By Robert “Gabe” Gabrielsky
Lee Konitz was, with Sonny Rollins, one of the last of his great generation of jazzmen still swinging hard.
Lee Konitz, the alto player on Miles Davis’s legendary Birth of the Cool sessions, and one of the most distinctive alto saxophonists of the 1940s and ’50s, died this week at the age of 92. He was a progenitor of what has become known as the “cool school” of jazz, which is rooted less in blues than in European classicism. Konitz passed away from COVID-19 complications.
Konitz was born in Chicago in 1927, the child of Austrian and Russian–descended Jews. Like most young people of his generation, he was attracted to the big band swing of the era. He began to study the clarinet at age 11. In short order, he moved on to the tenor saxophone and ultimately to the alto. His first professional gig was with the Teddy Powell band in 1945, where he replaced veteran tenor player Charlie Ventura. In 1946 he began his association with pianist Lennie Tristano, with whom he would play on and off throughout the ’40s and ’50s. During that same period he played intermittently with the Jerry Wald band.
In 1947 Konitz came to national prominence as the featured soloist in the Claude Thornhill band. This was one of a handful of big bands in the late ’40s that experimented with adding instruments that at that time were more prevalent in contemporary European classical music. In the Thornhill orchestra, for example, the French horn and tuba were prominently on display. Key arrangements were by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan. The Thornhill sides were originally recorded as 78 rpm singles. They were collected later on CD; most of this material is available on Spotify or other internet audio outlets, such as iTunes. A representative example of Konitz’s work with Thornhill is his 1947 solo on Evans’s arrangement of “Donna Lee,” which was originally recorded by Charlie Parker. The tune was probably composed by Miles Davis.
In 1950, Davis put together a nonet that was essentially a pared-down version of the Thornhill band. It featured, in addition to Davis’s trumpet, Konitz on alto and Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax; the arrangements were by Evans, Mulligan, and John Lewis. The songs performed by this aggregation are the basis of the album Birth of the Cool, which was released in 1957, years after it was recorded.
In the early ’50s, Konitz joined the Stan Kenton band as featured soloist, a pairing that represented a tremendous departure in direction for both musicians. The brash, popular Kenton band — serving up bombast and sonorities — was the polar opposite of the Thornhill outfit. As Mulligan, who wrote for both bands put it, Kenton was Wagner in comparison to Thornhill’s Debussy. Somehow, Konitz’s playing stood up well, even when pitted against the Kenton behemoth of 15 horns. (I expect the improved recording techniques of the early ’50s were helpful in foregrounding Konitz’s solos.) The Kenton album on which Konitz is most prominently featured (on several tracks) is 1953’s New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm; the saxophonist’s most extensive solo is on “Improvisation,” a piece written by Bill Russo.
For much of his career, Konitz was directly associated with the extremely gifted pianist Lennie Tristano, who made a very conscious effort to rip jazz away from its African-American roots. Tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh rounded out the Tristano sound early on. Konitz’s recordings with Tristano are collected in an album entitled Crosscurrents, recorded in 1949 but not released on Capitol Records until 1972. The disc includes what is probably the first experiment in what came to be called free-form jazz: there were no agreed-upon chord progressions or even a key center. In the composition “Intuition,” for example, the musicians essentially just followed after each other as they noodled around.
My attraction to the Tristano sound began when I was a pre-adolescent watching the ’50s television variety show Your Show of Shows. Comedian Sid Caesar created an avant-garde jazz musical character called Kool Cees!, who was only marginally connected to everyday reality. Though a saxophonist, Cees was clearly modeled on Tristano. Caesar made me want to hear the music created by such a crazy character. I saw Tristano in 1959 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music in concert; Marsh was on tenor and Konitz was on alto sax.
The only other time I heard Konitz live was on New Year’s Eve in 1972 in the West Village at the Half Note café. I remember that the venue had a very good Italian menu and was very reasonably priced. Konitz had put together a really remarkable pickup unit that featured Zoot Sims on tenor and Jimmy Rowles on piano. I can’t recall who the bass player and drummer were, but they were major figures. The real treat was hearing Jimmy Rushing’s vocals.
It was the first time I ever heard Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” played. I didn’t know the tune or the title, but I asked Zoot about it between sets in the men’s room of the Half Note. And I do remember this: during his announcements, Konitz made a brief statement condemning the war in Vietnam.
In his long, distinguished career, Konitz played with everyone from Dave Brubeck to Ornette Coleman, from Charlie Mingus to Elvis Costello. At some point Konitz became a Scientologist. Did that have anything to do with his remarkable stamina and longevity? He was, with Sonny Rollins, one of the last of his great generation of jazzmen still swinging hard. Were it not for the pandemic, Konitz would still be with us.
Robert “Gabe” Gabrielsky is a lifetime socialist and political activist who has been a Green Party candidate for public office. A native of New Jersey, he lives now in Los Angeles.