibrato and his unwilling-ness to “emote”, could sometimes appear to be the antithesis of hard bob (as post-Parker east-coast jazz came to be known) he could never-theless play extremely assertively with a forceful swing that belied his reputation as a “cool school” player.
His period with the elephantine Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1953 strengthened his tone somewhat and, in a radio interview for the BBC some years back, he described his time with the band, and being a mem-ber of the largely brass-based organisation, by saying, ″playing in front of ten brass and a hard hitting rhythm section, you’d better take a deep breath as you’d be wiped out…” and, although he says he didn’t find the situation very pleasing he nevertheless managed to make a genuine con-tribution to the band’s sound; to my ears, he was like a glass of refresh-ing cool water after the heavy and sometimes overpowering heat of the Kenton brass section. In 23°N – 82° W, for example, he shines like a flashlight in the fog and his ballad features such as My Lady and Of All Things are performances of genuine beauty.
It was during his time with Kenton that he recorded with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in the studio and “live” at the Haig Club and his per-formances of “Lover Man” and “All the Things You Are” have been firm favourites of mine ever since I first bought the LP on the British Fontana label more than fifty years ago. In later years Konitz broke free from the Svengali-like grip of the Tristano school (in fact, it was said that he was ostracised and persona non grata in that circle as a re-sult of his supposedly selling out by joining the Kenton circus) and, af-ter making a series of recordings for Atlantic, in 1961 recorded the pi-ano-less album Motion – with Sonny Dallas on bass and Elvin Jones on drums – for Norman Granz’s Verve label. Here his playing is markedly different from his work with Tristano, perhaps influenced by Elvin Jones – at that time a member of John Coltrane’s group – whose com-plex drum style was in stark contrast to the self-effacing and undramatic time-keepers Konitz had favoured up to then.
In 1965 at a Charlie Parker Memorial concert Konitz took the stage alone and played a moving and thoughtful Blues for Bird preceded by a short story of a séance he’d attended at which they were able conjure up Jesus and Bird. “When asked what they should do, Jesus said, Pray! and Bird said, Play!” It’s a nice story and was followed by a moving performance lasting just over five minutes.
I managed to see Konitz play at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in 1976 where he was joined by his old Tristano associates Warne Marsh on ten-or, Englishman Peter Ind on bass and Al Levitt on drums. (On the even-ing of my visit, my enjoyment was spoiled somewhat when pianist and composer Michel LeGrand insisted on sitting in; sadly the collaboration was not a success). An excellent LP recorded at the club was issued on the Italian Pausa label but, alas, is no longer available.
Despite heart surgery Konitz is still active and manages to tour exten-sively throughout Europe, usually playing with local musicians. Alt-hough his playing is, understandably, more economical as the years take their toll and the energy of youth is dissipated, he remains inventive and enthusiastic, enjoying the company of younger musicians and earning their respect and admiration. After more than sixty years of playing, Konitz can relax in the knowledge that his contribution to jazz is firmly established. Next time, I hope to take a look at another post-Parker alto player, one who followed a different line from Konitz; Jackie Mclean. Until then, happy listening!
The Masters of Bebop – Ira Gitler – Da Capo Press 2001
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya – Shapiro and Hentoff – Rinehart & Co. 1955
“The Cool Mr Konitz” – BBC Radio documentary
Subconscious Lee (with Tristano) – Prestige 1949
Birth of the Cool – Miles Davis (Capitol)
New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm – Stan Kenton (Capitol 1952)
Kenton Showcase (Capitol 1953)
Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz – Midnight Session
Motion – Lee Konitz – (Verve 1961)
Blues for Bird – “Charlie Parker: 10th Memorial Concert” (Limelight 86017).
Lee Konitz Meets Warne Marsh Again (Pausa 1976).