At 90, Lee Konitz Keeps Swinging, Singing

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Saxophonist Lee Konitz is an NEA Jazz Master.

(Photo: Frank Eppler)

It’s a crisp Monday afternoon in October on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, just a few days after saxophone legend Lee Konitz’s 90th birthday. He is back in town after celebrating with his three daughters, Stephanie, Karen and Rebecca, who traveled from various parts of the country to Washington D.C. to catch their father’s weekend gig at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. After meeting the NEA Jazz Master at his 86th Street apartment, we stroll to the nearby Columbus Cafe, his favorite deli in the neighborhood. As we enter the crowded deli, Konitz begins whistling in a distinctive trill. It’s his code to the short order cooks behind the counter that he has arrived. They acknowledge his presence by whistling back at him as they begin making his usual tuna sandwich. He’s got them trained.

After consuming our tuna sandwiches, we return to Konitz’s apartment for a lively Q&A session. In his library, next to a collection of Chekov and Sherlock Holmes books, there’s a framed picture of his mentor Lennie Tristano, a shot of his trio with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden and several paintings of the alto saxophone great, given to him by various admirers. One vintage picture carries the cutline: “Relative newcomer on the scene Lee Konitz playing at the Royal Roost.” A large painting of Konitz playing his sax sits on the floor in his living room. “A guy on the 13th floor,” he explains. “I don’t really have room to hang it properly so I just let it sit there.”

Konitz is relaxed and sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room, like a king on his throne as he delivers his views on singing, group empathy, scatting, contrafacts and more.

This band that you have now is terrifically empathetic. You seem to have a special connection with them.

Yeah. It’s like that same connection I had with Warne Marsh. I get that now, especially, with Dan Tepfer. He’s a definite listener and I do special things with him. I just love what he plays after what I play, where he really exaggerates or emphasizes what I’m playing and does a great rendition of it somehow. Brad Mehldau was also great to play with. He’s another great listener and an inventive player.

It seems like you’ve surrounded yourself with people like that throughout your career.

Well, that is the most meaningful thing for me because I can depend on them and I don’t have to strain in some way to make something happen; it just happens very naturally. And it’s a great feeling. Most of the time it’s a big effort to make that happen. But this has been very rewarding in terms of the rewards being easily accessible. So I look forward to that.

You had such a remarkable chemistry with Warne Marsh, going back to your 1949 Prestige album Subconscious-Lee and including your classic 1955 album on Atlantic, Lee Konitz With Warne Marsh. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime hookups. Were you guys best pals?

In the beginning, yes, before he went back to his home in California and joined that group of Charlie Parker players [Supersax]. Somehow we just parted company. I remember he was staying in this hotel down the street and I greeted him one day on my way up the street and his way down; he was carrying some materials and things and I said, “Hey, how you doing?” And he almost didn’t stop walking. This was after many months of not communicating. So whatever happened … he was very unfriendly, which was a drag. Because I thought of him as a special guy to befriend. We were close in the early years. We hung out a lot together, got stoned together and things like that, and he opened up some to me. But that didn’t continue and at some point it just felt like I lost a dear companion, a dear colleague.

You also had a tight relationship with Lennie Tristano that ended at some point.

Yes, indeed. He was very open as a teacher and I was very shy to that situation, but I went back to his place every week for a while and I just felt more comfortable each time. I felt like I could relate to Lennie in a certain way that I was very pleased with. So those things helped to cement a relationship. Then when I went with Stan Kenton’s band—I needed to work and I must’ve been making $150 or so a week with Kenton, which was enough to pay the rent and things like that — and Lennie started getting some concert guest shots, and we just lost touch with each other. We didn’t see each other very often or communicate very often after that. And so we just kind of parted company, mostly because I was out there on the road. I regretted that but it seemed the thing that I had to do in order to feel my own oats, so to speak. But I always respected Lennie and appreciated what he was able to communicate to me.

You’ve had this great connection with your horn and vocalizing, which comes out very organically in your sets today. You’ll be playing a line on the alto, then take the horn out of your mouth and continue the line vocally. Where does that impulse come from?

I feel now entirely that the understanding of a tune has to start with vocalizing and not placing your fingers in the right place. So I’ve been much concerned with that lately. And it’s just very satisfying to me to be able to express my feelings about about the song through my instrument and through singing, which always feels like a very satisfying obligation for me.

And you never sing the lyrics, you always improvise using vocalese.

Yeah. I had a thought while I was sleeping the other night: Someone was saying on the telephone, “I think you should sing the lyrics, that would be more meaningful for us.” And I didn’t get a chance to answer him. But I enjoy scatting. After a whole lifetime of being aware of where my fingers are going and hitting the right spot, I can get right into some flow with the scatting. I’m trying to figure out how to add lyrics on some of those standards once in a while. But at the moment I still prefer scatting. It just feels like a very meaningful addition to expressing the song. I can imagine a situation where I would want to sing all the lyrics like the regular singers do. But so far, I just enjoy making it up.

Could you have been this free vocalizing as the young man who played on Birth Of The Cool?

I tried some vocal things during that time. John LaPorta wrote a song with lyrics. I tried duplicating that but it really didn’t work. So I didn’t try doing that anymore. I appreciated the efforts but it was just a little bit too mechanical or something, so I didn’t enjoy that.

Do you have any vocalist role models?

Yeah, I had role models in Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald and all of those great singers … Louis Armstrong, definitely. So I appreciate that kind of influence and just tried to enjoy it as much as possible without being intimidated by it.

You have a lifetime connection with these standards that you continue to play—“All The Things You Are,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Darn That Dream,” “Body And Soul” and others. How do you feel when you’re on the bandstand playing them? Do you reflect on your long relationship with these tunes or are you just strictly in the moment with the melody?

I’m just strictly experiencing the materials as we go along. And there’s a charm in doing those things over and over again, which I justify by saying, “We can do these songs a million times but each time they’re different.” And that’s a very favorable justification to me. It invites a new confrontation with any of those very familiar songs. And transferring them to the horn or just singing … it’s very meaningful to me.

Tell me about your tune “Subconscious-Lee,” which is a contrafact on “What Is This Thing Called Love.”

Yeah, exactly. That’s a technique I just picked it up along the way from whoever invented it, whether it was Bird or whoever. I thought it was a legitimate addition to the vocabulary. I consider it equivalent in some way to adding homemade lyrics to a melody that you could deliver the standard changes on. But then you change them somehow. And that’s kind of how I approach that. But I didn’t have that particular phrase for the action—contrafact.

You have others, like “Thingin’,” which is your take on “All The Things You Are.”

Yeah, another example of a new melody conceived over a standard. It’s a very legitimate stuff that can be criticized by some of the musical critics, but I don’t accept negative criticism on that. I’ve heard, “Why don’t you do an original song already?” and things like that. And I just say, “Because I can do this instead.” I don’t write the original songs. I’ve tried some and we do a couple of them. I wish I could write a hit song, so to speak … like I keep hearing about all of these young guys writing something that’s totally original. But that doesn’t seem to inspire me somehow. I’m not looking for that kind of credit foremost. I just like knowing that I have some familiar stuff that I can do when I’m working. DB




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