Writings about Music

Lee and Leonard: Konitz Figures In West Side Story

Watching the exhilarating documentary, The Making of West Side Story, featuring the composer himself rehearsing and recording this penultimate twentieth century masterpiece, I am reminded of some startling information the legendary alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz, once casually shared with me while conversing during one of the many nature walks we took together. Somehow the subject of Leonard Bernstein came up, and Lee related how the two had lived in the same Manhattan building for a period of time, that Bernstein was an excellent pianist, and … Leonard told him that the song “Cool” from West Side story was directly inspired by his music!

Sure enough, if one examines the song, the inverted cross-pentangle, Kandinsky-like melodic shapes and syncopations of Lee’s inspired and swinging improvisations navigating harmonic contours are apparent, especially in the instrumental elaborations of the score, which are, arguably, the most musically thrilling portions of West Side Story. But even the monumental opening moments of Bernstein’s masterwork - almost as famous as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony - are infused with jazz, but not the jazz of Charlie Parker or Dave Brubeck. Rather, the jazz of Lee Konitz, who was inspired by Lennie Tristano, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Lester Young. This grandly complex musical influence suffuses the atmospheric crosscurrents of West Side Story.

I am uncertain about the extent of the friendship these two musical geniuses - Konitz and Bernstein - had, including what discussions or musical sessions they may have shared, but we do know that Bernstein and Aaron Copland enjoyed frequent visits to the East 32nd Street Manhattan music studio of Lee’s mentor, the magnificent pianist and innovator, Lennie Tristano.

Following his mention of the song, Cool, Lee related with some amusement how Bernstein had invited him to the actual premiere (preview) of West Side Story, which took place in Washington DC, and during intermission, Leonard rushed out to the lobby to ask Lee with considerable anxiety: “What do you think?”

My friendship with Konitz dates back to my teenage years when I had a full summer of private lessons. Originally, I had requested lessons with Phil Woods from the Charles Colin Studios in Manhattan, but Woods was unavailable at the time, and I was offered the amazing opportunity to study with Lee. (Some years later I was to meet Charlie Colin for the first time while living in Maui, and he became one of my best friends.) Those lessons were scheduled for one hour, but they were generously extended to two or three hours without an extra charge. Frequently, I would arrive with a list of at least twenty complex questions to ask. On one memorable occasion, Lee paused to prophesize that one day I would know the answers to all my questions, but that did not seem remotely possible to me at the time.

The last time I saw Lee in 2003, we attended a performance Randy Weston gave at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, following a wonderful dinner at Nate 'n Al's in Beverly Hills. Konitz was annoyed when we had to wait for the start of Weston’s set, and commented, “He’s late for work!” After the performance, we sojourned to the green room, and were soon joined by Horace Silver. Hilarity ensued as these three giants of jazz traded amusing and friendly stories and barbs, some of which involved the subject of marijuana.

Lee, Horace and myself left the club together, and remarkably, Horace apologized to Lee for a phone call he did not return in the fifties! Apparently, Konitz was interested in joining Silver’s group at the time, and had communicated this to the pianist who helped spawn a new jazz genre known inadequately as “Hard Bop.” Horace explained that he had simply been overly busy at the time, and loved Lee’s playing, especially his ability to “play changes.” Then Lee and Horace wandered off to converse in private, and my last sight of the legendary pianist was of him bending forward with acute attention to put a key into what appeared to be a classic mint condition oversized Cadillac parked near the entrance of the Jazz Bakery. A car key, not a measurement of pot.

It’s certainly a shame that Konitz and Bernstein on piano, or Konitz and Lennie Tristano (or Bill Evans) never recorded a duet album featuring the songs in West Side Story. Lee did explain to me that the reason Frank Sinatra never recorded any of the maestro’s songs was because following a performance by the singer relatively early in his career, Bernstein, perhaps inebriated, rushed excitedly backstage and expressed an impolite sexual desire in graphic words that shocked and angered Sinatra, with the unfortunate aftermath of denying us what would have been monumental interpretations of Tonight, Maria, Somewhere, Cool, and other gems. Apparently, Sinatra refused to perform or record music by Bernstein because of this incident, which must have come after On the Town, of course. Sinatra did record Lonely Town in 1957, and there is a live recording where he briefly spoofs Maria, rather than giving it the full and serious treatment we would all love to hear.

In closing, considering the influence of Konitz on West Side Story, I'm now wondering if there was any specific jazz artist who inspired George Gershwin when he composed Rhapsody in Blue, Three Preludes, and other works.

- Michael Robinson, February 2013, Los Angeles


© 2013 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


An English professor friend questioned my usage of "penultimate" in the first paragraph, so I explained my preference for the less common slang definition meaning "second to none," which felt right at the time of writing in the context of West Side Story. She accepted my reasoning along with an admonition not to do it again. (MER)

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.