Lennie Tristano: Watered-Down Bop Destroying Jazz

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Lennie Tristano (1919-1978)

(Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Library Of Congress)

The efforts of such groups as the George Shearing quintet and the Bird-with-strings combo to wean the public to bop by offering it in a commercialized form is producing the opposite effect, according to pianist Lennie Tristano. Lennie, one of jazz’s most adamant iconoclasts, says such efforts are killing off the potential jazz audience and lousing up the musicians involved.

“If you give watered-down bop to the public,” he says, “they’d rather hear that than the real thing. Has George Shearing helped jazz by making his bop a filling inside a sandwich of familiar melody? Obviously not, because there are fewer places where jazz can be played today than there were when George and his quintet started out.

“Look what happened to Charlie Parker. He made some records featuring the melody, and they sold, and he got to be a big thing with the general public. So, they brought him into Birdland with strings to play the same things. And he played badly. Why? Because the psychological strain of playing in a vein which didn’t interest him was too much for him. Things like that don’t help Bird and they don’t help jazz.”

It is for this reason that Lennie has consistently turned a deaf ear to suggestions that he temper his esoteric style, that he play more in a manner that the public can understand in order to build a wider audience for the things he wants to play.

“It would be useless for me to play something I don’t feel,” he says. “I wouldn’t be doing anything. If I played something that I’d have to impose on myself, I wouldn’t be playing anything good.”

Because he can make enough to live on by teaching, Lennie feels he can stick to what he wants to do, even though this means he plays in public only once every couple of months at best. He is not at all surprised that there is a very limited market for his stuff today. This, he thinks, is a natural result of the psychological atmosphere in which we are living.

“Everybody in this country is very neurotic now,” he says. “They’re afraid to experience an intense emotion, the kind of intense emotion, for instance, that’s brought on by good jazz. There’s more vitality in jazz than in any other art form today. Vitality arises from an emotion that is free. But the people, being neurotic, are afraid of being affected by a free emotion and that’s why they put down jazz.

“Since the last war we’ve been overwhelmed by a feeling of insecurity. To try to offset that insecurity, people are reaching back toward happier times. And we’re in an era of nostalgia which is being inflicted on the younger people who have nothing to be nostalgic about.

“Nostalgia brings on anticipation because you know what’s going to happen next. When people start to anticipate, they become intense, waiting for what they know is going to happen. And this tension feeds their neuroses.

“That’s why there’s such a small audience for what I’m doing. What I play is so unorthodox that when you first hear it, you don’t try to anticipate. You just sit there. You have to be very relaxed to start with before you put on one of my records. Consequently, people don’t want to hear my sides as often as, say, [Erroll] Garner’s, because as a rule, they won’t be in a mood that’s receptive to what I play.

“Personally, I make it a definite practice to listen to new music with a blank mind. When I first hear a new piece of music, I make no attempt to analyze it because analysis eliminates emotional reception.”

Eventually, when the atmosphere becomes more relaxed, Lennie thinks people will pick up on jazz. But, conditions being what they are, he foresees as much as a decade of emotional tension that will keep jazz from gaining public acceptance again.

Meanwhile, he feels that everyone who is interested in jazz—musician, fan, and promoter alike—will have to mend his ways if jazz is to stay alive. One of the major factors that is driving jazz into a corner, he thinks, is the development of hidebound jazz cliques.

“Such groups as the New Jazz Society merely continue and stress the cliquishness that is killing jazz today. There ought to be one organization for all jazz fans.”

The ideal way to present jazz to the public, according to Lennie, is to follow the format of the opening show at Birdland last winter. That performances exhibited the major elements of jazz and included Max Kaminsky’s dixie group, blues shouting à la Hot Lips Page, Lester Young’s combo as a bow to the swing era, Charlie Parker’s bop outfit, and Lennie and his Tristanos.

“That was a wonderful show, until it got loused up by a word-happy emcee,” Lennie recalls. “For the first few nights, I was very happy. Before we opened, I was afraid that some of the dixie fans might boo Parker or the boppers might put down Max, but everybody was very happy.

“Nobody on the stand or in the audience put anybody down, and everybody seemed glad to get together. I had some very good talks with Max and with George Wettling during those nights.”

Lennie spends very little time listening to dixie now, but that doesn’t mean that he fluffs it off or dismisses it as an inconsequential jazz element.

“I developed with dixie,” he says. “I used to buy all the records. But it’s like growing up. When you’ve spent 10 years with an art form, it’s time to move on. I’ve listened to it all, and now I’m interested in other developments in jazz.”

Many musicians, according to Lennie, are not helping jazz by their attitudes toward their work.

“Musicians could do more for jazz than they’re doing,” he says. “They could take a greater interest in what they’re doing. I know that if I were hired to play in, say, Dizzy’s band, I’d play my tail off.” DB


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