Friday, July 3, 2015

Lee Konitz

As long as there are people trying to play music in a sincere way, there will be some jazz.

He was a good looking guy, a little inebriated but carrying it well in his athletic frame.  He was around thirty, had Gallic features, and was wearing chinos with a slightly worse-for-wear cotton dress shirt.  He wasn't wearing a tie, none of the young men in this place did, and he hadn't shaved for a day.  Still, given he was in the company of some rather strange, and also inebriated, men, he stood out.

Mainly it was because he was standing in front of the saxophonist who was on the stage and looking at him like he had just seen the face of God and lived.

As the dumb-struck man was a writer and in the midst of a colossal block that had prevented him from progressing on a novel that was, at that point, rather prosaic in its narrative style, he had gone with friends to Birdland, the famous jazz club, to forget about sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, and character development for a night of music, wine, mad dancing and wildness.  While not specifically looking for inspiration, the writer found it while listening to this week's person and, in so doing, would make literary history.

Lee Konitz is a jazz saxophonist; he plays the soprano, alto, and tenor saxes, although generally prefers the alto when he still performs, now at the age of 87.  While there are other musicians who have tragic childhood tales of daunting, even terrifying, experiences, Konitz was born in Chicago in 1927 to middle-class Austro/Russian emigres and raised to respect learning and labor.  Again, unlike a surprising number of other musicians, he could read music and transpose in his head, and was trained in composition and music theory.  He enjoyed the music of the big bands that he would hear on the radio, wanting nothing other than to compose and play with such organizations.  Because his favorite was Benny Goodman, he requested the gift of a clarinet from his parents.  Shortly afterwards, he would switch to the other woodwind and prove so adept that he was able to improvise even before he learned to match the fingering to the printed notes.

At the immediate conclusion of the Second World War, the teenage Konitz found himself performing with a variety of standard jazz bands, although he was becoming very attracted to the newness and freedom of the jumpier, improvisation-based jazz known as bebop that was being pioneered by many of the younger musicians, especially Charlie "Bird" Parker.  By 1947, he was playing compositions by the jazz great Gerry Mulligan and arrangements by Gil Evans.  After proving his chops with this formidable group, Konitz was asked by Miles Davis to sit in with his combo and attempt something radically new. 

From 1949 to 1950, Konitz, along with Mulligan, worked with Davis to record the songs that would eventually be included in 1957's Birth of the Cool, one of those albums that is always on the list of essentials.  As jazz, like sermons, is a form of proclamation, its product is best honed when played live before an audience, so both musician and listener form a moment of artistic Gestalt.  So, Davis, Konitz and their compatriots made the rounds of jazz clubs, becoming popular especially at New York's Village Vanguard, Blue Note, and, of course, Birdland.

Which brings us to that moment of wonder for the novelist and the saxophonist, where the interplay of horn and woodwinds brought him his moment of epiphany.

The novelist was Jack Kerouac and the manuscript which had been so vexing him would one day be entitled On The Road.  Of that moment in October of 1951, Kerouac would later write, "The tune they were playing was All the Things You Are . . . they slowed it down and dragged behind it at half tempo dinosaur proportions-changed the placing of the note in the middle of the harmony to an outer more precarious position where also its sense of not belonging was enhanced by the general atonality produced with everyone exteriorizing the tune's harmony."

Well, it meant something to him, anyway.

While Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman are all better-known, Konitz played with and outlasted them all; he was playing at the Blue Note just a couple of years ago.  Beyond his influence on Kerouac, Konitz also influenced three generations of musicians with his original compositions and imaginative takes on American standards.  In fact, he is now so well-regarded that a couple of young saxophonists recently told me that they no longer wish to play like Parker, but like Lee.  In fact, what they said to me was, "Charlie who?"

Here, enjoy some more, won't you?