Writings about Music

Benny Goodman Is An Equally Important Influence on Lee Konitz

Benny Goodman and Cozy Cole

Finally getting around to listening closely and understanding the clarinet improvisations of Benny Goodman, it is crystal clear he and Lennie Tristano are equally important jazz influences on Lee Konitz, with Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker figuring, too.

Lee actually studied performed and recorded with Lennie, of course, but the feel, expression and drive are all predominantly from Benny Goodman, whom Lee Konitz told me was his first jazz love, and because of that a very special, everlasting connection.

Lee's melodic to harmonic relationships, and extended phrase lengths, together with his notated compositions, all more abstract, predominantly stem from Lennie Tristano.

An overall truth is how Goodman touched closer to Lee's expressive nature, while Tristano appealed more to his intellectual appetites. Add to this how the clarinet and alto saxophone are infinitely closer in terms of actual construction and playing implimentation compared to the piano.

Konitz didn't copy Goodman or Tristano, of course, he expanded upon conceptual broad strokes and subtleties exemplified by them as part of the alto saxophonist becoming one of the main architects of modern jazz in the evolution from swing.

The Goodman and Tristano connections are key, setting an example for Konitz mining his Jewish American identity as Goodman did first, likewise Tristano with his Italian American roots, as opposed to attempted eumulation of African American identity.

All three musicians are primary architects of either swing (Goodman) or modern jazz (Tristano and Konitz), including Lester Young citing Goodman as a primary influence. Konitz and Tristano also inspired the avant-garde, Lee being a model for cool and west coast jazz as well. More so, the stated favorite musician of Konitz was Lester Young, something I feel reinforces my overall opinion presented in this writing given the tenor saxophonist's shared connection to Goodman.

The musical closeness of Benny and Lee is especially noteworthy for myself, now being a jazz pianist, and sharing their Jewish heritage. Simultaneously, I am also one with both African American and Italian American culture, really all of these crosscultural elements, and more, being one here in America in consciousness and spirit, as Benny, Lee and Lennie concurred.

All in all, it is now evident to me how Benny Goodman was a titanically pervasive influence on jazz, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Some of the confusion, no doubt, comes from how Goodman was so widely popular with the general public, too, his fame sometimes overshadowing his actual innovatory playing and musicianship.

My personal jazz orientation began with modern jazz, followed by modal and avant-garde jazz, and it's only been in recent years I began studying Swing closely, discovering it to be second to none among all the jazz periods.

A composition teacher at CalArts, Mel Powell, was in one of Benny Goodman's famous band incarnations, and they remained close friends, so I wish my relationship with Mel had developed such that I might have been introduced to Benny, whom I knew resided one block away from where I lived in Manhattan at 65th Street and First Avenue, Goodman being at 66th Street and Second Avenue. Then again, I wasn't hip to how hip Swing and Benny were back then, so it likely would have passed over my head if we did meet.

In 2003, Lee Konitz cancelled a visit we had planned to the Newbury Park home of Artie Shaw about 90 minutes away at the last minute, and I was devastated because even though I still was very much ignorant of Swing and Shaw's essential contribution, I knew this was an opportunity to encounter greatness. Shaw passed away one year later at 94, and the opportunity was lost forever. Lee said his reason for cancelling was that he anticipated Artie would be talking and talking without wishing to listen at all, but that would have been fine with me, all ears.

Similar to how I earlier this year uncovered how the alto saxophone style of Sonny Stitt is the primary influence on the unique tenor saxophone tone of John Coltrane, and last year revealing how the much discussed tuning of La Monte Young is actually an enharmonic raga, it appears I am now the first person, again wearing my musicologist hat, to elucidate the equally important influence of Benny Goodman on Lee Konitz.

But these writings are really my composer and musician hats because they originate as a form of self-discovery, a way of learning about music, and only afterwards are they shared publicly. In both instances, as in all my writings about music, I rely upon listening to the music itself and reaching my own conclusions as opposed to mindlessly repeating whatever conventions and cliches may appear in books and viewpoints, trusting my musical perceptions and instincts which have been validated by artists like Pandit Jasraj and Lee Konitz, self-validation being paramount, of course.

Also a bit late, I again tip my hat to Rollan Masciarelli, who raved about Benny Goodman as much as he did about Charlie Parker, it just taking me a while to understand how correct he was. Mr. Masciarelli also believed Lee Konitz to be the second greatest alto saxophonist after Bird.

- Michael Robinson, December 2022, Maui


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills