Writings About Music
These references to the music of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein bring to mind Jewish jazz musicians who charted their own course within the newly emerging and evolving American musical art form known as jazz. With Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw there were few antecedents irrespective of ethnicity and cultural background, and their styles on clarinet sometimes closely relate to klezmer, but always sound Jewish as opposed to African American. Lester Young cited Goodman as one of his prime influences, and Charlie Parker memorized the solos of Shaw (in addition to those of Young), which demonstrated a technique second to none in the realm of Western classical music.
With Lee Konitz, the depth of Jewish intellectual and sensual energies and subtleties are revealed not only in terms of breathing, silence, space, tone qualities and expressive tendencies (a timeless melancholic wail, quiver and sigh contrasted with fierce assertiveness), but also with exquisitely labyrinthine melodic complexities extoling an unmatched enharmonic sense together with a nature of true adventure and adaptability to both fresh situations and endless variety within sameness, as evidenced by a reflexively innate inability to repeat himself for that would entail not being in the moment, something antithetical to true extemporization and (aesthetic) survival itself.
Leonard Bernstein told Lee Konitz that his playing inspired the song Cool. Indeed, the specific jazz feel of West Side Story is closer to the style of Konitz than any other jazz artist, particularly in the instrumental passages.
A recent composition of mine, Celestial Crocodile, contains some oblique references to a composition by Lee Konitz titled Kary's Trance, which has long been my choice for the most exquisite jazz composition. Its a shame that John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Stan Getz, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and others never recorded interpretations because it would have provided scintillating stimulation for their creative imaginations.
Konitz and Bernstein lived in the same West Side Manhattan building at one point, and my teacher, Lee, once told me what an excellent pianist Lenny was. Of course, the same is true for Lennie (Tristano), Lee's teacher, who possessed a keyboard technique so astounding he might well have been able to play the swooping and darting piano part featured in Celestial Crocodile. The percussion part? Kenny Clarke, Alan Dawson, Elvin Jones, Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, Stan Levey and some others might well have been able to recreate that too on their trap sets. It would have been one heck of a session.
Lee sent me a letter in 1995, commenting on my Hamoa album, and contrasting my approach to composition and performance for the Meruvina with his own way of making music: "Just returned and found your CD. Very nice - swings good! It's great doing the whole thing yourself. I just go in and play, and the rest is out of my hands."
It's interesting to note how Lennie Tristano was perhaps the first person to do multi-track recording, in addition to having a musical style with some remarkable conceptual connections to both Conlon Nancarrow's player piano and my Meruvina.
Regarding Leonard Bernstein, it is evident that like myself he is largely indebted to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I've always heard Shostakovich in poly-modal terms, anticipating my use of Indian ragas. His inspired and uninhibited rhythmic and expressive nature and vividly organic use of timbral color resonates so deeply in me it must be related to our common Russian heritage. My father's parents came to America from Russia.
Related to another theme of this essay, Konitz also possesses a devastating sense of humor delivered with perfect timing. There was the time he was performing at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City alongside altoist Gary Foster. Pausing in-between numbers, he asked the audience in the form of presenting a riddle if they knew what was worse than an alto saxophone. There actually remains still in some quarters the notion that the saxophone, much younger than most musical instruments, is an illegitimate invention. And its true that an alto saxophone played poorly is about the most miserable sounding thing in all of music. After a briefly pregnant pause, he answered his own question: "Two alto saxophones."
Same is true for his appropriate anger. At the same venue on another occasion, two young women sitting alongside me in the front row clearly had expected a lighter form of jazz, not being familiar with the esoteric nature of Lee's playing, and found his music and mannerisms hysterical, laughing out loud in an altogether rude and ignorant manner as if it was the funniest thing they had ever heard and seen. After the piece was concluded, Lee walked to the edge of the stage, and leaning over, advised them that they would have to leave the theater right now if they couldn't keep quiet and respectful. Konitz had appeared to be playing mostly with his eyes closed, and the expressions on the women's faces shifted faster than the modulations in the bridge of The Song Is You. Their source of laughter had instantly and unexpectedly transformed into a powerfully confrontational drama, though without any yelling, just a clear and chillingly focused admonishment. Stunned, they looked at each other in disbelief, their faces having turned pale, and immediately got up and left with considerable indignation. It was a real artist they had been witnessing, not a pantomime. If Anton Webern was correct about life being about defending a form, Konitz had exemplified that philosophy in a jumping jack flash, not waiting for anyone else to come to the rescue, but doing it himself, benefiting the rest of us too in the process.
It would have been even worse for those women if Lee had prepared a meal for them. He once served me some brown rice and vegetables he had cooked up and it wasn't exactly La Côte Basque. But that's unfair coming from someone who once concocted an eggplant omelette that made the culinary angels weep.
- Michael Robinson, October 2016, Los Angeles
© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).