Why is this here?
I have always loved music and it was always assumed, in my family, that you would take up an instrument and play. Piano lessons. I think I started too young. I never enjoyed the piano lessons and it was a chore for my parents to make me practice. They gave up on me more than a few times. The best part of playing the piano for me was the pre-musical ideas I discovered while “improvising.” Nothing more than playing two notes next to each other and moving up and down by one note – but it wasn’t just the sound that knocked me out, it was the feeling I was getting from playing it. I must have been about 5 years old at the time, but the memory is very vivid among an otherwise cloudy childhood.
There was always some jazz playing in my house, I can’t tell you everyone, but I know it included; Lennie and his school (of course), Bird, Prez, Getz, Mulligan, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Arte Shaw, I could go on, but it stretched back to Louis Armstrong (as all jazz lines do) and fully covered the swing era – the music of my parents’ youth. The evolution of jazz (for the most part) stopped with Lennie Tristano, my dad’s brother, yet all of the predecessors were necessary to arrive at that evolutionary point in time. By listening to the innovators, you can hear the story of jazz in the musicians. Who needs Ken Burns anyway!
When I was young, the piano in the living room was always being used. My sister had far greater attention span than did I and progressed with her ability to play. She was always playing these Schumann 🙂 exercises and every once in a while, my dad would pull out his horn and amaze me with his technical ability. So even though I didn’t actively listen to jazz, it was always a “passive” influence in my life.
In third grade I took up a “band” instrument. My choice (I think) was the alto sax, same as my dad. My parents rented a decent horn (a Bundy) and I began taking lessons. I didn’t remember any particular anxiety about not practicing, but apparently, it was a such a constant battle for my parents to force me to practice, they decided to stop renting the horn. Now, my father owned an alto, but they wouldn’t just let me use it. He had an early 60’s Selmer Mark IV, in beautiful shape. Not something that a 3rd grader should be banging all the way to school. Returning the alto was a matter of money, which was never wasted around my house. If I wasn’t going to practice, then I didn’t need to have nice rental sax.
I have this great memory of my mother – it must have been 1973. I had just started playing the sax, maybe 2 or 3 months before, and I was demonstrating for my mom. For some reason, I found it very easy to play “Jingle Bells” by ear. My mom was laying on the couch in our front room, smiling and listening to me play this song. Not only was I playing it by ear, I was jazzing it up a little with some cute embellishments (cute for a 7 year old anyway). I was really knocking her out!
After my parents returned the alto to the rental company, I was allowed to continue lessons at school and join the school band as a tenor player. My cousin Lennie had an old Conn tenor from the thirties that used to be my dads, who bought it from my uncle. I made it through band for a while – all in all my experience in band didn’t last a month. I remember getting a cool feeling a few times when the whole room played together, but it never became good enough to keep me interested. It just wasn’t enough.
So my parents gave up on the whole horn idea. Every now and then, my Dad would encourage me to start studying again or I would ask my father to try and give me music lessons. He didn’t want to pay for lessons if I wasn’t going to practice, but he jumped at the chance to teach me about the instrument and musical harmony. He had studied with Lennie of course, and so had my cousin Lennie – what a lucky kid, two LT alums in the house, at my disposal. One important note about my Dad is that he was blind and he was always home. He and my mother ran a pre-school which gave them the freedom to have one parent at home. Instead, he stayed home and did stuff like build furniture, or remodel the house. Once, just my father and I framed and roofed a garage in two days flat. I don’t remember him ever not being there. I was very lucky. There were times when I would have my parents tell my friends that I was grounded. Just so that I could stay home and hang out with just my family. I love them all very much.
In theory, getting lessons from this marvelous father sounds great. It wasn’t. He was very frustrated with my lack of discipline. He was always telling me stories of how players like Bird and Warne and Lee would practice for 8 to 10 hours a day. He could barely get a half hour a day out of me. In my defense, I don’t know why that when faced with this great opportunity of free lessons, I bailed out. I really don’t remember what was going through my mind. I tried taking lessons from my cousin Lennie too, but I couldn’t get any traction there either. Years later, I would use both my dad and Lennie as a harmonic resource to fill in the gaps of my own self-study of harmony. They almost explained harmony to me, without actually having to know how to play jazz. I realized, quite recently, that to fully understand it, you really gotta learn it with your hands and your horn (axe, or whatever…)
I gave up on the horn and the piano and bought myself a guitar in 6th grade. It was the Sears, $45, Nylon strung, piece-of-sh*t guitar that many kids used to start with. I had earned the money with my paper route. This guitar was BAD, and by that I mean terrible. The only thrill I got on that thing was placing a small mic inside it and playing it distorted through my stereo system amplifier. In my basement, in the workshop, playing “cat scratch fever” – around 1978. I eventually bought a “real” guitar and started re-learning the instrument. The guitar is so much different from a horn or a piano. There wasn’t much prior knowledge to transfer over or build upon. I was always very overwhelmed by the amount of notes crammed into such a small place (the fretboard) They’re always staring up at you, daring you to play them faster and more uniquely. It was a few years before I could find my way back to playing at the level of a jazzy rendition of “jingle bells” but I eventually made it. Since that time, I’ve never stayed with a teacher for more than a lesson or two. I guess no one ever really knocked me out enough. I’ve gone to many cats, but never the right one. They all amounted to “hey learn all the notes on the fretboard, so you can site read of course, THEN come back” Right. See you in 10 years. I picked up a little here and a little there, but most of my skills were gained through copying solos, and jamming along with led zep, rush and hendrix. I always had my Dad to refer to if I had a harmony question or needed the recipe for a G minor triad 🙂 or an ascending melodic minor scale. He still had all that stuff memorized.
In college, I had to do a paper, more of a thesus, for a class. The topic wasn’t important, it was for a class that was teaching the methodology of research “technical writing for business majors” or something like that. Since my dad was also a writer in addition to jazz musician, psychologist and small business owner, myself and my siblings would often have him assist us in working on a writing project. I tried to choose a topic that was interesting enough to hold my attention, something that was “cool.” Since I had to interview an authority for this particular paper, I found someone that I had decent access to for interviews. My dad. I actually quoted him as a resource in the paper. I could do this because he too was in NYC in 50’s and saw the demise of jazz’s popularity. It was perfect, I could utilize my dad as a resource and as an interviewee. I couldn’t stay focused much in college, so the opportunity to do something easy and interesting was alway helpful.
The thesus of the paper was *Jazz, America’s Only Native Art Form*. I had always heard my dad and my cousin argue about jazz. They were very opinionated – jazz snobs. There, I’ve said it. No one did shit after Bird, except Lennie and his school of course. Rock, to them, was not a valid style. That didn’t ever stop my dad from letting me blast loud, distorted guitars around the house, or even let my seminal bands practice (loudly and badly) in the basement. It just meant I couldn’t have a discussion regarding rock with him or share my favorite rock musicians with them.
For this paper on jazz, I started to do some research on the project and my first stop was the library I became quite skilled at the microfilmers that stored old copies of magazines and newspapers. One of the first headlines that caught my eye was “Tristano Hits Jazz Cliques.” (Downbeat, 10/6/1950) I ran into many other mentions and the research paper turned into a quest to learn more about my uncle’s influence in jazz. I reviewed years and years of issues of Downbeat and Metronome magazine on old microfilmers in the University of Illinois (UIC) Library, less than 10 blocks from where Lennie and my father grew up. I still have many copies of these old articles and my paper is around here somewhere, but as I remember it, it wasn’t that good. You see I became very distracted digging all this stuff about Lennie and jazz and music and well, let’s just say the paper became less important.
Now, I’m not sure how much I know about my uncle Lennie prior this time – he was just an uncle that I didn’t really get to hang out with – but I suppose I couldn’t fully appreciate his fame until I started reading some of these articles. He must have cared about music and the state of jazz quite a bit to be so outspoken about it. I remember enjoying what appeared to me as playfulness with which he teased his contemporaries, almost daring them to “step up!”
Before this point in my life, I had not really actively approached listening to jazz. By active, I mean visiting the evolution of jazz from dixieland, to swing and to bop, etc. Now, I started listening to one guy. Lennie Tristano. I began with the atlantic 1224 album Tristano and progressed through my fathers record collection. Was I mistaken, or was I hearing “rock” licks coming out of the piano!? East Thirty-Second. That thing rocks/swings, whatever… I was hooked on jazz, and it occurred through all these people in my family – a fusion of sorts.
My father and his brother are heros of mine, for different reasons and I hold memories of all them very close and this is just part of the reason that I pay tribute to Lennie Tristano and my father, here at LennieTristano.com
Last Updated on December 1, 2002