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.
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."
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:
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
them, discovering new resources, he thought that no amount of
traveling or physical pain could ever deter him from the pleasure of
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.