Jazz at 100 Hour 33: Proto-Cool – Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz (1946 – 1955)

Lennie Tristano

Pianist Lennie Tristano was a very visible participant in the modern jazz innovations of the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, winning polls and participating in all-star jam sessions. Yet his music was always a little outside the mainstream and was increasingly so as he began to experiment with fully improvised performances by 1947. While his focus on low dynamics and long flowing lines has been seen as a precursor of the cool school that arose early in the 1950s, the better argument may be made that Tristano created an intellectual setting for the free jazz to come.

“Lennie Tristano’s impact on the development of jazz piano is perhaps even more difficult to gauge than Monk’s. During most of his life, Tristano remained an outsider in the jazz world. He recorded little and, as the years passed, increasingly restricted his music making to the confines of his home. His influence was more often exerted indirectly, through the activities of his students and followers, rather than his own efforts. At times this corps of ardent admirers took on the appearance of a cult, of which Tristano stood as high priest and oracle. For members, Tristano was the seer who saw the outlines of the future of jazz, celebrating it as a rugged, cerebral music, unforgiving and uncompromising. For those less favorably inclined, Tristano was a monomaniac whose mark on the jazz scene was a matter of manipulation, rather than a result of superior musical values.” – Ted Gioia

Lennie Tristano Trio.
“Gunther Schuller has cited Tristano’s 1946 trio performance of ‘I Can’t Get Started’ as a landmark in the development of jazz, comparing it to Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ and Ellington’s ‘Cotton Tail.’ Again it is the futuristic element of the music that is compelling, its startling harmonic conception, bordering at times on atonality, and its rhythmic complexity leading Schuller to praise the performance as “one of the most prophetic recordings in all jazz history.” – Ted Gioia

I Can’t Get Started. Lennie Tristano Trio
(Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Clyde Lombardi-b). 10/8/1946. (Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano)

“Most commentators and historians have listed him as a member of the cool school that predominated during the 1950s. But this classification captures only a small part of Tristano’s legacy. For the most part, his music had little in common with the pared-down melody lines, the warm lyricism, the relaxed tempos and chamber music delicacy that characterized the cool jazz vocabulary. Schuller, for his part, evaluates Tristano as part of his study of The Swing Era, and though a case could be made linking the pianist to swing period musicians such as Art Tatum and Mel Powell, this too remains an unsatisfying choice. Finally, one might see Tristano as a precursor of the later free jazz movement. All these supposed genealogies can point to some family likeness to justify their claims. However, to my ears, Tristano’s closest allegiance was to none of these schools, but rather to the bebop movement; he shared its fascination with long melodic lines, its celebration of intensity, its refusal to compromise, and its imperative to experiment.” – Ted Gioia

It would be hard to find jazz piano recordings from the mid-1940s more drenched in dissonance, more harmonically “out there” than “Atonement” and “I Can’t Get Started,” from Tristano’s 1946–47 Keynote performances. – Ted Gioa

Atonement. Lennie Tristano Trio
(Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Bob Leiningeri-b). 5/23/1947

Tristano with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz.
“Tristano’s 1949 recordings with Konitz and Marsh include some of the most intriguing jazz performances of the period. His 1949 tracks with Konitz for the Prestige label are especially uncompromising. Charlie Parker once suggested that the essence of modern jazz improvisation came from using the higher intervals of the underlying chords. Tristano and Konitz take Parker at his word here—maybe too much so: it almost sounds as if they are avoiding the lower intervals on these tracks. As a result, this music risks giving listeners a queasy, ungrounded sensation, despite its lissome execution. Tristano’s 1949 recordings for Capitol also approach musical vertigo at times, but the playing is more robust, especially in the aptly titled ‘Wow.’” – Ted Gioia

Wow. Lennie Tristano Sextet
(Lee Konitz-as, Wayne Marsh-ts, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b, Harold Granowsky-d). 3/4/1949

While Ted Gioia sees Tristano solidly in the bebop world, Martin Schowten (in the notes from Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz) hears the roots of cool in his playing. “Cool, that’s what used to be the catchword. Paralleling the exciting developments of Charlie Parker and the boppers, Lennie’s select coterie of musicians developed a low temperature approach to jazz improvisation. Unusual and exciting harmonic and rhythmic twists were rare in the pure Tristano style, which was largely based on the construction of flowing melodic lines that swept across normally accepted breaks in phrasing. In terms of the dynamic level nothing much was allowed to happen and the rhythm section was only to play a time-keeping role. The drummers had to play brushes on their snare drum, with a completely even attack throughout. The bass player had to follow the same procedure … So the listener’s attention is focused on the melody.”

Subconscious Lee. Lennie Tristano Sextet
(Lee Konitz-as, Wayne Marsh-ts, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b, Harold Granowsky-d). 1/11/1949. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)
Crosscurrents. Lennie Tristano Sextet
(Lee Konitz-as, Wayne Marsh-ts, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b, Harold Granowsky-d). 3/4/1949. (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz)

Free-Form Group Improvisation.
Tristano may have been playing within the emerging bebop tradition and he may have been previewing attitudes that soon defined cool jazz but “Intuition” and “Digression” from his 1947 quintet with Warne Marsh on tenor and Lee Konitz on alto are the first recorded examples in the jazz idiom of completely free-form group improvisation.

Intuition. Lennie Tristano Quintet
(Lee Konitz-as, Warne Marsh-ts, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b). 5/16/1947.
Digression. Lennie Tristano Quintet
(Lee Konitz-as, Warne Marsh-ts, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b). 5/16/1947.

Electronic Experimentation.
“Even when he pursued more mainstream efforts, Tristano seemed doomed to get caught up in controversy and partisan jazz debates. His 1955 recordings of ‘Line Up’ and ‘Turkish Mambo’ for the Atlantic label employed overdubbing and tape manipulation. Critics complained that Tristano “sped up” the tape of ‘Line Up,’ and the resulting brouhaha prevented many from hearing the riveting brilliance of the improvisation. Played at any speed, it stands out as one of the finest jazz piano performances of the era.” – Ted Gioia

Line Up. Lennie Tristano Trio
(Lennie Tristano-p, Peter Ind-b, Jeff Morton-d). From Lennie Tristano. 6/11/1955.
Turkish Mambo. Lennie Tristano Trio
(Lennie Tristano-p, Peter Ind-b, Jeff Morton-d). From Lennie Tristano. 6/11/1955.

Tristano and Konitz.
“[Lee Konitz] came under the influence of Lennie Tristano early and along with Warne Marsh shaped the definitive cool saxophone sound (he was a part of the Birth Of The Cool project and won Miles’s always begrudged admiration), but later he assimilated bebop and free playing as well… Subconscious-Lee brings together material made under Lennie Tristano’s leadership in January 1949, with quartet and quintet tracks made a few months later, featuring Marsh on ‘Tautology’ and four other numbers. The alto sound is light, slightly dry and completely unlike the dominant Charlie Parker model of the time.” – Brian Morton and Richard Cook.

Tautology. Lee Konitz Quintet
(Lee Konitz-as, Warne Marsh-ts, Sal Mosca-p, Arnold Fishkin-b, Jeff Morton-d). 9/27/1949.
Fishin’ Around. Lee Konitz Quintet
(Lee Konitz-as, Warne Marsh-ts, Sal Mosca-p, Arnold Fishkin-b, Denzil Best-d). 6/28/1949.

“”…[Lennie Tristano’s] influence proved lasting, especially through the music of the incredibly prolific Konitz, the one alto saxophonist of the bop era with a sound and attack utterly unlike that of Charlie Parker. The aspect of Tristano’s teachings that Konitz enshrined and perfected was the refusal to play familiar licks, riffs and other auto-pilot clichés.” – Gary Giddens & Scott DeVeaux

Progression. Lennie Tristano Quintet
(Lee Konitz-as, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b, Shelly Manne-d). 1/11/1949
Judy. Lennie Tristano Quartet
(Lee Konitz-as, Lennie Tristano-p, Billy Bauer-g, Arnold Fishkin-b). 1/11/1949

Rebecca. Lee Konitz – Billy Bauer Duo
(Lee Konitz-as, Billy Bauer-g). 4/7/1950.
Lennie Tristano may have initiated some jazz innovations that influenced the move toward a cooler modern jazz, but the traditional telling of that story begins with Miles Davis. After four years with Charlie Parker, Miles made a surprising series of recordings with arrangements by John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans and featuring an unusual front line of trumpet, trombone, French horn. tuba, alto and baritone. These recordings from 1949 and 1950, were repackaged by Capitol in 1957 as “The Birth of the Cool”. We will listen to these recordings and related explorations by Lewis, Mulligan and Evans in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Columbia P6 11891.
Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 0391.
Lennie Tristano – Intuition. Proper Records ProperBox 64.
Lennie Tristano – Lennie Tristano. Rhino 8122737122.
Lee Konitz – Subconscious-Lee. Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 186.

Giddens, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 12. The 1950s: Cool Jazz and Hard Bop
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 6. Modern Jazz
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Lennie Tristano – Lennie Tristano
Lee Konitz – Subconscious-Lee
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 39. Lennie Tristano, Lennie Tristano/The New Tristano (1955-1962)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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