Lee Konitz Interview.

Discussion in 'Jazz / Commercial' started by dbacon, May 14, 2005.

  1. dbacon

    dbacon Mezzo Piano User

    Oct 24, 2003
    Scottsdale, AZ.
    How To Get Away From Fixed Functions
    by Mike Zwerin
    27 August 1998

    On a bleary Sunday morning in the Gare de Lyon Metro station in Paris, I looked through the graffiti on the window of my over-heated car and saw Lee Konitz trudging along the platform with suitcases and saxophones. I waved but he was too busy with the load to see me.

    When I told him the story later, he laughed and said: "Once I was trying to lift a big suitcase on the steps of a Wagon-Lits and some lady said, 'Can I help you?' I thought... Thanks a lot. Get out of here. When I need your help I'll be ready to quit the road."

    Ask Lee Konitz what he's selling after he says he's on the road nine months a year "like a traveling salesman" and he replies with a sly smile:

    "Eighth notes."

    Who needs eighth notes anyway?

    "Everybody needs that stuff." He was emphatic.

    After more than 50 years in the note business, he described himself with as much astonishment as pride: "I guess I've earned the right to say it by now, I'm a professional improviser."

    He is one of the few improvisers remaining who, like the late Stan Getz, are immediately recognisable by their sound. It was first heard in the '40s with the off-the-wall dance band led by Claude Thornhill playing Gil Evans arrangements of Charlie Parker tunes.

    With the passing of time, his emotional, fragile, upper-partial, behind-the-beat sound and style became more familiar if not closer to the wall; with Lennie Tristano, the Miles Davis's "Birth Of The Cool" nonet, Stan Kenton, as leader and sideman with formations, often in Europe, too numerous to mention.

    Konitz continued cutting down note production, moving slowly but inevitably to the minimal essence; like the ageing Matisse, learning about space. It would be more accurate to say that he began to peddle quarter notes rather than eighth notes. Less notes.

    Both style and sound were obviously "white." So, in any case, it has been said. The word requires quotation marks. Miles who was kind to Konitz in his autobiography, defines playing behind the beat as a "white" characteristic. One of the few altoists of his generation not to be overwhelmed by Charlie Parker, Konitz was a major influence on Paul Desmond and Art Pepper, both of whom were also said to sound "white."

    "It's a pain in the neck," he sighed. "I've been apologizing in some way for not being black all my life. Like am I bluesy enough to be authentic? In fact, I'm just playing variations on a theme. They are neither black nor white. I hope they are beautiful, and I think I'm getting better at it."

    In the early 1990s, "one door closed and another opened" when the director of the Danish Jazz Society called him at home in Manhattan - it was two days after his wife of 32 years died - with the news that he had won (the first white winner) their prestigious "Jazz Par" prize. The prize included $35,000, a concert tour and a recording. Coming when he was very down, it meant a lot: "It was a sort of justification of my entire life view."

    Peers with more zap like Gerry Mulligan became stars while Konitz went his quiet way through lean decades. Although he ironically attributed it to his being a survivor - "people want to make sure to hear me one last time" - business got to be extremely good. He played the club Birdland in New York to SRO. In Christchurch, New Zealand, people paid $40 a ticket to hear him. In Paris, he attracted profitable business during a five-night stand in the fancy supper club Alligators.

    He speaks like he plays, with modest lucidity. "I'm still no virtuoso. There are kids who can blow rings around me technically. But the reviews have been marvelous. An Australian critic wrote - oy vey - 'he's the kind of guy you'd want to meet at a barbecue,' which I guess is a compliment."

    Along with tenorman Warne Marsh, Konitz was part of the school spawned by the blind pianist Lennie Tristano, who was "a guru to the point where I could still, 40 years later, recognize sonebody who studied with him by the way they walk down the street. I finally had to leave that situation because I came to mistrust the cult thing. I had to find out how all that education would evolve for me personally."

    He also left Scientology. A loner involved in a collaborative art who insists upon the psychic insecurity of totally spontaneous creation must feel a periodic need for the security of numbers.

    He traveled alone picking up local rhythm sections because he could not afford to bring his own band. There were compensations. "I guess you can say," he said, with that sly smile again, "that it's the difference between a productive marriage or having a new woman every night. I find musicians everwhere willing to reach out in my direction to try to find new compositional forms. Nobody prevents me from playing the way I like. Since I always prefer to start from scratch, playing with strangers is an advantage in a weird sort of way.

    "As soon as I hear myself playing a familiar melody I take the saxophone out of my mouth. I let some measures go by. Improvising means coming in with a completely clean slate from the first note. The process is what I'm interested in. You can turn the most familiar standard into something totally fresh. The most important thing is to get away from fixed functions."

    He maintained his sanity on the road by composing in hotel rooms and considering the physical strain of travel as though it were exercise. Something like jogging. The rewards are great. Early the morning after playing a hotel in south-west France, he rode two hours in a taxi to Bordeaux, took a plane to Nice, flew to Rome, missed the connection to Catania in Sicily, and had to wait for the next flight hours later.

    He was met by a car and driven to a town square where a lot of elderly people were sitting patiently waiting for the jazz to begin. There was a full moon and (grotesquely underrated Italian pianist) Enrico Pieranunzi's trio was in place on the bandstand in front of a church.

    Playing with them, discovering new resources, he thought that no amount of traveling or physical pain could ever deter him from the pleasure of doing this.

    Saxophonist Benny Carter is over 90 and still improvising. Consequently, Konitz figures he's got 20 years ahead of him. He met pianist Peggy Stern. They played duets and then found out that "we were able to communicate in some very nice ways. Many ways. I thought, my goodness, is this still possible?" He rejoiced in his new relationship.

    But he feels the weight of a 71-year-old body. How does he take care of it? "I tap dance a lot," he said.
  2. TangneyK

    TangneyK Pianissimo User

    Nov 10, 2003
    Phoenix, AZ
    Thanks Dave. I can always count on you for a great post.

  3. dbacon

    dbacon Mezzo Piano User

    Oct 24, 2003
    Scottsdale, AZ.
    Hey Chops, are you back in Germany?

    When you get out, go see Pat Harbison at Indiana.

    Do not pass go, collect your pay and check out I.U.!!

    Still live in the same place, teaching in the same Middle School!

    Drop by when you hit state side, I'll buy the first round....coffee!!

    I'm recording a CD with Ted Goddard this summer, lot's going on even though it's 112 already. Just like Iraq, but no Starbucks there.....
  4. bluespeak

    bluespeak New Friend

    Apr 3, 2006
    Lee Konitz

    Thank you so much for your piece.

    I saw a lot of Lee Konitz back in the 1970's. He used to play a small club on First Avenue in New York City called Gregory's. The bar was tiny, and he played with a pianists and bassist -- and no drummer 'cause the bar didn't want to get in trouble with NYC's cabaret laws.

    He played a couple of nights a week -- and each set was more magnificent than the next. At that time in NY there was very little jazz -- the scene was mostly punk, so the chance to sit a listen to two or three sets a night nursing a couple of drinks was really something.

    Lee was recording his redux nonet albums at the time which made it exciting because he'd transpose his nonet licks into a trio setting.

    If you can find albums from that period, they are really worth listening to.

    All the best.
  5. Deecy

    Deecy Pianissimo User

    Aug 8, 2005
    Not to be immodest but I know Lee Konitz quite well and have spent many a happy hour in his company. (I was his doctor too, until I retired. And studied with him.) I haven't seen or heard from him in a while and pray that he's still well and kicking.
    A couple of stories:
    Lee said he was asked to record the M. Davis tentette for the Library of Congress archives or some such, and he called Miles to get the arrangements and instrument parts. He said Miles told him he didn't know nuthin' about no MF'in arrangements and slammed the phone down. So Konitz laboriously wrote all the parts for every instrument and found nine other players to make the recording.
    Months later, when Miles found out about what Lee had done he said, "What a drag! Why didn't you call me? I've got all those mothers down my basement!" Davis lived in a brownstone on West 76th St, I think. My son who went to school across the street said he used to park his Ferrari in front.)

    One freezing day Lee and I were humping along a street in New York, noses running, collars up, and I said to him, "You know, Lee, music is going through my head 24 hours a day. I go to sleep hearing music and I wake up hearing music. Is it like that for you?"
    Lee said, "Yeah, of course!" or something to that effect. I said,
    "I told a friend about it one day and he thought I wasn't right in the head!" Lee said,
    "Man! It's no wonder I can't get a gig in New York!"

    And about the tap dancing - he actually does it. On a piece of thick plywood that he keeps in a closet in his apartment. He told an interviewer who asked him whether he had any use for Jamey Abersold's "music minus one" records that sure, he loved them because he could sing and tap dance to them.
    The interviewer thought Lee was joshing him and said so in a column.
    When he told me about it, Lee went over to the closet and pulled out a piece of heavy plywood threw it down and showed me.
    And! (Ahem!) He also had a flugel in the same closet which he blows now and again. I could be in error but it may have been a Courtois. I don't think he talks about it though.

    Some time ago I outlined Lee's approach to soloing here on this forum, a wonderful and simple method he taught me and which I employ to this day. Well, one night I went to the Blue Note to hear Lee, Bob Brookmeyer and a trumpeter whose ID I've forgotten. As usual, they took turns soloing, but on one tune Lee played the ensemble "head" with the others but when it came time for solos, Lee stood aside and didn't take a solo.
    When he came down I asked him why. He said that he had not worked out the tune in the usual way - hadn't learned the chord structure or worked up the tune in that vertical fashion he had taught me, and never would take a solo in public unless he had.
    It was a great reinforcement for all my hard hours of work.
    Hope you all enjoyed my little contribution. I just realized how much I miss seeing him.

  6. trpt2345

    trpt2345 Mezzo Forte User

    May 21, 2006
    Morelia, Mexico
    Love that interview, the bit about selling eighth notes on the road is classic.

    I had a lesson with Lee Konitz about 30 years ago, at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, Karl Berger's hippy-dippy jazz school where I met Konitz, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Stu Martin, Anthony Braxton, Kenny Wheeler, and the guy who was to become my real teacher, Sam Rivers. The lessons consisted of this: "Mr. Konitz, I want learn how to play jazz.""What's your instrument?""Trumpet" Pause. Long pause. "Learn five Louis Armstrong solos, five Lester Young solos, five Miles Davis solos, five Clifford Brown solos, and five Charlie Parker solos. Then come back." This was about 1975. In 1992 I was in New York at Visiones seeing Kenny Werner with Tom Harrell and Ratso Harris and Billy Drewes. Konitz was in the audience. On a break I went up to him and reminded him of the long-ago leasson which of course he had forgotten. "Well, I'm back", I said. "Well, you don't need me any more, do you?" he said. "Nope." Great guy, great player, great artist.
  7. trpt2345

    trpt2345 Mezzo Forte User

    May 21, 2006
    Morelia, Mexico
    I just learned that in conjunction with the Jazz Institute of Chicago Lee Konitz is going to do a workshop with my kiddie band September 1 where he will teach them an original composition which the kiddies will get to play on the Chicago jazz fest with Mr. K. It'll be a great opportunity to tell my story. And to showcase the band.

    Michael McLaughlin

    "Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage."
    Woody Allen

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