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Sons of Miles
LEE KONITZ: 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.

Lee Konitz

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.

Photo: Lee Konitz.
Credit: Christian Rose

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