Writings About Music
Lee Konitz Interview: The Miracle of Improvising
Interviewer: Michael Robinson
21 March 1998 (First day of spring)
Michael Robinson residence (Beverly Hills, California)
Lee Konitz is one of the major architects of modern jazz. This includes the ability to improvise a breathtakingly original, and beautiful melodic phrase at the drop of a hat, and there is no sign of his vast creative well ever drying up. While many of his musician friends, and peers, artists such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans, are long gone, Konitz has not only survived the perils of the jazz life, but he continues to evolve, seemingly incapable of repeating himself, or compromising his music. Upon examining his recordings of specific jazz standards compared to other greats, I realize that, on occasion, he seems to surpass everyone in terms of depth of invention, and also spontaneity - the essence of improvisation. Long regarded as the most complex and esoteric jazz artist, Lee's music soars over the heads of average jazz fans, and that is why connoisseurs mainly appreciate him. He often transcends the limitations of the popular songs that modern jazz artists base their improvisations on. For example, consider how he transforms the great jazz ballad, "Round Midnight," into a luminous, "intergalactic time-warp" of sensuality, emotion, and introspection on the duet recording, "Toot Sweet," with the late pianist, Michael Petrucciani.
Following my freshman year of college, I had the opportunity to study improvisation with Konitz in New York City during the summer. I still remember being stunned the first time I saw him. I found it unbelievable that I would be spending time with someone I thought you could only read about in books. One memory that stands out is how we would trade choruses at the end of the lesson accompanied by a metronome. There is a print in my mind's eye of Lee gazing out the window of his West 86th Street apartment on a warm Saturday afternoon, while weaving blues choruses of timeless quality that were never heard before, and would never be heard again.
This interview took place at my home in Beverly Hills on the first day of spring, which was the Saturday morning of Lee's Tuesday through Sunday evening engagement at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. During his week at the Jazz Bakery, I attended all the performances, and Lee and I went for a late supper at Cantor's each night after the two sets were over. The famous twenty-four-hour deli reminds him of his childhood in Chicago. We are both nature lovers, and during the daytime we enjoyed long walks in scenic areas while discussing music, and a variety of other subjects.
Do you remember what your original impetus to make music was when you were a child? I'm not sure how old you were when you first started playing the clarinet. I think that was your first instrument.
Yes. When I was eleven years old I asked for, and received a clarinet. I had been listening to the radio a lot. To the dance bands. That was a big impetus. My older brother loved to sing spontaneously, and that was always fun.
Sing popular songs?
No. Well, sometimes. Yeah.
What was he singing?
No. He was just improvising little popular ditties of the day. But he wasn't into standards, or anything, really.
He'd sing along with the radio, or just out into the air?
No. He would just burst into spontaneous song.
And your parents weren't particularly musical?
Not really. No.
So it was the radio then.
It was the radio, and my friends, basically.
And when did you first make the movement from playing a recognizable song that you heard on the radio to actually creating your own music, by improvising?
I always had... The first feeling I had was to improvise before I knew songs. We'd start out by just kinda playing freely. Investigating.
You, and your friends?
No. Just alone. I think when we pick up an instrument. Any of us.
Actually, most people I know, they have to have the music. They first begin by learning scales. That's rather unusual, actually.
I doubt it. I think before a person sets the music up on the stand, they just fool around, trying to place their fingers, trying to make some kind of a logical sound. And that's the basis, I think, for the intrigue, and putting a note next to another note, making music.
It sounds like Swing jazz was your original inspiration for music.
Was there any particular orchestra, or jazz band you recall that...
Benny Goodman was one of the big influences.
I never heard that before!
As a clarinet player. That's why I wanted the clarinet, etc. And I was listening to it. A lot of the bands were recording from... doing remotes from ballrooms around the country. And a lot of people that I read about were doing the same thing. Listening under the covers when they're supposed to be sleeping, or studying.
I think Benny Goodman is probably a great model. I don't know his music very well, but the little bit that I've heard amazes me at how musical he is. Because sometimes, his reputation is more of a popular figure than a great jazz musician. At least to someone from my generation. Later on, did he remain one of your favorite clarinet players? Or do you like Artie Shaw more, or any other...
Well, I like some other clarinet players better actually. I do like Artie Shaw. I think he's more musical in some ways than Benny. But that was an initial first love. And a first love always occupies a special place. I wish that person outside would stop coughing.
I'll close it. The side window of the living room. What motivated you to switch from the clarinet to the saxophone?
Well, I understood that if I wanted to work, that the saxophone was the main instrument. The clarinet was what we call a double. So I got a tenor saxophone from my loving parents the second year, and then at some point, I was offered a situation to play alto in a club with kind of a show band. And so the alto kinda indicated to me.
So, it wasn't particularly that you liked the sound of the saxophone better than the sound of the clarinet. It was more of a practical thing that was your...
No. It started out practically, and then I enjoyed playing the saxophone more.
And you preferred the alto originally, and not the tenor?
As I say, I got the tenor, and then I took this job on the alto. And the alto appealed to me more at the time.
I see. When you started playing the clarinet, and the alto: Did you take to them very easily? Did you have any difficulty? Or was it just a real natural thing. You just mastered, or started mastering the instruments in a very gradual, but steady basis.
Yeah. I studied steadily, and gradually. And steadily, I learned how to play. A bird begins singing loudly just outside the front window. I'm still gradually, and steadily, learning how to play.
I've notice in your playing recently - I only get to hear you live when you're here in LA - that there's a very floating-like, ethereal sound. An emphasis more on that then I've heard in the past. Do you recognize that? Is this a conscious thing?
Well, as I explained before, playing the way I suggested to the pianist, and the guitarist, Alan Broadbent, and Larry Koonse, who are in this job with me for five days: I wanted to play a freer version of tunes, instead of just coming in, and turning on a tempo, and adhering to that tempo, I like kinda playing around, and getting into the tune in a more subtle way. And they jumped at the opportunity. And my position in this, if I really listen to what each guy is doing: I almost have to walk on eggshells to not overblow. As soon as I play full bodied, when I play a lot of notes, suddenly I block out the rest of the sound. And so, I'm just kinda poking around, looking for the right note to fit the chords I'm hearing. The chordal instruments control the whole show unless I just take over, and play a lead voice, and they hang onto what I'm doing. And somehow, I choose to just listen, and try to react to what I'm hearing around me. I'm hearing chords, a lot of chords. And trying to find... I don't know what they are as they're being played. A light doesn't register B-flat-seven-altered. I'm just reacting to the sound, basically. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes I wiggle out of it quickly, or chromatically. Then to another place. And by that time, there's another chord to catch me in flight etc., etc. But it's a very touch-and-go kind of a discipline. Its intriguing to do. But as a result, I hold back a little more maybe than I would if I were just playing straight forward.
You touched upon something that reminded me of a comment you made a few years back. I once asked you,"When you're playing, are you conscious of what the chords are? Or is that not even something you're thinking about." And your response to me was something to the effect, "Well, D-minor -seven, G-seven, A-minor-seven, D seven. If you're thinking that, there's not much going on." Would you like to elaborate on that thought?
I try to react to the sound I'm hearing. And names, and theoretical things don't occur to me, at best. If they do, then I'm not doing my real playing mode. The playing mode is when you're open, and receptive to whatever sound. Even if its a sound out in the audience. It all becomes part of the music to me. And so, at this stage, after playing for all these years, I still can't just... I could, if I stopped, and said, "Well, that was a D-minor, G-seven," but I really don't want to know that. I just want to know that there's another combination of notes that makes a sound.
I met reedman, Ira Schulman, at one of Lee's performances at the Jazz Bakery. He had the opportunity to hear Charlie Parker perform numerous times, and he remarked on how spontaneous Parker was, incorporating sounds, and sights from the audience into his improvisations. At one of the Jazz Bakery performances, the air conditioning system began making soft percussive sounds that most people did not even notice, right before a tune was to start, and Lee commented to the audience, "Now we have a rhythm section!" He performed with just piano, and guitar during his six nights at the renowned jazz club.
I'm very curious to know: Is it just as easy for you to play a tune, say, All The Things You Are, in F-sharp, or B-major? Is that easy for you?
Well, that's kind of my daily kind of practice.
So you could play any tune in any key.
Because you're reacting to what you hear.
Yeah. It's easier to play in the familiar key because I play in that key more. But if I played for a while in the other key...
To what degree, when you're playing, is it a matter of what you hear, and to what degree is it a matter of how you feel physically. For instance, the great trumpet teacher, Charlie Colin, once said that the body is the instrument. Your body is the instrument. So what I'm getting at here, I'm just curious to know, how much of it is a physical feeling of how your body feels, and how much of it is something that you hear, or something intellectual. I'm sure that it's a combination. Would you like to elaborate on that?
At best, its a combination, certainly. As I'm playing... The other night for example: There was an especially good communication with Alan when we played the first set as a duet, and I could just feel like wanting to dance. And wanting to really participate physically. And to kinda straighten-up, and loosen-up, and do the things. Sometimes, when I'm playing, and very involved in manipulating the instrument: Like kinda maybe getting into a locked physical position. And not really breath, and feel the full body part of the music. That's what it is. We start out by feeling the music internally. Expressing it somehow externally before we choose to put it into the instrument. And then, hopefully, it's an extension of us into the instrument. We are the instrument. The other... The actual instrument is just an amplification of what we're hearing.
You have one of the most distinctive sounds in the history of jazz, and...
Are there one, or two saxophone players, whose sound, just their tone. I'm not talking about their conception. Just their sound, that had a special impact on you? Just the tone quality.
Johnny Hodges was the first one.
Really. I never heard that before!
And Lester Young was a major one.
Even though he played tenor.
Transcend that difference of instrument.
Purity of his sound.
Did you get to hear him play live frequently?
I did. But I wasn't that aware of him at the time.
So it's mostly from recordings that you...
Yeah. Thank god for recordings.
Yeah. I sometimes feel in some ways, Lester Young is the most complex rhythmically of any musician. He does some things rhythmically that are just phenomenal.
Well, it was one-hundred percent music. There was no ego involved. No attitudes. No black and white. It was pure music. And Charlie Parker, less in a way. There were some problems that came out through his music that were extra-musical. But at his best, his sound was a great sound also. When he wasn't really overblowing, or being funky, and everything. That wasn't my favorite part of him. But I mean, if you ever heard him, his playing with Jay McShann: That's when, and where he started. That was pure, beautiful sound.
You once mentioned to me something that I don't think anyone realizes, and it's really a fascinating story. When you... At one point in the fifties, I guess, you told a story that Stan Kenton engaged yourself, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie as soloists with his orchestra for the same performance!
Yes. I had been with the band for a year and a half, and I went home. Quit the band to be with my family. And he called sometime later, and asked me would you come on tour. And I said, "OK. Great. I'm familiar with the band. I'm familiar with the music. So it'll be a snap." And I said, "Who else will be on the program?" He said, "Charlie Parker." I said, "Whaaat!!! What's happening here???" Well, it was a nice experience. Bird was... It was a chance to get to know him a little better. I told the story a few times about him asking for ten dollars once, at the beginning of the tour, and I gave him ten dollars. And ten dollars was a lot of money in 1952. And a week later, as we were boarding the bus, I asked him for the ten. He said, "Just a minute,"and the next guy who came up on the bus, he borrowed ten. Asked for ten, and handed it to me (laughs).
I never heard that!
And also, he sat with me when one of my children was being born in New York, and we were in Seattle, Washington, and kinda thought that I needed a friend. And we spent the day together. It was a very sweet gesture.
This is fascinating for people to hear because you and Charlie Parker are the two main alto stylists of modern jazz. So any interaction between the two of you is really fascinating.
I felt a very nice feeling from him. (Laughs) Another story that just occurred to me recently: A week ago was March 12, the anniversary of Charlie Parker's death, and it was also my father's birthday. At one time, Charlie came up to me, and said, "You know your father came up to me, and told me that he thought you could play better than me." And I said, "That's not possible because my father don't know who you are, and he's in Chicago!" This is in New York, when Bird told me this.
I remember relating the story of this tour to someone who told me that the musicians on the tour were saying that in those performances you were actually outplaying Charlie Parker.
"Cutting Bird" is the expression. I was comfortable playing music that I had played for a year and a half, and Bird was playing new music in a strange environment, and he wasn't terribly comfortable. So the way the story goes is that Dizzy said, "Hey, listen. The young guy is cutting you." And then Dizzy said, "I regret saying that because the next night I had to follow Bird, and he played his ass off."
Charlie Parker passed away on March 12, 1955. He was scheduled to perform with the Lee Konitz Quartet that evening. I have sometimes wondered if the anxiety Bird felt because he was in poor health, and was likely to be outplayed by Konitz in public, contributed to his tragic demise.
Do you recall if either of you played a ballad on that occasion?
Yeah. We both played a ballad.
You don't remember specifically what tunes you played?
He played My Funny Valentine, and I played Lover Man. And My Funny Valentine, and All The Things You Are, and Cherokee, were arrangements written by Bill Holman for the occasion for Bird to play. And after the tour, Bird was unable to record them, so I recorded those pieces.
During a conversation later in the day, Lee told me about a week he spent around that time taking the place of Charlie Parker in his quintet with Miles Davis, John Lewis, Max Roach, and Al McKibbens in a New York jazz club.
Did Bird ever make any comments, or compliments about your playing, or ask you any questions?
Yes. A number of times over the years. When I would meet him he was always very gentle with me, and mentioned that he really appreciated that I didn't try to play like him. At this point, you have to remember, EVERYBODY was playing like him.
Was that a conscious decision, or was it more a case where...
It was conscious to a point. or kind of a ego point, I would say. That I didn't want to get into that powerful influence. I already had a powerful influence in Lennie Tristano, and that was sustaining me. His encouragement was all I needed. But I was missing the great music that Charlie Parker played, so when I was able to really study, and learn some of his solos, and everything, I was able to appreciate why he was so great.
One of the most interesting recordings I ever heard, and I wish someone had the foresight to record this, was hearing Tristano, and Charlie Parker playing together, I think it was a Metronome All-Star performance, so they were both at their peak. If those two had done an album of duets, I think that would have been tremendous. Because Charlie Parker has such a fluidity, and Tristano had almost a computer-like articulation; very angular, and very precise. And I think that contrast was exceptionally interesting, and beautiful.
There is something somewhere on a bootleg record, I think. Charlie Parker, and Kenny Clarke went up to the Tristano studio, and Kenny played brushes on a telephone book, and Bird played a few tunes with Lennie. I have it someplace.
Just to speak about the present time before we go back again: I just completed a tour in Europe before I came here to California. From February 7th through March 14th, I played every night. There was one night off before the very last date in Switzerland. This was all over Europe. Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. And this requires traveling some days for six hours in a van, or a train, or a car. And sometimes, it seems the traveling is difficult. But since I'm not digging ditches, or doing physical labor, I'm just sitting back, maybe dozing off, or reading a book, or talking with the guys, if I'm traveling with guys, whatever. And then we come to the time to check into the hotel, and rest a little bit, and have something to eat, and then go, and play music. And after six weeks of that, I came to California. I checked into the hotel, and I just fell apart. I felt I could finally let myself go, and realized what a strain that really is. All that moving around is very difficult. And I feel that's what we get paid for really. Not for playing the music! It's a great way to work. The rewards are very great, and so I appreciate now, in my 71st year, I can still do that pretty comfortably. But I do feel that.
Just to wrap up what we were talking about before: One of my favorite recordings of yours, and there are many I have not heard, is the recording of Just Friends with Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, and Martial Solal on the album named Satori. This is a particularly great recording, and of course, one of Charlie Parker's most famous recordings is his version of Just Friends. That's one of his great masterpieces.
Right. It is.
I came to the realization that your recording of Just Friends surpasses his...
In terms of...
It's because I didn't have that schmaltzy background.
Anyway, anyone who has not heard that recording should check out the Satori album.
Before Lee stopped me, I was about to say that the depth and originality of his melodic and rhythmic invention displayed in Just Friends, along with the organic flow and perfect form of his improvisation, not to mention the passionate expression, and majestic tone, make this one of the greatest recorded solos in jazz history, surpassing even Charlie Parker's masterpiece on the same tune, which has more of a sweetly romantic melodic feeling.
Another big favorite of mine is your recording of Night And Day, with Red Mitchell playing piano, on the Cole Porter album. That's one of my ... That solo could be... It's extraordinary. That's a great one.
I'll have to check it out.
This rendition of Night And Day is the greatest I have ever heard by any jazz artist. This is especially notable because many musicians consider Night And Day to be the most perfectly composed standard of all.
When I studied with you back in 1975, I was very surprised because at the time you were transcribing one of John Coltrane solos. It was a ballad...
Konitz begins humming Weaver Of Dreams. Lee's duet recording of the ballad Zingaro on his recent Jobim Collection CD, with pianist Peggy Stern, is the most beautiful interpretation of the Brazilian composer's music I have ever heard.
Yes. So, as I understand it, you are not a great fan of Coltrane's later modal period, and his free jazz period. But his earlier period, when he was playing within tunes, and doing ballads...
Out of Coltrane's whole history, out of the whole history of his playing, there are many things which I think are great from all the periods. There's something about the intensity, and the sound of his music that kinda grates me in some way. I have to be in a special mood for that kind of experience, and it is a very special experience when it happens. I'm still talking about Lester Young, and the peacefulness. Relative peacefulness. There doesn't seem to be any antagonism. There's no message to be heard except pure music. I hear many extra-musical things somehow in Coltrane specifically.
You made that comment before, when we were listening to Ben Webster play How Deep Is The Ocean on the tape in the car. You made the comment, "Just music, pure music." What did you mean by that?
It's just... All our concern with is just on making the most beautiful sound we can make, and not proving anything more than that. So it's 100% of our attention to make that happen. After playing now for sixty years, it's still very challenging for me to play a simple melody, and have it clean, and touch the reed at the proper time, in the proper way, and release it, and vibrate if I want, or not vibrate. Not get saliva in the sound, and breathe comfortably etc., etc., etc. Get all the moving parts into synchronization. It's a major need in playing an instrument.
The reason I bring up Coltrane is because I believe that yourself, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, are the three major stylists on saxophone in modern jazz. So I would like to ask: Did you have any personal contact with Coltrane, at all?
Never met him?
I met him, but that was that. I didn't get to hang out with him. I read stories about Wayne Shorter, and Joe Henderson, and Sonny Rollins hanging out, and practicing. I think that was a very special experience. I just read an interview with Freddie Hubbard. Freddie was close to those people, and he mentioned how he spent two hours a day going from Sonny Rollins, who would say, "What's Coltrane practicing?" over to Coltrane saying, "What's Sonny Rollins practicing?" We all learn from each other, and I never really hung out with guys in that way, so I missed out.
When you recorded the album, Motion, with Elvin Jones, did you discuss Coltrane at all with Elvin?
No. He came in at 8:30 in the morning after working with Coltrane, and two basses, and two tenors, and we played the first take at 9:00. It was a take that was accepted.
I have a transcription of one of your solos from that session. I think its, I Remember You. Is that correct?
What was the tempo on that?
Konitz hums the melody, and taps a medium fast tempo.
OK. I would just like to comment here that I have a transcription of that solo, and I put it through my computer, and listened to it, and it's just amazing how inventive, and how perfectly crafted those melodies are. How original they are. And to be going at that tempo, also. Its just incredible. So that's another album I would definitely recommend.
I'm constantly amazed still at the miracle of improvising. That's what's so intriguing: For a whole lifetime. Because in really trying to improvise, I have the benefit of those surprises. Sometimes, they're great surprises. Sometimes, they're less of a surprise. Sometimes, its almost impossible to really make it work effectively, but it's still a surprise. The ones who work out their solos, many of the people do that thinking that its naive to improvise in front of paying customers. They have the security of knowing what they're playing, and just work on playing it very well, which is a full-time job, also. I'm not saying one way is better than another. Just trying to differentiate.
You're saying there are jazz players who work out their solos?
Jazz players. Most jazz players work out their solos.
Really! I never heard that before.
At least to the extent that they have a very specific vocabulary.
That's true. I can see what you're saying.
But also working out phrases. Whole sections. As though they were playing etudes. Especially at fast tempos.
I see. I've been deeply involved with Indian classical music the last three or four years, and I've come to the realization that of all the jazz musicians in history, you are the one who has the most in common with Indian classical music. I've tried to analyze why I've come to that conclusion. It has something to do with the convoluted nature of your lines. The abstract nature of your lines. The way they turn in different directions. The Indians have a word, vakra, which means, crooked. For them, this gives interest to music.
Laughs. Yeah. I'm very crooked.
Laughs. That it doesn't just move in straight lines. But you've never really been influenced by Indian music. Right? You've never really listened to it.
Oh. Certainly. I love Indian music very much. But I haven't studied that specifically.
I'd like to feel that whatever I play is a result of whatever I've heard. I listen to classical music very much. There's a lot of jazz that I don't enjoy listening to. If have a moment when I want to hear something, I might pick out a Bach Cello Suite rather than a Coltrane, and that kind of intensity.
I think maybe one of the greatest compliments you've ever received is, as I understand it: Bill Evans listed you as one of the three major influences on his music.
He said that I was a bigger influence to him than Lennie Tristano was, which I questioned to him. I mean, since he's a piano player.
Did he study with Tristano?
Not that I know of. A lot of people didn't like Tristano for personal reasons, or musical reasons. I think musical reasons. At first, Tristano's playing: Kinda very heavy-handed. Very stiff rhythmically. But as he developed, it became phenomenal music that any literate piano player would have to acknowledge, as any classical pianist would have to acknowledge the Goldberg Variations, or some standard repertoire.
As long as there are people trying to play music in a sincere way, there will be some jazz. Who the next major voice that's going to add new vocabulary? Its hard to tell. After all of these years of experiencing the development, and growth of music, where do you go from here, as they say. Well, you just keep playing. That's about it. And if someone special comes along, and organizes it in a new way, then you'll have another approach, and everybody will jump on it to try to learn.
Well, we've covered a lot of material here.
I think that's enough. Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen. See you around.
© 1998 Michael Robinson All rights reserved.
This interview was originally suggested, and then published by Stephen Miner, the creator and editor of a fantastic Lee Konitz web site that regretfully went offline in 2000. I asked Lee about this, and his understanding was that Stephen had tragically passed away. This must be the reason why that memorable site no longer exists. Stephen did write me that this interview had been translated into many different languages. More recently, I learned that Sergio Karam, a Brazilian, was a collaborator on the former Konitz site.
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).