Somebody once asked Miles Davis why he had hired a white man to play in his band. Miles’s answer: “I don’t care if he’s orange, man, just so he can play.” The white man was Lee Konitz; the year was 1949.
A great alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz worked with Miles Davis’s Capitol recording group in 1949-50. It was about the same time when Konitz began his long association with pianist Lennie Tristano. The elusive Tristano said of Lee Konitz: “One of the great differences that Lee always had, is that he’s always had to do many different things, like playing with Kenton, for instance.”
Konitz, who had spent so much time playing with the barrier-breaking and highly experimental Tristano, did indeed join Stan Kenton’s big band for a year in the early Fifties. Although many purists thought he was “selling out,” Konitz said: “It knocked me out that he called me. I’d had a childhood thing from seeing him in theaters. I never cared for the music too much, but it always was an exciting kind of presentation. Also it meant a steady job.”
Konitz has mostly had his own bands over the years, although he was reunited with Tristano for nightclub work in 1959 and again in 1964. Konitz spent several years in the Monterey Peninsula area of Northern California, teaching and playing occasionally.
“[Konitz] was the first jazzman,” wrote Barry Tepperman in Coda magazine, “to construct solos primarily through the use of tension and energy, much as many members of the current musical generation have done. He built fast-paced lines with an irresistible propulsion, speaking through a very acute and often unconventional use of harmony, phrasing, and counterpoint, creating and resolving tensions between the lines he built with each hand and those of his accompanists.
“Konitz learned his own form of drive, a lanky, free-flowing swing. He learned to play with sounds, with rhythms, and he expanded a limited, ironically closed style into a universal voice. Konitz became truly a self-sufficient artist, one of those rare strongmen who needs only his own horn and his own head to say-eloquently-whatever he intends.”
There are four albums by Lee Konitz in the Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone catalog. They are timeless, unique contributions to jazz, easily worth listening to today.
Satori features Martial Solal on piano, David Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. The four musicians also wrote the title track. Producer Dick Katz plays electric piano on one cut.
Today Lee Konitz leads an interesting and full life in Manhattan. He plays Mondays and Tuesdays at Gregory’s, a pub on First Avenue and 63rd Street, and on Wednesdays and Thursdays at Strykers on West 86th. Konitz also teaches a number of students privately, and gives classes at the Turtle Bay Music School in Manhattan.
“Of those who came up in the age of Bird,” remarked Gary Giddins in the Village Voice, “Konitz developed the most distinctive approach to the alto after Charlie Parker himself. He is vibrant, lyrical, thoughtful, and soulful. . . .”
Perhaps Gunther Schuller summed Konitz up best in his liner notes to The Lee Konitz Duets:
“Lee Konitz is many things. He is a veteran of the original bop revolution of the early and mid-Forties. He is that rarity, a stylistic innovator whose original contribution some twenty years ago consisted of fusing the musical conceptions of Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano. . . . He is also another rarity-a totally dedicated musician, uncompromising and tenacious in the face of adversity, a man who has not lost faith in the original idealism that generated the excitement and ferment of the early bop days, and first drew him to jazz.”