Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lee Konitz - The Gordon Jack Interview [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to do something special to honor alto saxophonist Lee Konitz’s upcoming appearance at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute’s 4-day festival - Something Cool: Celebrating Jazz Sounds of the Cool School [October 30-November 2 2014 at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel in Los Angeles, CA] - which will mark the 66th anniversary of Lee’s performance on the Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis Birth of the Cool recordings that Pete Rugolo produced for Capitol Records in 1949.

We especially wanted to feature something about Lee’s association with these epic recordings and his early years in Jazz.

So we wrote to Gordon Jack and requested his permission to post his chapter on Lee from his superb book - Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [2004].

Imagine our delight when he gave his consent!

Gordon’s book is published by The Scarecrow Press and you can find order information about it by going here.

[The footnotes to Gordon’s essay are listed at the end of this piece.]

© -  Gordon Jack; used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Lee Konitz, who was born on October i3, 1927, in Chicago, was one of the very few alto saxophone players of his generation not lo fall under the spell of Charlie Parker. Throughout a long career, his unique sound and approach to improvisation have shown him to be one of the great individualists of the music. This interview took place in May 1996, when he was visiting London to play at Ronnie Scott's club.

It was thanks to Milt Bernhart that I got my first job with Teddy Powell's band in 1945 when I replaced Charlie Ventura, which meant I had all the hot solos on tenor. Unfortunately, the chords were written in concert, which was difficult for me, as I was just beginning to understand how all that worked. When I stood up to play on my first gig, I was told that Teddy walked off the stage and started banging his head against a wall. He wasn't an instrumentalist, but he had a fine jazz/dance band, with good musicians like Boots Mussulli, who was very encouraging but mystified by my lack of knowledge. Boots was a lovely guy, and he wasn't only a very fine saxophone player but he was also the best poker player in the band; he never lost. A month after I joined. Teddy Powell had to disband because of tax problems with the IRS. A little later, I went with Jerry Wald for a while, and he could certainly play the high notes on the clarinet, but he didn't let me play any solos.

In 1947 I joined Claude Thornhill, who had a lovely "ballad" band, as you know, and I did my first recording with him. He had excellent arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, and Gerry of course was mainly a writer then. His charts were great, and I also played his music with Stan Kenton.and those pieces were some of my favorites, because he really knew how to write for saxophones.

Moving on to the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" group, Miles was the titular leader because he had more of a name, and I suppose he could get the gigs; big deal, so he got one week at the Royal Roost. It has been said that we did two weeks there, but the way I remember it, the band did the first week, and for some reason Miles and I did the second week as a quintet with John Lewis, Al McKibbon, and Max Roach, I appreciated that Miles asked me, but we were basically playing bebop and I was not all that comfortable. The nonet was an arranger's band, because they rehearsed the music. Miles made some suggestions, but very few that I recall; I thought of it as Gerry's band really. What really concerns me is the way the band has been called 'The Birth of the Cool," which I think is a little off. The nonet was a chamber ensemble where the solos were incidental to the writing, which was the most important aspect. The real "Birth of the Cool" for me was Lennie Tristano's music. [1]

I wrote "Subconscious-Lee" for my first recording session as a leader in 1949, [2] but the title is not mine; I would never call a tune "Subconscious-Lee." I think it was my colleague Arnold Fishkin who came up with that name, and all the other "Lee" titles over the years have been suggested by other people as well. Tony Fruscella was supposed to be on the date, but when he came to my room to rehearse, I apparently offended him in some way with a couple of suggestions, so he pulled out. He was a sad guy, and 1 didn't play with him again. I had real trouble relating to him because that whole junky mentality was always a big turnoff for me. I could never identify with it and hated that aspect of my environment.

During the late forties I rehearsed with a band Benny Goodman was forming with Wardell Gray, Gerry Mulligan, Doug Mettome, and Buddy Greco. I was playing lead alto, and I remember Benny sitting in a chair right in front of me as we ran down one of Eddie Sauter's arrangements, I was able to read alright, but I had no lead alto experience to speak of. and Benny said, "O.K., Pops, can you do something with it?" In other words, he wanted some "Hymie Schertzer’-like vibrato. He asked me to go on the road with the band, but I turned him down, as I was studying with Lennie Tristano. I remember him saying, "You're studying with Tristano? Why don't you study with Paul Hindemith?" Looking back, I wish that I had gone on the road with him, because I am sure I would have enjoyed the experience. Something else I remember from those rehearsals is that Benny and Gerry didn't get along at all.

Lennie Tristano played very little in public, because the club pianos were so bad. It was also difficult for him to get around, and he didn't like depending on others for that. We didn't work much, except at the Half Note once in awhile, and I could probably count the gigs there on a couple of hands and maybe a foot. Audience reaction to him, though, was always great. Leonard Bernstein was very interested in Lennie's ideas and music, and they were very good friends. He once brought Aaron Copland to Lennie's studio to find out what Lennie was doing currently, and they both liked "Intuition," our free improvisation piece. [3] They wanted to know if there was a score to look at, but Lennie pointed out that it was fully improvised. Bernstein was always curious about jazz.

Neither Tristano nor Warne Marsh, who was one of the great improvisers of this music, have been fully acknowledged, and I think they were both resentful about that. Two other Tristano students. Sal Mosca and Don Ferrara, have since retired from the active scene. Sal has followed in Lennie's footsteps and become a teacher, and Don, who was a very capable player, seemed to drop out just as he was becoming known for his work with Mulligan's CJB in the sixties. Apparently he started to change his embouchure, and the next I heard was that he was teaching but not playing, in California. Willie Dennis was another of Lennie's students, who unfortunately died in the mid sixties. He was a wonderful trombonist and a lovely guy, but I didn't know him that well because he used to drink and hang out at places like Jim 'n' Andy's. Being a family man, I didn't hang out there, and as a result I didn't work that much. Things have changed—I still don't hang out, but I work a lot now.

In 1952 Stan Kenton was trying to get more of a jazz band with charts by Bill Russo, Bill Holman, and Gerry Mulligan, so I joined playing the jazz alto chair, with Vinnie Dean on lead. Stan was a heavy drinker and I wasn't, which meant that I didn't hang out with the guys in the back of the bus, but a certain reputation had preceded me, and I just quietly tried to do my job. I appreciated him very much because he was great to everyone in the band, although he used to tell them not to smoke pot on the road, so there wouldn't be any legal problems. Some time after Vinnie left, Davey Schildkraut joined, and he was a very musical guy. He played really well, and I remember when Warne Marsh heard his recording of "Solar" with Miles, he thought it was Bird playing.

Charlie Parker of course was the major influence on alto, but it wasn't difficult for me to avoid, since temperamentally that music didn't really get to me. It was more intense than I was able to identify with at the time, but eventually I decided that was all ego and I was missing the greatest alto player who had ever lived. I started to learn his music without adopting his whole vocabulary, because it is such a temptation to play all those nice melodies like everyone else did, but I had other stimuli.

When the Kenton band was at the Palladium in Los Angeles, Gerry asked me to come and sit in with his quartet at the Haig on our nights off. I loved the pianoless concept, and I have worked in many similar groups over the years. I had heard stories about Chet not reading, but I was never in a situation to check that out. I had also heard that he didn't know chord changes, but I remember seeing him at a piano, playing changes to tunes, so that wasn't true. On my recordings with the quartet, I actually rejected "Too Marvelous for Words" because it didn't seem to fit into Gerry's context. [4] Later on, in 1957, I played on another Mulligan album called The Sax Section, with Al Cohn,Zoot Sims, and Allen Eager, and that was a fun date. What impressed me most was how nice Zoot sounded on alto—Allen Eager, too. [5] Looking back, Gerry and I didn't play that much together, but he was very encouraging to me in the early days, and I always felt he was an ally. We even got high together for the first time because we had that kind of close relationship.

A few years later, in 1959, I came to England with a group called "Jazz from Carnegie Hall," with Zoot Sims, J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Phineas Newborn, Oscar Pettiford, and Kenny Clarke, but I don't have happy memories of that tour. Oscar, rest his soul, was a beautiful musician but a terrible drinker. He became very hostile when he drank, and I got some bad vibrations from him. Before the tour, he had asked me to play with a little band in New York, so we already had a relationship. In Europe, though, he became really mean, which intimidated me, and if I get uncomfortable I can't play. Every night he and Kenny Clarke would be arguing back and forth, accusing each other of rushing the tempo, but eventually they would hug and kiss. Kenny of course was a lovely guy and a great drummer, and I used to sit behind the curtain, playing time with some sticks when he was on with Jay and Kai. Zoot didn't have trouble with anyone, as he was pretty stoned most of the time anyway.

Another time when I was uncomfortable in a playing situation was fairly recently at Carnegie Hall, just before Red Rodney died in 1994. We were both with Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Paul West, and Roy Haynes, and I just didn't feel that I was fitting in, but I never heard Red play so brilliantly — wow! When I play, I try to improvise from the first note, and if the acoustics are right I can do it. If they are wrong I'm messed up, because I don't have all that ready vocabulary, like a real professional should, I guess. All those cliches and hot licks carry you through sometimes.

I moved to California in 1962 because my wife and I felt there was a need to separate from Lennie Tristano, who was a very strong father-figure to me. We had been living at his house, but she encouraged me to move away to see what was happening elsewhere, and we stayed on the West Coast for a couple of years. I wasn't working much, but Warne and I used to play at Kim Novak's house in Big Sur on Sundays. Kim was not only a lovely woman but she was really nice, and she was quite a jazz fan. I wasn't soliciting for work, and it was nice forgetting about all that for a while, but I remember around 1963 going to see Miles with Frank Strozier at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. He asked me to sit in, which I didn't want to do, because that is the type of situation I am uncomfortable with, especially when another sax player is there. It was almost as though Miles was checking out a replacement, and I could never do that. I did sit in with Miles at the Village Vanguard when Herbie Hancock was with him, but again,! wasn't happy just jumping into an organized band and trying to find a voice.

During the seventies I did some work with my own nine-piece group. Dave Berger, who is a very fine writer, suggested the instrumentation, which was two trumpets, two trombones, alto, baritone, with three rhythm, and although I couldn't afford to pay for arrangements, there were a lot of people who were eager to write for it without a fee. Kenny Berger was with us for a time, and he is a fine baritone player, but he had to take a night off. Someone suggested Ronnie Cuber, who I didn't know, but he turned out to be very impressive. Kenny had been taking long solos with the band, and even though I wanted to give everyone a chance to play, I had suggested to him that we shorten the solos a little. For instance, I would start off with a couple of choruses, then the next guy would play four, someone else would take six, and suddenly you say, "Hey, wait a minute!" Not being a leader as such, I found I was sitting there listening to all the guys blow, which is fine up to a point, but eventually 1 decided that I wanted to do the playing myself. Getting back to the baritone chair, because Ronnie was so good, I hired him, and Kenny didn't forgive me for a long time, but sometimes these decisions have to be made.

In 1980 the band was booked to play some concerts in Washington, D.C., and we were asked to recreate some of the "Birth of the Cool" arrangements. I called Miles to see if he still had the charts, but he wasn't interested in helping, so I started transcribing from the records. In the end, I had to call Gerry Mulligan, because there were ensemble passages that I couldn't decipher. I went to his house in Connecticut, and he rewrote "Godchild," "Jeu," and "Rocker" in four hours. It was great to see him work. [6]

In 1992 Gerry asked me to join the "Rebirth of the Cool" band, and I stayed with him until the end of the European tour, when Jerry Dodgion took my place for some concerts in South America. After the initial novelty of playing those arrangements again, it became a little much for me. It was Gerry's show, and he did it very well, God rest his soul, but I was just sitting there interpreting the parts, and I felt I wasn't playing enough. The very last time we worked together was in Marciac, France, when Bob Brookmeyer and I were guests with his quartet in 1993. At Gerry's memorial concert I played "Alone Together," which had been my feature on the "Rebirth" tour, and I asked everyone to hum a D concert, which is common to all the chords of the tune. I often do that so audiences and I are doing something together. While I played, there was a beautiful photo image on the wall of Gerry.

I travel six or seven months of the year, and I often do workshops for students. I sometimes ask myself what I can tell these young people, who probably play three times faster than I do and know every pentatonic scale created by man. In Austria last year I did a workshop with a difference, because 1 wanted to focus very directly on the music, so I just used hand signals and didn't say a word. Communicating these concepts in English can be difficult, but a translator creates even more problems. I got through two of the allotted three hours in that way in total silence, and humming was the main point. They warmed up their musical instrument with a hum and placed that hum in different parts of the body. I then played an interval and a chord and the students had to hum them both, and it really worked. They all seemed pleased to be doing something and not just listening to a bunch of concepts, but then I started to talk and spoilt everything!

Leonard Feather [Jazz critic], who got a lot of things wrong, once claimed that I had turned down the chance of playing with some of the "name" bands, but that wasn't true. I would have loved to play with Duke Ellington or a real jazz band like Woody Herman, but they never asked me. I keep busy, though, by recording, and since December 1995 I have appeared on about twelve CDs. I'm just making them left and right, and I think these little boxes will be the only things left after it is all over!”

1.  In Ira Gitler's Jazz Masters of the '40s (Da Capo), Gerry Mulligan is quoted agreeing with Lee: "As far as the 'Birth of the Cool' is concerned. I think Lennie is much more responsible than the Miles dates. It's hard to say unemotional because it's not exactly that, but there was a coolness about his whole approach in terms of the dynamic level. Lennie always had his own thing going. He never came out in the big world."
2.  Lee Konitz Quintet. PRLP 7004.
3.  Lennie Tristano Sextet. EAP 1-491.
4.  Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Lee Konitz. Mosaic MR5-102. We must be thankful thai Konitz did not get his way in rejecting "Too Marvelous for Words," because the title sums up his playing both on this track and on an inspired "Loverman." Mulligan and Baker, however, were not at their best, and for this reason Gerry initially felt that the material should not be released. He changed his mind because of the brilliance of Lee's playing.
5.  Gerry Mulligan and "The Sax Section." Pacific Jazz 7243 8 3357520.
6.  Whitney Balliett reports in American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz (Oxford) that after Miles Davis had refused to help and Mulligan had transcribed some of the charts, Konitz called Davis again, telling the trumpeter that the arrangements had now been rewritten, and Miles apparently replied, "Man, you should have asked me. They're all in my basement." Konitz told Gil Evans about the conversation, who said, "Miles wouldn't have told you he had everything in the basement if you hadn't first told him you'd gone to the trouble to transcribe the records." Lee told Balliett that "Miles is a bona-fide eccentric."