Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art

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The preeminent altoist associated with the "cool" school of jazz, Lee Konitz was one of the few saxophonists of his generation to forge a unique sound independent of the influence of Charlie Parker. In the late 1940s, Konitz began his career with the Claude Thornhill band, during which time he came into contact with Miles Davis, with whom he would later work on the legendary Birth of the cool sessions. Konitz is perhaps best known through his association with Lennie Tristano, under whose influence much of his sound evolved, and for his work with Stan Kenton and Warne Marsh. His recordings have ranged from cool bop to experimental improvisation and have appeared on such labels as Prestige, Atlantic, Verve, and Polydor. Crafted out of numerous interviews between the author and his subject, the book offers a unique look at the story of Lee Konitz's life and music, detailing Konitz's own insights into his musical education and his experiences with such figures as Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

About the Author:
Andy Hamilton teaches philosophy, and the history and aesthetics of jazz, at Durham University in the United Kingdom

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472115877
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 8/8/2007
  • Series: Jazz Perspectives Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

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Lee Konitz

Conversations on the Improviser's Art
By Andy Hamilton


Copyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03217-4

Chapter One

Early Life and Career

We begin with Lee's reminiscences of his upbringing in Chicago in the 1930s, and the influence of his Jewish family background. This material comes from my first extended interview with him, at his apartment in Cologne in 2000. He was a little reticent at first in talking about his parents, but there was a lot of feeling not far from the surface. He is grateful to them for encouraging his love of music, but they did not really understand jazz, and his love for it reinforced his alienation from traditional, observant Jewish culture. The effect of assimilation and the "melting pot" on the first generation in a new country meant that Konitz's attitude to traditional Jewish culture remained ambivalent—as it did with other Jewish jazz musicians and the great songwriters he most loves. John Zorn's short interview, in this chapter, gives a hint of the minefield of identity politics.

I have a few biographical questions and then some musical ones. It's a bit boring, but we'll start at the beginning.

Well, I hate to think of my life as being boring!

I mean starting at the beginning—and it might be boring for you to have to answer questions you've answered before.

Hopefully, with a little bit of different insight, each time is a little different. I don't have a lurid personal story to tell. My niece in Chicago just gave me a review of a recent book on Chet Baker, by James Gavin. And they [Gavin] tear him apart. I don't have any of that dramatic stuff. My pot-smoking would take up a couple of pages at best!

My father was Austrian, my mother was from Russia. They came to the United States in the first decade of the last century. They landed eventually on the North Side of Chicago, and the family moved into a few different places in that area. For some reason I can't tell you too much about that—we never talked about it. I guess they emigrated to get a better life. My grandfather—my mother's father—was here in Chicago already, I believe. I don't know why my father came to Chicago—I don't know that he had any family here. My parents met each other, and married, in Chicago. They always lived there.

You have an unusual surname.

I got a tax statement for a Konits with an s one time in New York—he's a bass player that lives in Long Island somewhere. Then there's the poet Stanley Kunitz. And someone contacted me whose name was Kounitz.

I told my two sons, who are not married, that they would be the end of the Konitz name, and they were visibly unmoved by that, as I was. I never liked the name too much. Both of my brothers changed their name to "Kaye"—they were both businessmen, and felt they could negotiate things better that way, without having to spell their name every time.

A lot of Jewish jazz musicians changed their names—Shorty Rogers, Steve Lacy, and so on.

But you never thought of doing that.

I was named "Leon," and it became "Lee" over the years. And when I was with the Stan Kenton band, a radio announcer introduced me as "Lee Coates"—and from then on, in the band, I was "Coates." I kinda liked it. But when I left the band, it didn't stick.

Did you have a happy childhood?

Well, my two brothers were six and nine years older than me, and they were interested in many things that I wasn't able to join in—I couldn't play baseball with them. They were kind of stuck with me, having to take care of me while my parents worked, so I became like a ball and chain to them, and that was not a happy situation. I paid my dues for being the youngest one. But otherwise the family got along pretty well.

Was it a struggle for your parents to make ends meet?

Yeah, they had to work hard all the time. My father had a laundry and cleaning establishment, and we were living in the back. I remember the "Care" packages for poor families we got at Christmastime, sweaters and things. But otherwise there wasn't a feeling of being without so much, and I appreciated that.

My parents encouraged me to pursue my instrumental interests. They didn't encourage me to finish all of my schooling, which was unfortunate, I felt. I was able to work as a musician at an early age, and somehow that got me out of school. In my sophomore year—the second year—of high school I went on the road with some friends, and then for some reason which I really can't remember my parents didn't encourage me to go back—I was sixteen. When I was eighteen or nineteen I spent a short time at Roosevelt College, as a special student. I hadn't graduated formally from high school, and I took what they call college preparatory courses, like political science, sociology, and so on.

What music did your parents like?

Classical music and opera, but they didn't really listen to it much, except the Saturday afternoon opera programs on the radio. There weren't a lot of records in the house, except the ones that I collected. My parents had a natural instinct to sing, but there was no musical cultivation, so to speak, in the family—that all came from outside. My older brothers were not really interested in jazz, they just liked the popular music of the day. My oldest brother was an amateur comedian, and he liked to burst into spontaneous song, but there was nothing more to it than that.

So what in your upbringing brought you to jazz?

At eleven I got a clarinet, because I was listening to Benny Goodman on the radio, and various other dance bands such as Glenn Miller and Count Basie. Benny Goodman was especially impressive to me. He was my first influence. So I guess I was listening before I was eleven. I heard the music on the radio, and also friends turned me on to it. It was very exciting to me, listening to the radio under the covers late at night.

So you didn't play an instrument till you were eleven.

No—I was just a whistler! I've never been able to figure this one out in retrospect— my parents very graciously got me a clarinet at the Boston department store in Chicago, and included with the clarinet I got a substantial coupon book with free lessons. (Incidentally, I've often wondered if there's a Chicago department store in Boston!) So, a Buffet clarinet, a name clarinet, and many weeks of lessons with a very fine teacher who Johnny Griffin and Eddie Harris also studied with, Lou Honig was his name—a very lucky situation for me.

I kept handing the coupons to this nice man each week for a while, and then I paid a small fee for succeeding lessons. These lasted, I think, a couple of years. I studied classical clarinet and formed a clarinet embouchure, a very rigid kind of muscle formation. Lou Honig was just teaching me the technique of the instrument; it had nothing to do with jazz as such. We did exercises and little pieces from one of the basic clarinet books. He was a dance band player, a club-date musician—he played trumpet and saxophone, and was technically able to adjust to these different instruments. He was quite a well-schooled guy.

The following year—when I was twelve—I got a tenor saxophone and studied it with him. At some point after that I studied with a man named Santy Runyon, who got a little more into the music, playing some more jazzy études and things, but still basically out of books. And then at some point I was already able to work, because of the war period. I met Lennie Tristano, and he really opened the door to the possibilities of this music for me, and I am truly grateful for what he did for me, and for many others.

Your parents didn't have a piano.

No, they never did.

What did they make of your musical aspirations?

My parents were pleased that I was interested, and they made a sacrifice to get me the instrument. My father loved Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet," but they had no real knowledge of jazz.

As the youngest of three sons especially, I wasn't able to communicate with my dear mother and father, who had to work hard to provide for us. My interest in music was encouraged but not understood, so I couldn't share this most important part of my youth with them, making me feel like an outsider at home. But I always appreciated their encouragement. They were very good, basic people. Really they were happy that I was doing something I liked, and that I was already earning money at it. They didn't give me the classic "become a doctor or lawyer" alternative of the Jewish family, and probably most families.

So you respected them for that.

I really appreciated it. I was left alone very much, so I could practice my craft. I didn't know about "art" as yet.

I left home at the age of twenty to join the Claude Thornhill band, and went to New York. I remember coming back and playing with Warne Marsh and Tristano at a club in Chicago much later, and my parents came to listen. I couldn't imagine what they would be getting out of it. They never really commented. They got the first few touches of my being "famous." A few times they came to hear me when I was playing in Chicago, I think they were proud that I had found a way of life. And I appreciated that. My oldest brother, the natural singer, who had a great sense of humor, was kind of a hero, in some way. But though my brothers and I kept in touch, we didn't really have that much to talk about. Once in a while we talked, but it wasn't that close a relationship. My eldest brother died of a stroke at the age of eighty, and so did my other brother, at the age of eighty-three.

I was always envious of families that were musically involved. I just read this piece on Richard Rodgers, talking about how the parents fought bitterly, but they always went to the theater, and bought sheet music, and stayed around the piano and sang. And when they found out Richard was talented, they encouraged him. And of course the Joneses and the Heaths were the same. My five children never became professional musicians. The oldest boy was kind of interested and showed real talent, but he didn't develop his ability. He works hard for a living, installing heating and air conditioning systems. I never conceived of working that hard; I really respect his decision. He still has fun with music, as do my other children.

Was jazz a way of rebelling against your background?

In some ways. There was something in-groupish about the Jewish people that I saw, that I didn't like—there was always that word Gentile which I hated. In my father's laundry and cleaning establishment, black ladies did ironing and things in the shop and they were referred to as "schvarzes." I didn't like that before I knew why, exactly. It just felt like "us and them," and I didn't like that feeling—and I still don't!

Was Jewish music an influence on you?

I never was fond of that music. I heard it—I went to Hebrew school for a short period of time, and went to the synagogue some time, and I never enjoyed that too much. It felt too otherworldly. And my parents were otherworldly, though they weren't strict religiously. They just observed high holidays and some of the dietary things—you don't mix milk and meat, and some preparations I don't really recall. When my parents spoke Yiddish, I was a little bit ashamed that they weren't speaking English more. So I kind of missed out on that cultural situation. I tried, but it didn't really work.

To jump up to the present time, I made a record in May [2000] for John Zorn's label, Tzadik—there's a Star of David on the liner package. He was talking about bringing out my Jewishness. That's one of his missions. He sent me some of the records on his label, and there was a solo record of Steve Lacy, a very nice record. I read the liner notes, and Steve confessed to being a closet Jew. I didn't really know that. And so he felt relieved that it finally came out. I was thinking, "Is that gonna be what I'm gonna do? Let's see, my father's name was Abraham, and my mother's name was Anna, etc. etc." So we made the record, and listened to it later, and John said, "I think we'll put this in the jazz section, do the Jewish one next time"! So it appeared on the DIW label as Some New Stuff.

Does he want you to do a klezmer record?

No, he just wants me to do what I would conceive of as being Jewish music, and I don't really know about that. On one occasion someone on the bandstand suggested a Monk tune, and I quickly remarked that I only play Jewish composers!—meaning George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, etc. That's Jewish music to me, that's what I prefer to play.

Without Jerome Kern, I might be in the laundry business!

When I talked about this with Paul Bley, he said he'd "concealed his ethnicity" from you.

Like hell he did! He's Jewish all over. When you're Jewish it's hard to keep it a secret. Steve Lacy did. But I don't broadcast it. If someone asks, I tell them my heritage, but I don't practice "Jewishness"—except with the jokes!

Interview with John Zorn

Born in New York's East Village in 1953, and raised there, JOHN ZORN is a unique creative figure whose work straddles many scenes: hardcore rock with cult bands PainKiller and Naked City; jazz with News for Lulu and Spy vs Spy; and Jewish music through his two books of Masada compositions. As an improviser he has performed with every major figure on the international scene, and his legendary game pieces are performed regularly by renegade groupings. His classical concert music is performed by ensembles worldwide, and he has scored music for many independent and underground films. A firm supporter of the music and musicians he believes in, he started the Tzadik label in 1995 and has edited and published a volume of musicians' writings, Arcana.

Lee is one of my very favorite saxophonists. I love his tunes, and coming up as a young sax player I memorized all of them, playing to his records every day for ten years. His compositions are some of the most beautiful, complex melodies in jazz history. Lee has a very independent creative mind and doesn't take any shit. I respect that. Lennie Tristano was a Svengali in many respects, with a very specific agenda, but Lee was one of the few that broke free and went their own way. Here's a guy that blew Charlie Parker away—for sixty years this guy's been kicking ass on the saxophone! The sound he had when he was with the Kenton band in the early fifties, when he used that hard reed—I don't think anyone ever sounded like that on the saxophone. What a tone, what an incredible sound—certain notes were so intense they became almost visual to me.

So when I started the Great Jewish Music series on Tzadik, to celebrate the contributions of Jewish composers to world culture—we did the music of Burt Bacharach, Serge Gainsbourg, Marc Bolan—Lee was one of the first people I thought of. The scale used in his tune "Kary's Trance" always had a real Jewish feel to me. Eventually I dismissed the idea of doing a project of other musicians doing Konitz tunes and asked Lee directly if he was interested in making a CD of Jewish material. Lee wanted to make a CD of originals, with original chord changes. What he said to me broke my heart—that when he records for other labels, they never want his originals—they just want him to do standards! What I was hoping for, I guess, was a CD of tunes that dealt with Jewishness in some way—perhaps like "Kary's Trance." Other musicians of his generation, Steve Lacy and Borah Bergman for example, made beautiful recordings for Tzadik dealing with Jewish scales, themes, and subject matter. What Lee brought in was a fabulous batch of new tunes, but they just didn't feel particularly Jewish, so with Lee's approval we transferred it to the Japanese DIW label, and it was released as Some New Stuff. If Lee ever wanted to revisit the Jewish challenge, I would be delighted—he's one of my all-time heroes.

It's important to realize that Konitz started playing saxophone before the advent of bebop in 1945. His earliest influences, therefore, were musicians from the Swing Era. He now discusses their influence, from before the time he met Lennie Tristano and listened to Charlie Parker—leaving for later discussion his principal mentor from that era, Lester Young.


Excerpted from Lee Konitz by Andy Hamilton Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Author's Introduction     xi
Foreword   Joe Lovano     xix
Prologue   Lee Konitz     xxi
Brief Biography of Lee Konitz     xxiii
Early Life and Career     1
Interview with John Zorn     6
Formative Influences: Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young     12
Interview with Phil Woods     25
Working with Tristano     27
Interviews with Ted Brown     35
Kenneth Noland     43
Early Collaborators: Miles Davis and Warne Marsh     45
Interviews with Kenny Wheeler     47
Mike Zwerin     50
Hal McKusick     50
George Russell     55
Clare Fischer     64
Billy Bauer     66
Sal Mosca     68
Alan Broadbent     70
The 1950s: Stan Kenton and Early Projects as Leader     79
Interviews with Jack Goodwin     83
Sonny Rollins     93
The Art of Improvisation     102
Interviews with Bob Brookmeyer     107
Rufus Reid     114
Conrad Cork     118
George Schuller     123
Harold Danko     128
Sheila Jordan     133
The 1960s: Motion     143
Interviews with Sonny Dallas     146
Dick Katz     148
Ornette Coleman     154
Wayne Shorter     159
The Instrument     161
Interviews with Larry Kart     164
Gunther Schuller     170
David Liebman     181
Frank Wunsch     184
The 1970s     185
Interviews with Paul Bley     188
Martial Solal     194
The Material: Standards, Blues, and Free     198
Interviews with Peggy Stern     203
Evan Parker     208
John Tchicai     212
Matt Wilson     216
Gary Foster     219
The 1980s to the Present     221
Interviews with Enrico Pieranunzi     224
Greg Osby     229
Guus Janssen     230
Bill Frisell     232
Musical Examples     239
Notes     253
Selected Album Listing     263
References     267
Bibliography: Major Articles on Lee Konitz     269
Index     271
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