Writings about Music


Lee Konitz cited Jewish American culture in jazz

Lee Konitz felt a special affinity with jazz standards, citing his shared cultural heritage with the Jewish American composers and lyricists who created many of these. He listened to Frank Sinatra for inspiration, finding the "saloon singer" a key jazz artist and interpreter of standards in terms of expression, musicality and swing.

Lee was emphatic about this, telling me he wished to play "Jewish music." He was tired of being criticized for not copying the styles of African American jazz musicians.

Konitz was part of a quartet of Jewish American jazz woodwind geniuses who had a profound influence on the evolution and history of jazz, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Stan Getz.

Lester Young was a central influence upon Lee, of course, but I truly hear more the influence of Benny Goodman in his playing. Lee told me that Goodman was his "first love," adding, by definition, extremely meaningful and potent. Young cited Goodman as a prime influence on himself, of course, in addition to voicing great admiration for Sinatra.

Italian American, Irish American, Latino, and myriad other influences exist in jazz, too, of course, but if you consider the quartet mentioned above; the composers and lyricists of jazz standards; drummers like Buddy Rich and Stan Levey, and many more examples one might cite if writing a book, it strikes me as perhaps even anti-Semitic to attempt to marginalize and even remove the essential contributions of Jewish Americans from jazz history.

In March 2019, I wrote this published letter with 18 likes responding to "Confronting Philosophy's Anti-Semitism" by Laurie Shrage in "The Stone" feature for the New York Times.

"One common thread running through the work of these philosophers is an attempt to diminish the influence of Judaism or the Jewish people on European history." While I'm not knowledgeable enough about philosophy to comment on this statement, closer to our present time, the importance of Jewish people in the history of American jazz is often diminished either deliberately or through ignorance. Imagine Indian classical music without ragas. Now, imagine American jazz (focusing on Swing through Modern Jazz) without the Great American Songbook from which myriad jazz standards came, a large percentage of the composers and lyricists being Jewish. In brief, and there are many important exceptions consisting of those with (other) European, Brazilian and Latino ancestry, improvisers of genius who were predominantly African American combined with composers and lyricists of genius who were predominantly Jewish to create a new musical form. That said, Jewish improvisers of genius like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz and Lee Konitz remain centrally important, as do blues forms originating from African Americans representing the very origins of jazz along with ragtime together with the great African American composers and lyricists (including seminal variations upon the aforementioned standards)."

Voicing truths like these in my writings here, the New York Times, and elsewhere, I've sometimes felt a draft, to borrow one of Lester's expressions. Some who have supported me in the past have turned a cold shoulder, making me wonder if my pointing out central contributions of Jewish American jazz artists has sometime to do with it, though I suppose it could be any number of outspoken, unconventional views I prefer not to suppress, partly influenced by my friend, historian Timothy Snyder.

The enormously central defining contributions of African Americans are so vital and powerful there is no need to pretend they created jazz alone. And I wouldn't dream of insulting those great artists with some form of patronization born from lies. Curiously, some of the most egregious forms of musical censorship along these lines may even come from Jewish music writers, historians and filmmakers. Not really sure what they're thinking, but it's definitely not cool or honest. And I'm certain Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis would be among those who support the views stated here, among other genuine greats.

It is very possible, I suppose, that some of what I'm describing comes from a simple lack of understanding, knowledge and sophistication as opposed to any intellectual prejudice. After all, Lee Konitz is the most abstract and esoteric of all jazz artists, his music often passing over the heads of even jazz people. It would appear my music is part of the Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz lineage, and I'm grown accustomed to having people baffled by what I do, preferring the banality of conformity, while grateful for those who appreciate it, including Lee, who sent several hand written letters praising my music, not caring if what I do is jazz or some newly invented form.

My hope is that understanding and appreciation of jazz will improve, presenting the full richness and spectrum of what's real past and present.

Here are some related essays:

President of the Cool

I Do, Too

Into A Newborn Day

Keeping the History of Jazz Real.

- Michael Robinson, April 2020, Los Angeles


© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


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