I think I’ve heard the name of Lee Konitz for as long as I’ve been aware that there was jazz in the world. I wish I knew more about the music and the man. I do know he’s 82 and still going strong – writing, playing, inventing. The last has always been the most important because improvisation is at the heart of his music.
Born in Chicago of Jewish immigrant parents, he took up the clarinet at eleven but soon left it for the saxophone, and finally the baritone saxophone. In the late 1940s he played with jazz luminaries like Claude Thornhill, Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano and became one of the founders of cool jazz. At a time when most saxophone players fell under the spell of Charlie Parker, he incorporated what he wanted of Parker’s ideas, but kept his own musical identity.
In the ’50s Konitz continued to work with Tristano, who was his most important mentor, but also with people like Stan Kenton and Gerry Mulligan. In the ’60s he recorded a series of duets with different instrumentalists, ranging over many styles of jazz. Over the decades he has continued to go his own way, improvising and making music in the same thoughtful and distinctive manner, stretching jazz standards to their limits. In the early ’90s, two days after his wife of 32 years died, when his age was truly catching up with him, he became the first white winner of the Jazz Par prize of the Danish Jazz Society, a major award with enough perks to send him back into the music world.
The reason I got interested in Konitz was a recent article by Patrick Jarenwattonanon on National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme. The musician was playing a concert at New York’s Village Vanguard. (You can hear the whole thing online at NPR’s site.) The author suggests that Konitz may be an example of “late style,” the same idea I described briefly in my post of February 15. Edward Said’s “late style” is about risk taking by an artist who has transcended the egoistic fear of failure and who holds to “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against.”
More and more in Lee Konitz’s late age, according to Jarenwattonanon and other reviewers, he’s starting each piece with a blank slate, without even the most minimal plan, allowing the music to just freely evolve. He takes his time, pausing at great length sometimes to think about his next notes and phrases. He continues, as he always has, to seek out new musical partners so that the context is even newer, less of a known. It doesn’t always work out; it’s always a risk.
In a stubborn old man kind of way, writes Jarenwattonanon, he insists on playing his game at most gigs he plays. And you can see why: the struggle of creating that strain, that push-and-pull, makes for a thrill that you’d never see in any session that involves prior planning.
But is this any different from what he’s always done? Konitz’s “late style” seems instead to be the way he’s always worked. Certainly, Lee Konitz understands his life that way. This is from a 2000 interview.
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 it’s almost impossible to really make it work effectively, but it’s still a surprise….