Writings about Music

Above the World: Manhattan in June with Lee

Lee Konitz

 

Things were moving fast like in a movie. I had phoned Lee Konitz from a house near Jones Beach, and we agreed to meet for dinner at 7 in Manhattan. Greedily wanting all the city had to offer, I left before three to visit my favorite place there, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Driving in on the Parkways of Moses, listening to my upcoming album, Dazzling Darkness, things seemed to be falling into place. Sure enough, I glided into a safe spot on Park Avenue, and headed west for that mecca of paintings and ambiance. There, I drowned myself in a swirling avalanche of form married to color, leaving to return to my car for the haul further west across Central Park, but not without stopping for fortification from Dean & DeLuca on Madison, namely a fine apple scone and fresh squeezed orange juice. My parking fortune continued finding a timely spot one block from Lee’s abode.

Cutting ahead a bit, we left Lee’s place and strolled into La Mirabelle, dining on salmon with leek sauce and asparagus vinaigrette. Konitz opted for beer, myself rosé wine. Lee charmed the waitress, and soon arranged for another waitress – one who sings – to visit our table whereupon she promised to sing Autumn Leaves in her native French tongue when we reached desert. That turned out to be a shared banana and chocolate tart accompanied by coffee. And her singing was movingly pure and authentic, including a most effective preamble for the song I was unfamiliar with.

“Let’s hear some jazz”, Lee thought out loud, if not in those precise words. Modulating into another key, we segued sagaciously to my automobile, myself boldly reassuring Lee it would be an easy cruise down Seventh Avenue to the desired music mecca known as the Village Vanguard. Fun beyond fun joining the kaleidoscope of cars serpentining through Times Square overflowing with tourists on holiday and outrageously lit skyscrapers. There was no honking of horns, no touching of metal, just being part of a joyful celebration moving slowly like a Sinatra ballad to the climatic destination.

There it was, red lit in the cool night air, that storied jazz basement where I used to arrive early to sit next to Elvin Jones whenever he came to play drums resonating as perfectly as angel glow alternating with the force of a trillion avenging angels. And he always shook my hand with a big smile after each set, his body wetter than the Indian Ocean from joyful exertions.

Inside, the owners and company were thrilled Lee had come there, not having seen him in years it seems. They directed us to the best seats where an array of musicians who were both performing and in the audience came to pay their respects. One unforgettable moment was hearing Lee softly singing along to the unexpected appearance of Spring Is Here by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Much of the best jazz happened when composers and lyricists on that level combined with improvisers on the same level such as Lee, Stan, Bill, Dizzy, John and Charlie.

Heading back home from the club, Lee asked about my route back to Jones Beach, and decided it was too much for the lateness of the hour, and invited me to stay over in his guest room, an invitation I readily accepted. After yet another perfect parking spot, I soon found myself in that room surrounded by artifacts of greatness. Yes, the air there seemed charged with the holiness of a pure spirit, a pure seeker, someone with a musical gift really unsurpassed in the whole history of music. I felt the kindred souls of Lee's departed comrades welcoming me then lulling me to a soaringly sweet dreamland.

Morning came, and Lee gave permission to take photos of the Frank Sinatra poster on his kitchen wall; the painting of himself in the living room, and his alto saxophone lying reverently on a clothed table like a secret passageway to Nirvana awaiting yet another unprecedented journey.

Poster of Frank Sinatra in the kitchen of Lee Konitz who feels his singing is the best way into the songs he plays.

 

Painting of Lee Konitz in his living room

 

 

Lee Konitz alto saxophone in his music room

 

Josh, Lee’s son, joined us for breakfast at Barney Greengrass, and not wishing to keep them waiting after their choices were made so quick, I opted for pastrami on rye, not really feeling the gravlax perhaps because of the salmon the night before.

Then I was off, had to get back to Jones Beach to prepare for my flight back to Los Angeles that night.

Glad the photo of Lee under the Vanguard’s awning came out decent. The young women shown near him were excited, sensing he was someone important even though they didn't know his name. They even followed us down the street complaining that the club wouldn’t allow them in. To compensate for their jazz loss, I mentioned that my friend could outplay Charlie Parker. If you think they were impressed before….

- Michael Robinson, June 2019, Los Angeles

 

© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

All photos taken by Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).

In the early fifites, Stan Kenton featured Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at the same time as soloists with his orchestra. The consensus among the musicians, including Dizzy, was that Konitz was outplaying Parker. Now, people may draw their own conclusions from the totality of recordings available.