Thursday, March 19, 2020

Parker, Young and the Problem of Imitators - Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Imrpoviser's Art

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jazz is not a style: it’s not back in a log cabin in Mississippi. We are urban musicians - we can’t go back there.

Jazz is not a ‘what.’ It is a ‘how,’ and if you do things according to the ‘how’ of Jazz, it’s Jazz.”
- Bill Evans, pianist, composer, bandleader

"I believe the true lover of jazz would prefer to experience the same emotions as the artist when an idea is first discovered," he wrote, later adding, "Improvisation, to me, is the core of jazz. Because I believe this, my style of piano is one shaped primarily by the material, or ideas which I am attempting to express— not by a system or a search for an identifying' sound.'"
- Dave Brubeck, pianist, composer, bandleader

"Paul Rubin: We've noticed that on some of your albums certain standards reappear and, also, that on other tunes the changes sound very similar.

Lee Konitz: You say, first of all, the changes, the tunes were similar? I don't know what you mean by that. PR: The chord changes.

LK: I know what you mean by chord changes, but what tunes I wonder did you have in mind?

PR: "I'll Remember April." There are other songs that sound like that one. One may even be called "April," but on a different record.

LK: Oh, they're all "I Remember April" but with different titles. Oh, I see what you mean. Well, that's simply a result of, I mean that's basically my repertoire, that few dozen tunes. And if I'm not setting up a special set of material for a record, I will choose those songs I like best and try 'em again, without the melody, say, just using the structure of the song,

Wayne Eustice: So you prefer having a limited body of material to play?

LK: If we have a little short confessional here [laughter], I keep thinking that it doesn't matter what tunes you play. The process is the same, and if it works then it's like a new piece, you know. And it is a fact that the better you know the song the more chances you might dare take. And so that's why Bird played a dozen tunes all his life, basically, and most of the people that were improvising—Tristano played the same dozen tunes all his life. And you know, it's amazing what depth he got. He wouldn't have gotten that otherwise, I don't think, in that particular way.

I think it's something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light. I just feel with each situation I'm in, different rhythm sections or whatever, that "I'll Remember April" becomes just something else. And it is a very preferable point — that's the main thing. Everybody who knows that material knows that material pretty well — the listeners and the musicians. So they know, you can just nakedly reveal if anything's happening or not; there's no subterfuge. And that aspect of it is appealing to me, I think.”
- Wayne Enstice [WE] and Paul Rubin [PR] which appears in their book JAZZ SPOKEN HERE: Conversations with 22 Musicians [New York: DaCapo Press, 1994].

Spending time as I have recently in preparing blog features about pianists, composers and bandleaders Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck, I was struck by how often they allude to or outright declare that Jazz is a verb, a doing word, something you do to musical material. 

In other words, Jazz is a process: do things a certain way musically and it becomes Jazz.

The consensus of opinion in support of this point-of-view as expressed in the introductory quotations by Bill, Dave and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is the centrality of improvisation in the making of Jazz.

Which brings me to Andy Hamilton’s insightful and interesting book: Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improvisor’s Art [University of Michigan Press].

Often 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 pianist and educator 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. 

Above all, in whatever context, and to this day, Konitz has remained a Jazz improviser: each gig, each band, each tune is an opportunity to make something from nothing - an opportunity to create.

Hamilton’s approach to the book is to ask Konitz his opinions of musicians he has performed with and then ask these very same musicians what they think of Lee’s playing.

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.

Or as saxophonist Dave Liebman explains it:  "An extraordinary approach to a biography, with the man himself speaking for extended sessions. The main vibration I felt from Lee's words was total honesty, almost to a fault. Konitz shows himself to be an acute observer of the scene, full of wisdom and deep musical insights, relevant to any historical period regardless of style. The asides by noted musicians are beautifully woven throughout the pages. I couldn't put the book down - it is the definition of a living history."

"Hamilton's work may well mark the inception of a format new to writing on Western music, one which avoids both the self-aggrandizing of autobiography and the stylized subjectification of biography."
-The Wire

"Meticulously researched, detailed and documented, this long awaited overview justly establishes Konitz as one of the most consistently brilliant, adventurous and original improvisers in the jazz tradition-a genius as rare as Bird himself." —John Zorn

Hamilton also asks Lee his opinion trendsetters in the music and how their influence affected others, how they felt about being imitated and what this dynamic does to originality in the improviser’s art.

The following excerpt is an example of one such question posed to Lee and involves his thoughts about:

Parker, Young and the Problem of Imitators

“During the 1950s, Konitz began to influence other saxophonists. The problem of responding to imitators is something that he felt as keenly as Charlie Parker and Lester Young, even if there have been fewer in his case. By the 1950s both Parker and Young had become the dominant influences on their respective instruments and had legions of admirers, a fact both found hard to deal with — tenor-player Brew Moore even claimed, "Anyone who doesn't play like Lester is wrong!" In many cases the imitators were white and enjoyed more commercial success. Lester Young was bitter about these imitators, and not just about their greater commercial success, commenting, "They're me. They are taking me. [And] I'm not even dead yet." Lennie Tristano condemned Parker's imitators in characteristically colorful language: "I'lf Charlie Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws he could sue almost everybody who's made a record in the last 10 years. If I were Bird, I'd have all the best boppers in the country thrown into jail!” Charles Mingus echoed the sentiment in his composition "Gunslinging Bird," subtitled "If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats." Konitz begins by describing how he got to know Charlie Parker when both were touring with Stan Kenton's "Festival of Modern American Jazz" in 1954.

Some time after I left the band, in 1953, Stan called me and asked me if I would come as a soloist, for a series of festivals. I said, "Great, who else is gonna be on?" He said, "Charlie Parker." I said, "What!" I never did find out the reason for inviting me and Charlie. But I was coming back to a very familiar situation, and playing with a band I knew, and Charlie was in new surroundings — and I don't think he was in great shape during that tour. The word got out that this young ofay was cutting Bird.

1 got to know Bird a little bit at that time, and he was really a very nice man. He was very considerate. My wife was having a child in New York and I was on the West Coast. He called me and said, "I think you need a friend at this time," and we hung out. Otherwise I never really got to spend a lot of time with him, unfortunately. He always told me that he appreciated that I wasn't playing like him, and I can believe that. I've had a few people trying to play like me. When I first heard Paul Desmond, I wanted to change my sound completely.

But almost everybody played like Charlie Parker. What must he have felt like, this man? Every place he turned was like looking in a mirror. How much he invested to get to that point — what else could he do? Maybe he decided that was enough, and gave it up at the age of thirty-four. Lester Young was very upset by imitators too.

It's a very strange feeling to hear someone playing like you, duplicating what you've worked on for years. Tristano refused to record for a long time, thinking that he would be imitated. He knew that people would be jumping on it and duplicating it quickly. 

Isn't it flattering?

Well it is, but then it gets down to the very basic thing about what you're doing. If someone's already picked it up, that means you've got to go on to new grounds, which is good in a sense. But it gets to feel a bit like a theft of a personal invention. There's no way to patent it! But you're doing it better.
Just the fact that someone is making a sound similar to me was kind of encouraging, and discouraging at the same time, that it was that accessible. I thought I had something unique. Imagine how Charlie Parker felt when they were really playing his notes, and every inflection. Sonny Stitt identified so much that he thought he invented it! That's a very intense psychological disturbance, I think, and obviously Charlie Parker couldn't deal with it ultimately.

You've not had too many saxophonists who are close to your sound. 

A few, not many today. These white players, Paul Desmond, Bud Shank, Gary Foster, the Swedish players Arne Domnerus and Rolf Billberg, were trying to get away from Bird too, so I was an example for them. I think Art Pepper liked my sound and concept to an extent. And, bless him, Gigi Gryce heard us too.
I admired Paul Desmond's playing, but I didn't really love it somehow. It felt very stylized, and kind of pretty — and he had a lot of girlfriends! In fact, when I first heard him I wanted to change my style more, to get away from whatever was pretty in my sound. I've been trying to eliminate "pretty" from my sound and expression. 

Did you feel that he was your closest imitator?

Well, he heard me, but I also thought there was some influence from Stan Getz, and Lester Young, and Zoot Sims. I kind of said, "Thank you," but figured that I had to keep going — if it was that obvious for them to be able to get it, enjoy, but let me find something that's new and personal for me. 

Hearing you last night [at Coventry in 2002), I wonder if in some ways you were getting more lyrical.

I'm hearing that, when I hear myself play, and it really pleases me. To me "more lyrical" means being as melodic as possible at the moment, but not schmaltzy-pretty. Melody is still my chief concern, with a strong rhythmic underline.”

I basically dislike what I call an ugly sound, whatever emotionality it can convey. I can listen to Ornette Coleman now, and not be offended by his tone, and Coltrane too. A lot of guys I still can't listen to. I like Monk's tune "Ugly Beauty" and I know there is such a thing, but I don't like my music to sound that raw!

To be continued with more of Lee’s views on Jazz and its makers and the views of musicians on Lee’s artistry.

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