|| Lennie Tristano
03 19 - Chicago, IL
Death: 1978 11 18 - New York, NY
of jazz is written as a recounting of the lives of its most famous (and
presumably, most influential) artists. Reality is not so simple, however.
Certainly the very most important of the music's innovators are those whose
names are known by all -- Armstrong, Parker, Young,
Coltrane. Unfortunately, the jazz critic's tendency to inflate the
major figures' status often comes at the expense of other musicians' reputations
-- men and women who have made significant, even essential, contributions
of their own, are, for whatever reason, overlooked in the mad rush to canonize
a select few. Lennie Tristano is one of those who have not yet received
their critical due. In the mid-'40s, the Chicago-born pianist arrived on
the scene with a concept that genuinely expanded the prevailing bop aesthetic.
Tristano brought to the music of Charlie Parker and Bud
Powell a harmonic language that adapted the practices of contemporary
classical music; his use of polytonal effects in tunes like "Out on a Limb"
was almost Stravinsky-esque, and his extensive use of counterpoint
was (whether or not he was conscious of it at the time) in keeping with
the trends being set in mid-century art music. Until relatively recently,
it had seldom been acknowledged that Tristano had been the first
to perform and record a type of music that came to be called "free jazz."
In 1949 -- almost a decade before the making of Ornette Coleman's
first records -- Tristano's group (which included Lee Konitz,
Warne Marsh, and Billy Bauer) cut the first recorded example
of freely improvised music in the history of jazz. The two cuts, "Intuition"
and "Digression," were created spontaneously, without any pre-ordained reference
to time, tonality, or melody. The resultant work was an outgrowth of Tristano's
preoccupation with feeling and spontaneity in the creation of music. It
influenced, among others, Charles Mingus, whose earliest records
sound eerily similar to those of Tristano in terms of style and compositional
technique. Mingus came by the influence honestly; he studied with
the pianist for a period in the early '50s, as did many other well-known
jazz musicians, such as Sal Mosca, Phil Woods, and the aforementioned
Konitz and Marsh.
was stricken permanently blind as an infant. He first studied music with
his mother, an avocational pianist and opera singer. From 1928-38, he
attended a school for the blind in Chicago, where he learned music theory
and developed proficiency on several wind instruments. Later, he attended
Chicago's American Conservatory of Music, from which he received a bachelor's
degree in 1943. During his early years as a professional performer and
teacher, Tristano worked in and around Chicago, achieving his first
measure of critical attention and attracting his first important students,
Konitz and composer/arranger Bill Russo.
In 1946, Tristano
moved to New York, where he made something of a big splash, performing
with many of the leading musicians of the day, including Dizzy Gillespie
and Charlie Parker. The influential critic Barry Ulanov
took an extreme liking to Tristano's music and championed his work
in the pages of Metronome magazine; Tristano was named the
publication's Musician of the Year for 1947. Tenor saxophonist Warne
Marsh began studies with Tristano in 1948, and when Bauer
and Konitz came back aboard, he had the core of his great sextet.
In 1949 -- with the addition of bassist Arnold Fishkin and alternating
drummers Harold Granowsky and Denzil Best -- Tristano,
Bauer, Konitz, and Marsh recorded what was to become
the basis of the band's collective legacy, the Capitol album Crosscurrents.
The Capitol sessions spawned many of Tristano's best-known works,
including the title track, and of course, the freely improvised cuts "Digression"
and "Intuition" (these latter recorded without a drummer). The recordings
synthesized the Tristano approach: long, rhythmically and harmonically
elaborate melodies were played over a smooth, almost uninflected swing
time maintained by the bassist and drummer. Counterpoint, which had been
mostly abandoned by post-New Orleans/Chicago players, made a comeback
in Tristano's music. Tristano's written lines were a great
deal more involved than the already complex melodies typical of bebop;
he subdivided and multiplied the beat in odd groupings, and his harmonies
did not always behave in a manner consistent with functional tonality.
The complexity of his constructs demanded that his rhythm section provide
little more than a solid foundation. Tristano's bassists and drummers
were not expected to interact in the manner of a bop rhythm section, but
to support the music's melodic and harmonic substance. Such restraint
lent Tristano's music an emotionally detached air, which to this
day has been used by unsympathetic critics as a sledgehammer to pound
In 1951, Tristano
founded a school of jazz in New York, the first of its kind. Its faculty
consisted of many of his most prominent students, including Konitz,
Bauer, Marsh, and pianist Sal Mosca. His public performances
became fewer and farther between; for the rest of his life, Tristano
was to concentrate on teaching, mostly to the exclusion of everything
else. He shut down his school in 1956, and began teaching out of his home
on Long Island. Thereafter he would play occasionally at the Half Note
in New York City. Recordings became scarce. He made two albums for Atlantic,
Lennie Tristano and The New Tristano. A compilation of odds
and ends entitled Descent Into the Maelstrom was released on Inner
City; its title track documents Tristano's experiments in multi-track
recording of the piano. He toured Europe in 1965; his last public performance
in the U.S. was in 1968.
Until his death
in 1978, Tristano continued to teach. A later generation of his
adherents continues to work and thrive in New York to this day. Musicians
like pianist Connie Crothers, saxophonists Lennie Popkin
and Richard Tabnik, and drummer Carol Tristano -- the pianist's
daughter -- carry on his work into the next century. ~
All Music Guide