October 13, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois
Saxophonist Lee Konitz rose to fame in the 1940s by being the only alto saxophonist who played in a style that wasn’t strongly influenced by the bebop of Charlie Parker. But Konitz’ reputation was not limited that of a contrarian. From his early days with pianist Lennie Tristano and saxophonist Warne Marsh, he proved himself as an innovator who sought new ways to approach harmony, melody, and rhythm in his improvisation. He has performed actively since, and now in his 80s, he remains one of the foremost jazz saxophonists.
As a child, Lee Konitz was drawn to the sounds of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s big band, whose swing
music filled the radio waves in the 1930s. Konitz began playing the clarinet, but later switched to tenor saxophone. At age 18, he began playing in a Chicago dance band led by clarinetist Jerry Wald, who offered him the job on the condition that he would switch to alto saxophone.
To Bop or Not to Bop:
Around this time, Konitz also met Lennie Tristano, the pianist who would later help propel the young alto player’s career. He also played a briefly in Claude Thornhill’s big band, in which he was exposed to the harmonies of arranger Gil Evans. Tristano, Thornhill, and Evans each played a part in the development of “cool jazz,” which was defined by its subtlety and introspectiveness, setting it apart from bebop.
In 1949, before his 22nd birthday, Konitz moved to New York to pursue a performance career. At this point, bebop
was reaching its peak, with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie
, and others playing breakneck tempos and melodic lines brimming with intensity. Konitz performed music of a different sort. He joined the nine-piece ensemble led by Miles Davis
, which recorded the music that was later released under the title Birth of the Cool
(Capitol). The music on this record is laid-back, delicate, and colorful (due to its instrumentation) than most bebop.
The Tristano School's Influence:
Konitz also performed regularly with Lennie Tristano, who mentored Konitz and other musicians in jazz and classical harmony, and encouraged melodic and rhythmic experimentation. It was partly due to Tristano’s teaching that Konitz developed the skill to posit a style that rivaled Charlie Parker’s in terms of virtuosity, and yet differed from it in inflection. The sound of Konitz’ early playing is characterized by its dry tone, and light, buoyant melodic phrases.
Coming Into His Own:
In 1952, Konitz joined Stan Kenton’s big band, in which he developed a darker, fuller tone, one that allowed him to eventually distance himself somewhat from the cool jazz school. After his involvement with Kenton, Konitz began to tour and record as a leader, and as a sideman with musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Martial Solal, Jimmy Giuffre, and countless others.
Jazz Through the Decades:
In the following decades, Konitz experimented with various styles and genres. His 1961 record Motion
(Verve) features the bombastic drummer Elvin Jones, best known for his fiery drumming in John Coltrane
’s classic quartet. Starting in 1967, He began recording duets with a series of instrumentalists, during which he explored everything from Dixieland music to free jazz
. By the 1980s, he had built a large following in Europe, where he continues to travel often to perform and teach.
At 81 years old, Lee Konitz’ sound is as strong as ever, and he injects vitality into groups with musicians a quarter of his age.