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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,437

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This is the grave of Lee Konitz.

Born in 1927 in Chicago, Konitz grew up in a Jewish family. His parents had immigrated from Austria and Russia. The family still spoke Yiddish at home when he grew up. From a very early age, Konitz was interested in music, which surprised his parents since no one else in the family was musically inclined, but they supported him and yeah, it was a good idea. In 1938, Konitz got a clarinet as a present after becoming obsessed with Benny Goodman. But he soon switched to tenor sax because he had discovered Lester Young and liked him more.

By 1945, Konitz had professional gigs, playing in Teddy Powell’s band. By 1947, he was working with the most forward thinking members of the white jazz scene, such as Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan. So when Miles Davis was looking for a band to make some early recordings, he was happy to hire white musicians if they were good enough and that included Konitz, Mulligan, and Al Haig (by far the superior person by that name in American history), among others. So he is on Birth of the Cool. Miles Davis had harsh things to say about white people and they were deserved, but he never let that get in the way of hiring the musicians he wanted, regardless of race.

Konitz is not the most famous jazzman of his era, but he is among the most interesting. Part of that is that he was most definitely not one of the people who grew up in the big band era who struggled to change as the music changed. No, that was not a problem Konitz had. His work extended from his Goodman love (in fact, he once turned down an offer from Goodman to join his orchestra and he always regretted saying no) to free jazz in the 70s. Like Miles and Coltrane, Konitz was always searching for new sounds and new ways to express himself on his instrument. So over the next couple of decades, he recorded a lot of albums as a bandleader, he worked with Stan Kenton, he worked with Elvin Jones.

His 1967 album The Lee Konitz Duets is especially interesting. In today’s free jazz, you can hear almost any instrumental combination you want. If you want a flute/violin duet album, I am sure it is out there somewhere. But this was really not the case in 1967. Even the more avant garde jazz people were still using mostly traditional music combinations. But on that album, Konitz decided to put himself into conversation with another musician in ways that were still pretty unknown. So some recordings were just him and a trombone, with no traditional rhythm instruments. Others were two saxophones challenging each other to take the music into new places. Another song was between him and Ellington‘s sometimes violinist Ray Nance. Another was him and the great guitarist Jim Hall. Really an important album.

Other interesting albums followed. In 1973, he recorded Altissimo, which was four saxophonists–himself, Gary Bartz, Jackie McLean, and Charlie Mariano, with a piano, bass, drum backing that included the avant-garde Danish drummer Han Bennink, who I once saw play with Peter Brotzmann and it was the only time I ever saw a drummer push back and play his cymbals with his feet. He did a solo saxophone album in 1974, with Lone-Lee. Some didn’t care for Konitz much, saying his playing lacked feeling and was more technical. I don’t think I agree with this critique and will instead note that he is really influential on a lot of contemporary musicians who play subdued but technically proficient and often quite challenging ways today.

Even for a legend like Konitz, life could be hard. The 1960s especially were rough for him. He struggled to get gigs and even stopped playing for awhile. The 70s saw him move back into something closer like the spotlight and in his late career, he was a senior figure, respected by all and loved by many. By the 90s, he was playing all the time. He did an album in 1997 called Saxophone Dreams, where he was backed by a gigantic orchestra. In 2012, he was part of a short-lived band called Enfant Terribles, with Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, and Gary Peacock, that sold out a bunch of shows in New York. Really, the albums were just pouring out by the 90s, sometimes eleven a year, in the case of 1995 and 2007. That’s a lot of releases! Of course, none of them sold many copies, but that’s because, I have stated before, people like the idea of jazz more than they like to sit and and listen to jazz, so the market just isn’t really there. But then, while you certainly hope to make money on your releases, when you are dropping eleven in a year, it isn’t about the money. It’s that you have this lifeforce inside of you that needs to get out and you are doing it for those who care, for posterity, and OK, maybe hoping that one sells a bit too.

Konitz received his deserved recognition late in life too. For example, in 2009, he was named an NEA Jazz Master, which is a high honor in the jazz world. He rarely explored the pop world, but he did agree to play on Elvis Costello’s 2003 album North, which may not be a great Costello album, but is still notable for Konitz’s performance. Late in life, he got more interested in vocal improvisation and many of his later performances saw him stop his sax playing from time and time and continue the theme with his voice. His health was getting bad toward the end, but he kept playing.

Unfortunately, Konitz was the perfect storm for being an early Covid victim. He died of the virus in April 2020 in New York. He was 92 years old.

Let’s listen to some Lee Konitz.

This should keep you all going for awhile.

Lee Konitz is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. I had no idea he was there and wasn’t looking for him. But there he was.

If you want this series to visit other NEA Jazz Masters who won the award in 2009, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Toots Thielemans lived most of his life in the U.S. but was buried back home in La Hulpe, Belgium, so I guess that one is unlikely. In the U.S. though, the great recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder is in Paramus, New Jersey and the trumpeter Snooky Young is in Hollywood. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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