[JPL] Zwerin on Konitz in IHT

Steve Schwartz steve_schwartz at wgbh.org
Wed Dec 8 21:04:33 EST 2004

At 77, seeking new paths in jazz

By Mike Zwerin International Herald Tribune
Wednesday, December 1, 2004

 Lee Konitz, whose forbears went to America to escape the pogroms of Eastern
Europe, is aware of the irony of his living in Germany and owning a vacation
house in Poland. The idea of Poland now being a place for Jews to relax
brings a smile to his face.
The house is three doors down from where his German wife grew up. When he is
away from their apartment in Cologne, traveling to play his saxophone,
Konitz likes to take long walks in strange cities: "To the left one time, to
the right the next."
In Paris for a two-night stand at the Sunset club, he walked to the
Tuileries Gardens. As he explored its paths, he said, he thought that they
were kind of like his music. Although he plays the same standards most of
the time, he always tries to find new paths through them. If he hears
himself playing familiar licks, he'll take the saxophone out of his mouth.
It is "essential," he says, "to get away from fixed functions."
When, in 1948, Miles Davis hired him to play with the band that became known
as the "Birth of the Cool," the leader's black-American peers criticized him
for hiring "that white cat." Davis, who knew that all improvisers with
something to say must remain true to their internal grooves, and that being
white or black (or rock or jazz) is only part of it, replied that as long as
Konitz had a sound like that, he didn't care if the sax player was green.
For a horn-man, having your sound admired by Miles Davis was sort of like
being awarded a Legion of Honor.
Konitz's sound was considered "white" in the corridors of power. The concept
of "cool" jazz itself was considered white, despite the fact that Davis
supposedly gave birth to it. It was too "West Coast," too far behind the
beat; the absence of vibrato was more freezing than cool for a lot of
people. The 77-year-old Konitz is one of the only improvisers left who are
immediately recognizable by their sound alone. He was one of the few
altoists of his generation not overwhelmed by Charlie (Bird) Parker.
Konitz's fragile, childlike, upper-partial-heavy, and uniquely Bird-free
style emerged in the 1940s and '50s with Claude Thornhill, Lenny Tristano,
and Stan Kenton. Once Parker and Konitz were co-guest soloists at a Kenton
concert, and Bird said to him: "Thank you for not playing like me." He took
it as a compliment.
Konitz would prefer to travel first class, and to stay in five star hotels,
but he understands that a musician who is trying to get away from fixed
functions should be grateful for any economic viability he can get. When he
first saw the Sunset, he said to himself that he was too old to play in
these basement joints. He complained about claustrophobia and the steep
stairway. But seeing the club fill up to capacity, he thought: "These people
could have stayed at home and watched TV or played rummy, but they come out
in the rain, they pay good money, they really listen, and they want an
encore. Bless them. So I stopped kvetching."
His recordings are released on an international assortment of independent
labels with nothing resembling a marketing plan. Preferring to search for
adventure with a variety of musicians, he does not lead a steadily working
band. He'd rather play for less money with musicians he respects than the
other way around. After he compares his life on the road to "a traveling
salesman hauling his samples around," ask him what he's selling, and he
replies: "Eighth notes." Ask him who needs eighth notes these days, and he
says: "Everybody needs that stuff."
There's a concert with Paul Bley and Bill Frisell coming up in January in
Chicago, and he'll head the bill at Birdland in New York in February. He
considers himself lucky to have a month off in between. Booking a tour of
the Netherlands for 2006, Konitz reminded the promoters that people his age
are advised not to buy green bananas.
Along with the long walks, a strict diet and the constant renewal involved
when you improvise in public for a living, he attributes his longevity to
"not doing any chemicals." "I'll drink wine with dinner," he says, "but I've
never partaken of the chemical culture. One night in the '50s, I was going
into the men's room at the Village Vanguard and Miles was coming out and he
handed me one of those little folded packages of cocaine. So I took it. And
I got a headache from it. That was my Jewish brain telling me that it's too
He is pleased to be able to say that he still has "so-called childish
tendencies": "I like to tap dance. I like to be silly. I'm fascinated by
toddlers who are just out of the buggy. I saw one today in the Tuileries,
and I thought that this little guy has got the whole 21st century in front
of him. I just wish him luck."

 Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com


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