In the wake of Barack Obama’s important speech on race in March 2008, five articles on Lennie Tristano and his school went up on old DTM.
The framing device of a political speech now seems a little bizarre: if I were to sit down and try to do this now, I might frame it with quotes from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me or “The Case for Reparations.”
The Past Isn’t Past
Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, March 18, 2008:
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.
And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.”
I am inspired by “A More Perfect Union” to look at a famous example of segregation in jazz.
Recent major books about Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz have been crucial research sources for these posts. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes by and about Tristano are from Eunmi Shim’s Lennie Tristano: A Life in Music. Also highly recommended are Safford Chamberlain’s Warne Marsh: An Unsung Cat, Andy Hamilton’s Lee Konitz: Conversations About the Improvisor’s Art, and Peter Ind’s Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his Legacy.
All In the Mix
Obama could be talking about jazz when he says there are “complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through.” In 1977, black drummer Art Taylor published a collection of interviews with black musicians called Notes and Tones. It is the best source in jazz literature for frank talk about race. At times, the interviewees are shockingly politically incorrect, like when Art Blakey says:
You should be given credit if the sun comes up and something happens and you’re discovering something. Cats like Beethoven and Bach went through that. They really knew what they were doing. This was their field. The black musician has nothing to do with that. His thing is to swing. Well, the only way the Caucasian musician can swing is from a rope.
A quote like this is rigorously ignored by most writers on jazz, probably because many would call Blakey racist for those words. But Blakey wasn’t really racist, he is just letting off steam in an amusing way.
All In the Mix is what racial stereotyping—or any kind of static around race—will be called in this post. America is the melting pot of diverse cultures, and all good American art has race “in the mix.”
The Fundamental Importance of Lennie Tristano
On his earliest records at the end of the swing era Tristano displays an audacious harmonic language. But what makes him immortal is how he pounced on bebop’s newly-freed melodic line and made it his own. The moment he heard Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (although he much preferred Fats Navarro), and Bud Powell, Tristano did everything he could to create a unique take on the ornamented eighth-note line.
Tristano’s mature language is unimpeachable in its purity and authenticity. There is never any blather. That’s why Parker said:
As for Lennie Tristano, I’d like to go on record as saying I endorse his work in every particular…He has a big heart and it’s in his music…He’s a tremendous acclimatizor.
It’s an old truism that there are no wrong notes in jazz, but of course there are indeed wrong notes. Bird himself liked to tell people there weren’t any—see the story Miles Davis tells in his autobiography about Bird, the blues, the major third, and Lester Young—but the point is that “wrong” notes have to be bought and paid for by the integrity of the line. Bird was exceptional at making unexpected notes authentic in the classical jazz style, but he didn’t attempt to empower all twelve chromatic tones all the time. It was Tristano who could bring the full complement of twelve to any chord, consistently figuring out how to “acclimatize” them all.
As a pianist, Tristano was in the top tier of technical accomplishment. He was born a prodigy, and worked tirelessly to get better. Like Art Tatum, Tristano was blind, and his first records have a constant whirl of arpeggios from the top to the bottom of the instrument that recalls Tatum. Eventually this Tatumesque flair would get replaced by a post-Bud Powell grit, and by the late fifties, Tristano’s heavy piano touch is as intense as Powell, McCoy Tyner, and very few others.
Tristano stopped playing arpeggios, but he never forgot the lessons he couldn’t help but absorb as a child of the 1930s. There is a DVD of Tristano solo in Copenhagen in 1965. The first time I saw this tape, I was with my friend Mike Kanan. Mike characteristically cut to the chase with the comment, “Lennie always sounds connected to the big band era.” It’s true. Tristano never forgot to marry jazz folklore to his digital skill.
This skill was crucial to what became Tristano’s life mission: “true improvisation.” It wasn’t enough to figure out how to get to any note on any chord; Tristano wanted to find those notes in the moment, without pre-imagined patterns.
To help refine the process, Tristano decided on a tight repertoire of standards with simple changes to weave endless variations on. They seldom have a faster harmonic rhythm than one chord to a bar: “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “All The Things You Are,” “All Of Me,” “I Remember April,” “Out Of Nowhere,” “Back Home In Indiana,” etc. His one “original” set of changes is his signature version of “Pennies From Heaven” made Mephistophelian by a move into the minor key. (This progression is often just called “Pennies in Minor” and is on nearly every Tristano record.)
The process worked. In comparison to a good Tristano, Warne Marsh, or Lee Konitz solo, any solo of Charlie Parker or Bud Powell has more passage work that is not really improvised but simply their private language of bebop.
In the Tristano, Marsh, and Konitz literature, the ability to be a pure improvisor is celebrated and idealized. When I play jazz standards it is one goal I pursue myself. Most of my peers are also interested in pure improvisation.
However, many musicians, including myself when younger, have traditionally been suspicious of Lennie Tristano.
A major factor contributing to this distrust is All In the Mix. An overwhelming percentage of the players associated with the Tristano style are white. There are only a few black players on any Tristano-school record from 1945 (Tristano’s first record) to 1966 (Tristano last except some home recordings behind a singer-girlfriend). In contrast, Bill Evans and Charlie Haden—innovative white players from the same era largely accepted by all jazz musicians as being vitally important—had the unquestionable advantage of first being recognized within otherwise all-black bands.
But when I first listened to Tristano’s music in high school I had no awareness of race. I was skeptical because not everybody in a Tristano ensemble was allowed to be a pure improvisor—especially in the rhythm section.
Lennie Tristano and the Drums
“Line Up” from the 1954 Atlantic LP Lennie Tristano still sounds like the future.
Despite its obvious excellence, for many years I rejected “Line Up” simply because the piano was overdubbed over the rhythm section of bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton.
Now I don’t care; music is music, and however you get there is fine with me. “Line Up” is in a class of one, and should be considered one of the highlights in the whole discography of jazz.
But this classic track does nothing to assuage my standard complaint about the Tristano school, which is that the drums seem uninvolved. It works fine here, in this futuristic, mechanical setting, but on most of Tristano’s other records with drums there is something missing.
Tristano’s earliest trio records are with guitar and bass, with no drums at all. Then, when he did have drummers, they tend to play exactly what Jeff Morton delivered on “Line Up”: firm, even, plain bebop, with no fills or interaction with the soloist. The ride cymbal is always the same, as is the repertoire of left hand comping on the snare. The live bootleg Wow from 1950 lists the bass and drums as “unknown,” and there certainly is no way to tell who is keeping that innocuous “Line Up”-style beat going.
Tristano began agitating about the “problem” of jazz drums as far back as 1945. In an abrasive article called “What’s Wrong With Chicago Jazz” he claims the local drummers are
Part dixieland, part shuffle, and mostly maniacal…their tendency is to evade the beat and “mop mop” whenever it might confuse some poor instrumentalist.
Good grief. I don’t know exactly what Chicago drummers were playing in 1945, but I doubt very much it would have confused anybody. After all, the innovative bebop style was just coming to fruition in New York at that time; I suspect many Chicago drummers didn’t even have a proper ride cymbal yet. At any rate, whatever they did, they wouldn’t have “evaded the beat.” They would have only played the beat!
Over a decade later he is still complaining about the drums in this 1958 interview for Down Beat. He does have one accurate and nice thing to say (“The cymbal beat is an intrinsic part of jazz. You just cannot do without it”) but the rest of it is nonsense. My commentary is in brackets.
I think that one of the worst elements today is the inability of men to play with each other. [1958 was a great year for jazz ensembles.] There are no sidemen anymore. [Men like Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Philly Joe Jones, and Roy Haynes – four names picked at random – were consummate sidemen.] Everybody’s a star…There’s a fairly current idea, not reflecting the ideas of all musicians, that the drummer is really the dynamo of the organization… [Tristano is swimming against the current when he disapproves of the drummer being the dynamo of the band. Probably Oscar Peterson was the only major contemporary modern jazz artist who would have agreed with him.]
He [the drummer] has come to play a little ahead of the beat. The bass player is supposed to play on top of the beat. [I think this is a misprint or an old usage; surely Tristano means simply right on the beat.] He plays that way because the soloist is supposed to be behind the beat. That means the drums, the bass, and the soloist are in three different places in reference to time. [Rather than being problematic, this sounds like it is swinging! Tristano must have understood this, too, since when he plays solo, he is careful to have the left and right hands in different places in the beat.] To improvise under these conditions is absolutely ridiculous. This condition has been developing over a period of five or six years. [Since the dawn of mature Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and Art Blakey bands.]
I have been playing 25 years, and I never heard anyone’s foot keep steady time. If it approximates it for a couple of choruses, that’s all. [Tristano is referring to the bass drum, and quite offensively so. See below.] There’s always a point where it slows down or moves…Now my idea is to use a bass drum for accents, and the sock cymbal for effect. [Bebop drummers didn’t know this already?]
The cymbal beat is an intrinsic part of jazz. You just cannot do without it. It adds a sound of liveliness to the soloist…the creative line in drumming is [just] with the left hand. That gives him much less to do and eliminates my having to put all my subdivisions against his left foot. [Gee, Lennie, I am sure all drummers are celebrating that you are giving them “less to do.”] It’s become a hideous thing. Everything has gotten tighter. Drums are tyrannical.
The tyrant was clearly Tristano himself.
By 1958, there had been a long line of jazz drummers (mostly black, but white, too) vital to the progress of the music. In many cases they were virtuosos, and of course they all had great time. Tristano’s comment that “I never heard anyone’s foot keep steady time” is ludicrous. Tristano himself played with Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Buddy Rich, Art Taylor, and Paul Motian. Granted, that’s a collection of humans, not metronomes, but all of them have time at least as good as Tristano, who’s not above a little rushing (“Requiem” from Lennie Tristano) or dragging (“Becoming” on The New Tristano) himself.
If I was one of those drummers and saw this interview in Down Beat, I would be really angry. I might even think Tristano was racist: “Who is this white motherfucker who doesn’t respect Max, Blakey, or Philly Joe?” Because the drums really do come from Africa, where rhythm has been studied with precision for thousands of years. That’s why Art Blakey gets a historically accurate pass when he says the black man’s thing is to swing and the white man should stick to Beethoven. After all, the drum set could symbolize the African diaspora as interpreted by Americans.
Tristano’s instrument has the most regal pedigree of any instrument in European history. But there is no piano-based music that has anything to do with groove before American slavery. I don’t know why Tristano had so little consideration for the African diaspora.
Paul Bley has some relevant comments in his autobiography, Stopping Time:
Almost all my work in the 1950s was done in black clubs in black neighborhoods. In fact, at first I didn’t even play very much in Manhattan. I was more likely to play in Brooklyn or Long Island. We would play out in Hempstead, Long Island in a black private after-hours club where someone would greet you and if they didn’t know you, you didn’t get in. There wasn’t a cover charge, it was just a private club. The success of those gigs, of course, depended on the drummer. If you had a drummer that could swing, it didn’t matter what anybody else did. You could stretch out or stretch in and no one cared. If you showed up with a drummer that couldn’t swing, they’d throw you out the door.
None of the books draw a direct connection between the segregation of the Tristano school from black players and Tristano’s attitude towards the African diaspora (meaning the drums), but it is surely something to be considered.
While working on this post, I have listened to almost the complete Tristano discography, and have been surprised to learn that his drummers did not have to play particularly light. Since they are allowed to do so little, I assumed that they had to really hold back, but the average Tristano drummer plays at a normal volume; certainly louder than drummers with, say, Oscar Peterson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, or even 50’s-era Hampton Hawes.
Not that the drums have to be loud in order to be the dynamo of a band. Vernel Fournier played softly with the Ahmad Jamal trio, but he was still the spark, the security guard, and the all-important connection with Africa.
Bebop was birthed in the aftermath of the Harlem Renaissance, when black artists of all types became concerned with highlighting both their own racial identity and their connection with Africa. A musician deeply interested in this concept was Dizzy Gillespie, whose famous piece “A Night In Tunisia” was an early example of an Afro-Cuban influence in jazz. To this day, Gillespie has done more to include African, Cuban, and other diaspora music in common-practice jazz than any other artist.
One thing that aficionados like to do is compare how drummers of the Forties and Fifties played “A Night in Tunisia.” Max Roach and Roy Haynes played it with Bird and Diz; Philly Joe Jones played it with Miles; Art Taylor played it with Bud Powell; Kenny Clarke played it with Dexter Gordon; and Art Blakey played it with Bird and Fats Navarro as well as featuring it in his own groups.
But when Lennie Tristano recorded “A Night in Tunisia,” there were no drums! With just bass and guitar, he performed it as the simplified swinger “Interlude,” with no reference to an idiomatic bass line or groove at all.
The only groove-oriented piece Tristano ever played was his groundbreaking layering exercise, “Turkish Mambo,” which features some crunchy odd-meter loops against an audible click track. The fact that there is no percussionist present on “Turkish Mambo” is only to be expected. Still, “Mambo” shows that Tristano’s own rhythm is fierce, regardless of what he wanted from his drummer.
Stanley Crouch told me that Tristano sounds like he took something from Thelonious Monk on “Turkish Mambo.” I didn’t initially think this could be true, since Tristano’s hatred of Monk is legendary:
In my opinion, just about the dumbest pianist I’ve ever heard.
So I was startled to discover a passage in “Turkish Mambo” that sounds just like Monk: at 1’28” a melodic shape used in “Let’s Call This,” “Criss Cross” and countless Monk solos is heard.
Tristano’s sonority and jabbing rhythmic approach is more like Monk than usual, too. But these are probably just accidental similarities rather than Tristano copping Monk… although wouldn’t that be something if he was!
Monk didn’t play any Afro-Cuban music, but he put a lot of those folkloric rhythms in 4/4 swing, especially in songs like “Bemesha Swing” and “Bye-Ya.” Nearly all traditional African music is in 6 and 4 simultaneously, and Monk’s piece “Epistrophy” or what Monk and Max Roach played on that outlandish arrangement of “Carolina Moon” are dedicated to exploring a simultaneous 6 and 4 in American music.
While he was also a supreme pianistic technician, generally Monk treated his instrument like a tuned set of percussion. Because of this emphasis, Monk is one of the most obviously “African diaspora” of jazz pianists.
(Tell an older black jazz musician that you think Monk is dumb, and see how they respond.)
Unfortunately, to this day, Lee Konitz, while admiring Monk’s compositions, is unimpressed by Monk as an improvisor:
…His piano playing almost sounds like arrangers’ piano…he plays the same solo over and over again, I think.
That’s not true. But I can’t get too mad about either Tristano or Konitz here. Since Monk is so strong, it is only natural that some people have to back away. That has always been true and always will be true.
I’ve gotten a bit off track, but the point is that Tristano’s paranoia about drummers and his distaste for Monk seem perfectly aligned. He doesn’t want too much African diaspora in his jazz, period.
My analysis may be unduly harsh. In the Shim book, Paul Motian, while agreeing that “it was pretty strict for the bass and drums,” also says how much he enjoyed playing with Tristano and that Tristano never told him what to play. And speaking on the phone recently to Billy Hart, I said, “Lennie Tristano: go.”
Unhesitatingly, Billy said, “A true bebop master.”
EI: “What about how the drummers had to play so strictly with him?”
BH: “Huh. Maybe they just felt that was the right way to play with him. You know, when I play with Hank Jones, I play very restrained, but that’s my choice, not Hank’s.”
Fair enough. If posterity had more Tristano records with truly great drummers sounding comfortable with him my feelings would be different. Konitz suggests a Tristano trio tape with Charles Mingus and Elvin Jones might exist. (Unfortunately, the couple of tracks with potentially stunning quartet of Tristano, Marsh, Henry Grimes, and Paul Motian are truncated and mostly ballads. They still sound good, though.)
The Tristano school has always been dismayed by the perception that Tristano wanted just one thing from his drummers. Tristano, Konitz and Marsh were probably worried about the constant segregation, too, which is presumably why each of them made a mid-fifties album on Atlantic with a black rhythm section.
One side of Lennie Tristano is a collection of live tunes at a Chinese restaurant in a quartet with Konitz, Gene Ramey, and the author of Notes and Tones, Art Taylor.
In Art Lange’s review of this recording, he wrote a paragraph about the drumming that is quoted on both the Tristano website and in Peter Ind’s book as a plea for Tristano’s defense.
Art Taylor was no shrinking violet and his presence – not just suggesting a pulse, but creating his own variations and interruptions of the beat – is strongly apparent throughout these performances. Doubters should listen once more to “All the Things You Are,” which frees up his bop chops, lets him slide in and out of mambo rhythm, at times hammering his point across, or where he wallops a backbeat worthy of an R&B band…
It’s true that Taylor plays opening 8-bar bridge with a mambo rhythm but the mambo doesn’t return for the solos or at the end. The ride cymbal beat never varies and there is certainly no backbeat. Taylor sounds fine but those wanting to hear the real Art Taylor should go to any John Coltrane record with Red Garland and Paul Chambers.
Peter Ind uses this questionable Lange quote in the same book that includes one of the most interesting passages ever written about Tristano and the rhythm section. After talking about how Tristano could play over the bar, Ind writes:
It became problematic for Lennie to find players who could sustain a relaxed swing in such circumstances…The combination of accompanying rhythm sections tightening up due to Lennie’s playing a long line of such unusual rhythmic complexity was simply misunderstood by many listeners as Lennie being unable to swing. One can even hear something of this in the Atlantic recording Tristano on the live tracks made at the Confucius restaurant. The rhythm section, Art Taylor and Gene Ramey, begins to tighten up during many of Lennie’s solos in an effort to maintain time.
If anyone knows Tristano’s relationship to bands it is Peter Ind, so he must really detect some disturbance in the ether (although I can’t hear it myself).
This is what Konitz says about the date:
It was a great rhythm section. They really played a good strong beat, very simple I thought–just straight-ahead. I really respected Art Taylor for not making it more intricate like he would do with the beboppers.
Art Taylor might be surprised to learn that this restaurant gig is one of his most analyzed performances! At any rate, what Taylor contributes to the Tristano quartet is what Tristano’s drummers usually contribute: evenness. That seems to be what Tristano really wanted; that seems to be the point of his incessant complaining about drums.
But the drums were not the only instrument Tristano wanted completely even.
Tristano and the Bass
The solo disc The New Tristano has astonishing bass playing: Mot played by a bassist, but by Tristano’s left hand, which walks a quarter-note line like normal bebop bass practice. The sound is rich and full, and the time is strong.
Jazz critic Barry Ulanov was a tremendous Tristano booster. (I’ll return to him later.) Here’s a passage from Ulanov’s liner notes to The New Tristano:
In most of these tracks, he works with multiple time patterns, setting 5/4 or 3/8 or some other time against a steady 4/4. But the steady 4/4 is not so much a fixed measure of four quarter-notes to the bar as a continuity of beats, 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1, without any bar-line restrictions.
This is correct. Tristano’s walking left hand of 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1, can promote extraordinary structural effects. Jazz musicians naturally “follow along” the changes when listening to someone else, but there are passages on The New Tristano that could confuse anybody. Back in the day they must have been shocking.
As far as I know, the only time Tristano is documented playing his crazy basslines with a drummer is “Pennies in Minor” with Connie Kay in Berlin. Kay is listening hard, but a skeptical “1,1,1,1,1,1,1, huh?” is perhaps also written clearly on Kay’s face.
After all, in the common-practice jazz tradition, are the beats in 4/4 swing time an even 1,1,1,1?
It would be interesting to hear what the bassists who are the greatest masters of walking (Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Sam Jones, Charlie Haden, etc.) would say about this issue. I am pretty sure that they all think that “1,” “2,” “3,” and “4” are all individuals that need to be treated carefully, not reduced to a common “1.”
In any African music, the drum parts must be played in certain registers at certain times. Tristano’s unvarying drummers are actually more in that African tradition than his bass players! Whereas the drummers can never play “2” when it is time for “1,” the bassists can. Undoubtedly influenced by the pianist’s powerful over-the-bar harmonic conception, Tristano bassists are relatively free to play whatever note they want on any beat. Mike Kanan tells me that “Lennie described his playing with bassists as ‘harmonic counterpoint’: two sets of changes that could interact, bump up against each other, grind a bit, or fit perfectly together.”
What his bassists don’t normally do – and this holds true for Tristano’s left hand walking as well – is add anything to the pure quarter notes of the line. There is usually no anticipations, syncopations, roll-offs, skip-beats, or any other grease to add to the swing. Not even dynamics are encouraged.
In the Shim book, there is an accurate transcription of “Line Up” that includes not only the piano solo but Peter Ind’s bass line as well. The solo is at all different levels of attack and articulation, and the transcriber takes pains to notate the details correctly. For the bass part, there is nothing but a series of quarter notes. Nothing else is required.
Tristano’s preferred even bass line is right in line with the even drumming. On “Line Up” the whole presentation is strange and mysterious. The completely even bass works wonderfully.
Tristano-school bassist Sonny Dallas is an underrated player. He digs in nice and hard and occasionally plays notes strange enough to sound like the left hand on The New Tristano a little bit. His great record is Lee Konitz’s Motion with Elvin Jones.
The first few times I heard Motion in high school, I hated Sonny Dallas on it; he seemed really unswinging to me. But at some point I realized that Dallas is swinging. He is just really unrelenting about the beat, almost rushing, and never plays any undulating skip-beats. It’s almost the “1,1,1,1,1,1,1,” of Tristano, Thankfully, here Dallas is up against Elvin Jones, and that opposition makes all the difference.
Jones has always been obviously connected to African folklore and the simultaneity of four and six. His most celebrated work is with John Coltrane, where his partner in the rhythm section was Jimmy Garrison.
Interestingly, there is documentation of Garrison playing in a Tristano band, although Tristano is not on piano. Bill Evans is, along with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Paul Motian, playing in front of about fifteen people on Live at the Half Note. Garrison sounds terrific, using huge amounts of grease and undertow against the rest of the band. He really doesn’t sound like a Tristano-school bass player.
But, despite this great playing with Konitz at the Half Note and the proven capability of Garrison and Jones together with Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Joe Farrell, I would not want to swap out Garrison for Dallas on Motion. Motion’s atmosphere is in a class of one: You get to hear Elvin shrug, adjust, and be cool with a terrific, uptight white bass player who is determined to do what he thinks is right despite the presence of Elvin Jones.
On some level, most of the best jazz seems to get made with this kind of tension.
Tristano’s favorite time came from the metronome, with which he practiced constantly. That’s fair: a lot of musicians like to practice with the metronome, including me. But I don’t think musicians deeply connected with the African diaspora worry too much about the metronome. One of the most amusing stories in Shim’s book is told by Konitz about the time Jimmy Garrison showed up at Tristano’s studio to play a session:
The first thing Lennie did was place the metronome on the piano, and Jimmy said, “Oh, no.” He refused to do it. I thought that was kind of an insult to do that to Jimmy Garrison, who had great time.
I’m sure Tristano didn’t mean to be insulting; he was just caught up in his own systems and not realizing just what kind of young musician he was dealing with. But this story is good example of the divide between Tristano’s scientific approach versus musicians who consider jazz folklore to be of the highest importance. That folklore -and folklore might be the wrong word, since Africa has its own classical music – wouldn’t be here without American slavery. Tristano bringing out the metronome on Garrison is sort of like saying, “I don’t care where this music comes from.”
Another Konitz story is relevant here. (It’s from this webpage.)
Konitz: I always respected Ray Brown’s kind of solid beat. I was scheduled to play with him at the festival in Vicenza, Italy, in 2001. But I just had a feeling he wouldn’t be sympathetic to my playing – I’d never played with Oscar Peterson, for instance, because I felt that he didn’t like me. But still I was looking forward to finally playing with Ray. Unfortunately it didn’t work out.
Hamilton: He likes “hot” players.
Konitz: Yes, I’m sure. When I got there, I was told that Ray had no idea that I was supposed to play with him. And at the breakfast table, he told me that years ago, at a festival, I’d said to him “I ain’t gonna play dem blues, man.” I could never have said anything like that even in jest. But he agreed to let me play two tunes at the end of his set, so I could fulfill my obligation, and get paid. We played “Body And Soul,” and at the end of my two choruses Ray and the drums and piano laid out, for me to play a cadenza – they wouldn’t even play with me. And then we played “Cherokee” and I said “Not too fast,” and immediately it went faster than I could play. And they were smiling at each other, I was told. I’ve never been treated like that by anybody, ever!
This story really makes me angry. Who is Ray Brown not to respect Lee Konitz, especially when they are both old men?
But then I imagine Ray Brown, the supreme master of funky walking, listening to any Tristano-school bassist and being really unimpressed. I grew to love Sonny Dallas, but I was born a white man in Wisconsin in 1973: in other words, part of my birthright is being open to all kinds of options for improvising. If I wanted to try to teach Ray Brown (born a black man in Pittsburgh in 1926) something about the power of Sonny Dallas I would make damn well sure Brown felt comfortable and respected first.
And while presumably Konitz never said “ I ain’t gonna play dem blues, man,” to Brown, Chamberlain reports that Konitz did say in a 1951 Metronome blindfold test
I sure get tired of listening to the blues.
So I can understand the segregation. I thoroughly disapprove of and am saddened by it. But I understand it.
Tristano’s Career, the Critics, and “Complexity”
While Tristano may be underrated now, Shim’s book documents how meteoric Tristano’s rise in the jazz world was at the beginning. And with good reason: it is hard to imagine any jazz musician, black or white, not being stunned by the earliest Tristano music with Konitz or both Konitz and Marsh. The lines are unique and played at fearsome velocity and accuracy.
The melody to “Wow” (1949):
In Stopping Time, Paul Bley describes moving to New York to join the ranks of the many musicians looking to expand jazz into freedom and atonality. The first night in town he saw both Bird with Max Roach and Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
Lennie Tristano’s music sounded like it might be atonal, because it sounded so different than the most modern player we knew, which was Bird.
“Wow” isn’t atonal, but I can see how a young musician in 1950 might think it was. This music is unquestionably valid. And jazz critics like Leonard Feather and especially, Barry Ulanov, gave it overwhelming support.
On balance, both Feather and Ulanov were positive for jazz. They battled relentlessly against what was then called Jim Crow, and they were the among the first to call Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie geniuses of the century. But sometimes there was something a little “off” or even unsavory about some of Feather’s and Ulanov’s actions.
Feather’s 1950 headline for Melody Maker, LENNIE TRISTANO–TWENTY YEARS AHEAD OF THE BEBOPPERS says it all. Was Tristano really ahead of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell? Ahead by twenty years?
Feather seemed to lose some enthusiasm for Tristano soon after this headline, and he was never as rabid as Barry Ulanov, whose liner notes to the Atlantic LPs Lennie Tristano and The New Tristano place Tristano unequivocally with J. S. Bach. I’ve known those liner notes for years, but it wasn’t until reading Shim’s book that I discovered how important Ulanov was to Tristano’s early career, mostly while Ulanov was at the music magazine Metronome.
He kicked things off with a major article in 1946 declaring (in Shim’s words) “Tristano to be at the forefront of the avant-garde in jazz.” In 1947 Ulanov wrote of Tristano’s first trio records (this is from Chamberlain):
These are the finest piano sides in the last ten years; they introduce the remarkable Mr. Tristano to records, a resourceful musician who combines familiar pop figurations here with a linear construction and dissonances out of Hindemith and manages to integrate all of this and a driving jazz beat successfully…Here is a breath of fresh air in the stale winds of jazz.
That same year Tristano himself wrote two Metronome articles praising and criticizing “the beboppers.” Ulanov then gave Tristano the piano chair several years in a row in the famous Metronome All-Star Bands. The 1947 gigs were with Bird, Diz, Max, Ray Brown, Bauer, and a white Tristano student who played clarinet, John La Porta.
Well, these “All-Stars” are certainly All In the Mix. This is the Tristano circle plus the very heaviest black musicians of the new music. Tristano is worthy, but, to me, Bauer and La Porta aren’t. Even if they were worthy, though, this seems like a loaded combination.
This band didn’t record in the studio, but two years later, the 1949 Metronome All-stars did. The personnel was even whiter, filled out with members that were mostly big-band musicians: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Ventura, Ernie Caceres, Lennie Tristano, Billy Bauer, Eddie Safranski, and Shelly Manne. (Only the first five names are black.)
In Notes and Tones, Lennie Tristano is barely mentioned. This is regrettable and unquestionably All In the Mix, since Tristano is so important, Art Taylor himself played with him, and it would have been really nice to find out what black musicians said about Tristano to each other. The one mention that Tristano does get by name is by Art Blakey – amusingly, it’s on the same page that he declares “The only way the Caucasian musician can swing is from a rope.” Blakey complains about energy free jazz of the 1960’s and says,
I heard Lennie Tristano do that sort of thing years ago, but it had a direction. It made more sense to me than what they are doing now, with everybody going.
(More on Tristano’s free jazz at this Destination: Out! post.)
However, Tristano is also an unnamed presence in the interview with Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie discusses the 1949 Metronome All-Stars studio recording for Victor that produced two titles, “Overtime” and “Victory Ball.”
When we made this record date, Barry Ulanov was the editor of Down Beat [actually Metronome]. Yardbird was there. Both Miles and Fats at that time were so influenced by my playing that all of us were almost playing the same thing. When our solo time came up, bap, that was it, one time.
The white boys sometimes didn’t make it, and they would take it over again. One number they went about the fifth take. I walked over to Barry Ulanov and said, “Next is the last time I am making this.” He sort of laughed it off. They played again, and it still wasn’t right. By that time I was packing up my horn and I left. Barry Ulanov came out with a book on jazz after that and tried to eliminate my name altogether…That was one of his biggest mistakes, because it will be a long time before they can eliminate my contribution to the music.
This accusatory story isn’t mentioned in Gillespie’s autobiography or the two Gillespie biographies. In his autobiography, Miles Davis mentions this date but says Charlie Parker was the culprit for so many takes of the Pete Rugolo’s “Overtime” in order to get paid more money. (Hence the title.)
This recording is not of much personal interest to me and I don’t hear any glaring mistakes from anybody, so I am going to let that aspect of the matter rest. (I do like Manne’s wild polyrhythms in his solo on the shorter take of “Overtime” and it is a real thrill to hear Bird play Tristano’s head “Victory Ball.”)
The suggestion of Ulanov getting mad at Dizzy has a little more weight. In 1952’s A History of Jazz In America Ulanov writes dismissively of Gillespie:
He had bands, many of them, large and small, good and bad, important and frighteningly unimportant…
…Certainly the Gillespie band did not prove in 1947 that it was the musical equal of the handful of top bands of the past…[This band featured Chano Pozo, started the Afro-Cuban revolution in jazz, and is the basis of much of Miles Davis’ music in the 1950’s]
…Eventually Dizzy’s clowning proclivities obtained; by conscious reasoning process or intuition, audiences of all kinds, general and indifferent to jazz or particular and sympathetic to bop, took an aversion to Dizzy and his music.
In general, there is tension between the Tristano school and Gillespie. Tristano never taught Gillespie to his students, preferring Roy Eldridge and Fats Navarro. Gillespie returned the scorn in his autobiography To Be Or Not To Bop:
…The cool period always reminded me of white people’s music. There was no guts in that music, and not much rhythm, either…Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano, and those guys…
Why would Gillespie be so harsh?
Admittedly, as with Art Blakey’s lynching of white musicians, there is some sort of historical veracity behind Gillespie’s bald assertion of their being “not much rhythm” in Konitz and Tristano.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon refers to the lyrics of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” as “one more lie about white crimes.”
Sweet Indian maiden, since first I met you,
I can’t forget you, Cherokee sweetheart.
Child of the prairie, your love keeps calling,
my heart enthralling, Cherokee.
Dreams of summertime, of lovertime gone by,
throng my memory so tenderly, and sigh. My
Sweet Indian maiden, one day I’ll hold you,
in my arms fold you, Cherokee.
Noble’s All in the Mix ditty would surely be forgotten by now if Charlie Parker hadn’t made it one of his anthems. Bird’s fiery uptempo 1945 recording of “Ko-Ko,” based on the chord changes of “Cherokee,” is one of the most important works in the jazz canon. Dizzy Gillespie performs double duty as trumpeter and pianist on it.
Warne Marsh’s “Marshmallow” from 1949 is also based on “Cherokee.” (“Ko-Ko” could mean “cocoa” and therefore you could put the “marshmallow” on top. Note the color scheme!)
Somehow I’d never heard “Marshmallow” until reading the Chamberlain book, which includes a transcription of Marsh’s brainy solo. For me, this is easily the masterpiece of the late-Forties Tristano-school sides.
There are many complicated details in the head of “Marshmallow,” including unusual intervals and some brief counterpoint. The last “A” section is the same as the first except displaced by a beat, a rare procedure. According to Marsh himself, it is a study in polytonal stacked major chords in fifths, “like Hindemith.”
And “Marshmallow” is even faster than “Ko-Ko.” Superficially, it seems time for a Leonard Feather headline like “WARNE MARSH – TWENTY YEARS AHEAD OF CHARLIE PARKER.”
But is “Marshmallow” really more advanced than “Ko-Ko”?
“Ko-Ko’s” melody is a short introduction to blowing and “Marshmallow’s” melody is a full 64-bar chorus. It may seem like that between the faster tempo, the actual faster rate of notes, and the length of the melody, “Marshmallow” would be the harder piece to learn and play.
In reality, if I had to choose between the two melodies to teach any group of amateur musicians I would unhesitatingly choose “Marshmallow” as easier. The rhythm in “Ko-Ko” is hard to reduce to an even beat, whereas “Marshmallow” is right on. There are many accurate transcriptions of “Marshmallow”—despite its speed, it is almost made for easy transcribing—but who even really knows what “Ko-Ko” is? (It isn’t correct in the Charlie Parker Omnibook, for example.)
There is something about Parker and Gillespie on the head which is very accurate, very fast, very loud, very stop and start, and very loose, all of which is at the heart of mystical bebop rhythm.
I don’t know how Parker and Gillespie talked about their rhythm. However, these days, the word “Clave” is used by sophisticated musicians when discussing the bebop era. Billy Hart was the first to suggest this nomenclature to me; I’ve heard Ben Street and Mark Turner use this word in reference to bebop as well.
Clave means, at least in part, a way of organizing musical sentences where specific accentuation is required. Is is not European; it is not “white.” It is something that wouldn’t be here without American slavery.
The Charlie Parker melody and improvisation of “Ko-Ko” is full of clave. I wouldn’t say that “Marshmallow” is bereft of clave, but at the same time, there’s no doubt that the emphasis on “grooving rhythmic accentuation” is much less in “Marshmallow” than “Ko-Ko.”
Also, compare Max Roach’s solo chorus with Denzil Best’s solemnly straight drum intro. (Best actually happens to be black). And both Roach and Gillespie (on piano) volley fiercely behind Bird’s solo in a way that is of no interest to the Tristano school.
This sounds like I am beginning to disparage “Marshmallow,” which is not what I am meaning to do. It is stunning that Marsh and Konitz could figure out how to do something new with “Ko-Ko” so soon – just four years later!
Discussions about race in jazz often dissolve into unhelpful generalities, probably because few musicians (and hardly anybody in academia) understand the mystical, subtle, clave side of bebop rhythm. But let me tell you right now: “Ko-ko” is still one of the highest expressions of that “complexity” ever recorded. And sending “Marshmallow” into the ring against it is folly.
So when Gillespie said that
…The cool period always reminded me of white people’s music. There was no guts in that music, and not much rhythm, either…
he is backed up by the comparison of these tracks.
But! “Marshmallow” remains really cool, especially with that sweet self-deprecating title. It’s not “Ko-Ko” but it is full of rhythm and hard to do. Most black or white players of that era couldn’t play “Ko-Ko,” but nearly as many would have had a problem with “Marshmallow.”
We should allow everyone truly great a place at the top table. Perhaps the reason why Gillespie felt he needed to be so harsh in print against Tristano was fundamentally extra-musical. Even if the Notes and Tones Gillespie quote about the Metronome date (where he dismisses the abilities of the white players) is not exactly true, there’s still an intriguing suggestion of a racially charged atmosphere.
When I look at Gillespie in that unlikely mix of musicians trying to play together I wonder about the answers to some hard questions. Because, as much as I like Shelly Manne (which I really do) you have got to have your head in the sand if you think Gillespie and Charlie Parker didn’t notice and talk to each other about how Manne had replaced Max Roach as Metronome’s drummer of choice when it came to a studio recording. (Max would finally record in the All-Stars the next year, sans Bird, but still with Tristano and Bauer.) Perhaps the readers poll decided this; perhaps Max was asked and couldn’t do it; perhaps, perhaps. (The list of musicians over the years for the Metronome All-Stars is fascinating.)
The climax of this kind of poll-watching is the year that Konitz placed ahead of Charlie Parker as top alto saxophonist in Down Beat. I wonder what the black jazz community made of that!
In the Miles Davis autobiography, a famous All In the Mix paragraph recalls Gillespie’s.
A lot of white critics kept talking about all these white jazz musicians, imitators of us, like they was some great motherfuckers and everything. Talking about Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Kai Winding, Lee Konitz, Lennie Tristano, and Gerry Mulligan like they was gods or something…Now, I’m not saying here that these guys weren’t good musicians, because they were…But they didn’t start nothing, and they knew it, and they weren’t the best at what was being done.
Well, that’s a long list of players who are not all at the same level! At any rate, with apologies to the Prince of Darkness, Lennie Tristano was not an imitator… and he certainly was the best at what he did, since nobody else could do it!
If Miles Davis was in front of me right now, I would say to him: “OK, Miles. Jazz critics in the Fifties could be lame. But are you really telling me that Tristano played the way he did because he was a cheap imitation of Bird and Bud?” And I just know Miles would say to me, “No, he had his own thing. I just didn’t really like it that much because of ___ and ___ [some hip shit only Miles could say about it]. But when I think about some of the stuff I read, it still makes me mad!”
A good example of something that might make Miles or another powerful black musician mad is this 1960 quote by Harvey Pekar in Jazz Review, who is regretting that Tristano’s public profile lessened during the 1950’s:
It seems safe to say that he [Tristano] was not and will not be a direct influence on as many musicians as some less original pianists, Horace Silver for one.
I really admire Pekar, not just for his passionate jazz criticism, but especially for his wonderful comic American Splendor. But it hard for me to understand calling Horace Silver derivative. Horace’s music is unique. And if you are putting Horace down to praise Tristano, this becomes All In the Mix, since Horace’s music is full of beautiful black pride, especially around 1960.
Or what about this comment by Robert Wolf on the Tristano website:
Tristano’s work is far more complex and interesting than that of the beboppers.
Shim, Chamberlain, and Ind don’t interview any older black musicians about the critical and poll-winning attention given the Tristano school in the late 40’s and early 50’s. I find this incomplete, for this critical and poll-winning attention is surely a major factor in some black musicians’ refusal to accept Tristano’s contribution to jazz.
Those who celebrate the Tristano school at the expense of great black jazz (“LENNIE TRISTANO—TWENTY YEARS AHEAD OF THE BEBOPPERS”) are merely showing how unhip they really are.
After the initial blast of critical attention (he was even written up in Time), Tristano’s work became more and more sporadic. He quit composing those miraculous lines that dominate the early Konitz-Marsh dates and focused on pure improvisation. In his lifetime, there were only three LPs readily available, the two Atlantic records and one from the seventies called Descent Into the Maelstrom. Tristano did work some at the Half Note, first in the late Fifties and then in the mid-Sixties, but even then Tristano didn’t make every gig, choosing to stay home and teach instead. (This is why Bill Evans is on piano on the Half Note record with Konitz, Marsh, Garrison and Motian).
Tristano followers have felt that his work has been unjustly neglected by both musicians and critics. Well, maybe if he had written a few more tunes and made a few more records his work would be better known. It’s hard for every jazz musician, black or white, to have a career. You need to get out there and play enough for the scene to react.
In the Forties and Fifties, jazz music was a community, and how much you respected that community would impact your reception within that community.
Max Roach respected Tristano, and one of the most joyous pages in Shim’s book is nearly a whole page of quotes from Roach from diverse sources (mostly unpublished) including such gems as:
Lennie made me feel like I had something special as a drummer…Lennie had a school. And of course, Dizzy and Bird and Monk was the other school. We were uptown, which was blacktown, and Lennie was downtown, which was white…He was really something. Because he dealt with the piano and it was something different than Bud.
Roach seems to be referring to the late forties, when he was drummer on the Birth of the Cool dates with Miles Davis and Lee Konitz. According to Shim, “Roach remarked that the cool school was a merge between the two. [The ‘black avant-garde’ and ‘the white avant-garde.’]”
But this is what Tristano had to say about the black jazz community:
One of the things they say is that the black cats just get together at Minton’s and turn everything around, so that whitey wouldn’t know what was happening, which is bullshit. It all came from Bird, who was influenced by Prez, musically speaking.
It is telling that Roach is sure to include Gillespie and Monk in his “school,” but Tristano won’t accept anybody but Bird. On the few lo-fi Minton’s recordings with Monk sans Bird you can hear the new music slowly coming to life. Tristano is simply wrong to say everything came from Bird.
Chamberlain documents how Warne Marsh, feeling unrecognized, left New York in 1960 to go live with his mother in California, right around the time Tristano has all but given up public performance in favor of teaching.
But whose music would Tristano and Marsh like their music to supplant? Consider the riches of jazz circa 1960:
Miles Davis with John Coltrane, with the Coltrane quartet with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones just on the horizon
Various Charles Mingus bands with Dannie Richmond, including the newest version with Eric Dolphy
Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian
Art Blakey with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter
The Horace Silver band
Various Blue Note groups with leaders like Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark, and Hank Mobley
Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell
Sonny Rollins just coming out of retirement; Dexter Gordon is on his way back from Europe
Bud Powell is still playing great in France
Cannonball Adderley has a hit record with a hot new band
The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Max Roach band – he’s about to make We Insist!
The Oscar Peterson Trio
Chet Baker and Stan Getz playing beautifully
The Three Sounds
Jimmy Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer
Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington all going strong
The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Jimmy Smith with Donald Bailey
Thelonious Monk with Charlie Rouse and Frankie Dunlop
First efforts by Steve Lacy and Cecil Taylor
Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan at their height
Great records by large group ensembles led by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan
And so much, more. If you collect jazz LPs, this is the era you collect!
My list also rebuts the Tristano school’s allegation—which runs like a cantus firmus throughout all four books—that most jazz musicians of the 1950s copied Charlie Parker and didn’t play like themselves. None of this above music sounds like Charlie Parker!
This 1960-era fecundity is due to the community, not due to individual genius. Tristano disagreed, and it cost him something within the community. The one time he recorded the blues it was a terrific one, “Requiem,” made right after Bird died. Later he complained,
And you know? Nobody said a word about it, especially black people.
All In the Mix: A white man playing the blues in isolation, thinking the black community is anxiously waiting for his contribution.
The Lonely Genius of Tristano
It is easy to listen to Tristano’s entire issued output, which is something you cannot say of most other major pianists of the Fifties. (Probably only Herbie Nichols, The Legendary Hassan and Oscar Dennard have even less documentation.) There is just one proper Tristano trio record, the informally recorded and posthumously released Manhattan Studio, and it is just wonderful. (In particular, the first eight bars of “Lover Man” are heartbreaking.)
The Tristano recording that has made the deepest impression on me was a bootleg tape of Tristano, Sonny Dallas, and a metronome that Jorge Rossy loaned me about fifteen years ago. They start at a slow tempo and gradually get faster for about six pieces. Both men sound perfectly comfortable with the metronome. It is from the mid-Sixties, and you can clearly hear how spectacularly provocative Tristano’s voicings have gotten in his left hand. The mad scientists are at work in their laboratory, and all is well with the world.
I immediately made a copy of the tape and listened to it quite a bit. The large portion of Tristano in my own playing comes mainly from this recording.
In 1994, part of that tape came out as Note to Note. Not only were the songs resequenced, but Carol Tristano overdubbed some unexciting drums, making it a bogus trio record. Apparently covering up the sound of the metronome was the producer’s concern, so the drums are mixed quite loud. Not only is this process a violation of any common sense in terms of how an improvising jazz group should play together, but the mix makes the tone of the piano and the bass quite weak and distant. Tristano himself wanted overdubbed drums for this recording, and, of course, the successful reference for overdubbing in the Tristano universe is “Line Up.” But what worked there doesn’t work here, because the bass and drums must play together at first for real swing and these overdubbed drums obscure the other instruments.
On the old tape I knew, the music was a blaze of light. Note to Note is a dim bulb indeed.
There are rumors of more tapes of Tristano and Dallas with the metronome extant. Hopefully they will come out some day, cleaned up as much as possible but without any extraneous overdubbing.
There is terrific audio and video of “Subconscious Lee,” “Background Music,” and “317 East 32nd” from the Half Note in 1964 with Konitz, Marsh, Dallas, and Nick Stabulas.
Dallas and Stabulas make a case for being the best Tristano rhythm section. Crucially, Stabulas did not just play with the Tristano school but with Phil Woods and Gil Evans in the 1950’s. He hits the drums nice and hard, even doing some floor tom rolls once in a while! (This is unheard of on any other Tristano record.) Dallas is strong too; I am struck by how easily this rhythm section could have played with Monk.
The highlight from this date is “Background Music,” which features an intense piano solo. One of the horns (I think Konitz) interacts with Tristano to create some unusual dissonant loops. The amount of relentless repetition here is reminiscent of the masterpiece solo piano track “C Minor Complex” on The New Tristano.
“Background Music” feels like the beginning of a new era of creativity for Tristano, but sadly it is nearly the end. Dallas and Stabulas also turn up on two dimly recorded tracks from 1966 on Descent Into the Maelstrom. It is stunning playing but very hard to hear, and that is basically the last Tristano recording.
The title track on Descent Into the Maelstrom is an unusual tone poem created by Tristano overdubbing three or four tracks of maniacal piano. It is resolutely atonal and reportedly done in 1953, although not released until the seventies. While listening to “Descent Into the Maelstrom” recently, I was strongly reminded of the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. When I noticed this, something in my heart relaxed.
Rather than thinking of Tristano as a true jazz cat, it is perhaps more helpful consider him somewhere in the constellation with Nancarrow and Charles Ives, both experimental American hermits who decided not to play with others.
That’s one of the reasons Tristano and Dallas and metronome is so great: it is appropriately pure and experimental that way. It’s music made only for itself.
Since Tristano was a hermetic genius, it was too much to expect him to work on integration too. But his music would have been even stronger if he had.
Still in the Mix (original 2008 conclusion)
There is a lot of sleepwalking that goes on in this country about racial equality, especially about how many American children are affected by conditions that are actually worse than in the days of pre-Civil Rights segregation. Back at the beginning of this blog, I postedthis rousing excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.
“Is the answer really to throw money into these dysfunctional and failing schools?” I’m often asked. “Don’t we have some better way to make them work?” The question is a posed in a variety of forms. “Yes, of course, it’s not a perfectly fair system as it stands. But money alone is surely not the sole response. The values of the parents and the kids themselves must have a role in this as well….Housing, health conditions, social factors”—”other factors” is the overall reprieve one often hears—”have got to be considered too…” These latter points are obviously true but always have the odd effect of substituting things we know we cannot change in the short run for obvious things like cutting class size and constructing new school buildings or providing universal preschool that we could actually could do right now if we were so inclined.
Frequently these arguments are posed as questions that do not invite an answer since the answer seems to be decided in advance. “Can you really buy your way to better education for these children?” “Do we know enough to be quite sure that we will see an actual return on the investment we will make?” “Is it even clear that this is the right starting point to get to where we’d like to go? It doesn’t always seem to work, as I am sure that you already know…,” or similar questions that somehow assume I will agree with those who ask them.
Some people who ask these questions, while they live in wealthy districts where the schools are funded at high levels, don’t send their children to these public schools but choose instead to send them to expensive private day-schools. At some of the well-known private prep schools in the New York City area, tuition and associated costs are typically more than $20,000. In their children’s teenage years they sometimes send them off to boarding schools like Andover or Exeter or Groton, where tuition, boarding, and additional expenses rise to more than $30,000. Often a family has two teenage children in these schools at the same time; so that they may be spending over $60,000 on the their children’s education every year. Yet here I am one night, a guest within their home, and dinner has been served and we are having coffee now; and this entirely likable, and generally sensible, and beautifully refined and thoughtful person looks me in the eyes and asks me whether you can really buy your way to a better education for the children of the poor.
Kozol’s 2005 book is now probably a little outdated, but surely his general perspective is sadly still all too true. As a somewhat enfranchised white person, I have been around countless well-off white people who behave exactly like the one imagined by Kozol above.
This self-important ignorance is bad for everything, including being bad for jazz. Jazz wouldn’t be here without American slavery. As long as jazz exists, it has to be fed by a healthy African diaspora.
On some level—just a purely emotional level, I don’t have facts and figures to back it up—I feel the reason for the recent collapse of jazz’s biggest marketplace, the International Association of Jazz Educators, was due in part to IAJE’s lack of interest in promoting and cherishing a connection to the African diaspora. I don’t know anybody at IAJE, so my apologies to anyone who worked there and was dedicated to that connection. But I have been around a lot of jazz education that wanted to willfully extract jazz music from its social history.
As of today’s posting, the Democratic nominee is still uncertain. Hopefully Obama will get it; hopefully he will then beat John McCain. But even if Obama doesn’t make it to the White House this year, his speech on race is a valuable legacy. I cannot think of another political speech in my lifetime with as much direct clarity on a complex issue. It certainly is the only time that a politician has made me do anything. (Meaning: write this post!) Let’s bring the problems of race to the table when looking at jazz then and now.
CODA: A Note on Tristano from Stanley Crouch (from 2008)
The most powerful black jazz critic of our era is Stanley Crouch. He has reservations about the Tristano school.
When I sent him this post to look over he wrote back right away:
As you know, I do not accept the idea that jazz advances itself by following new directions, harmonies or rhythms from European classical music.
I was reminded of a time I played a set at Smalls with Ben Street and Nasheet Waits with Stanley sitting right there at the bar. Afterwards, when I went over to say hi, he looked me in the eye and said,
Forget Lennie Tristano.
before moving on to say something complimentary. I starting laughing and asked why he said that. He responded by saying my intro to “All the Things You Are” sounded like Tristano to him. This was fair: it would be natural for me to “Tristano-out” on those changes.
If I sound like a little bit like Tristano sometimes, that is perfectly OK with me. (I also am repeatedly inspired by European classical music.) But Stanley is someone who has learned his convictions honestly, through passionately listening to jazz for a half-century. In general, if you can’t learn something from him, that’s your problem, not his.
He also knows this music. Those who want to dismiss Stanley as short-sighted should try it person, when he can cite Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh, The New Tristano and Live At the Half Note chapter and verse.
Stanley is also quoted in Shim, Chamberlain, and Hamilton, and his comments are always on point. He is the critic, for example, that repeatedly insists that Wayne Shorter comes out of Tristano and Marsh. I think he doesn’t really like that aspect of Shorter’s music, but he’s undoubtedly right about the influence.
Stanley gave some valuable comments on the above essay. From his email:
I think it is also important to contemplate the quality of the Tristano sound, which I think is also a rejection of what you call “African diaspora.” You have cited that famous Marsh/Tabackin story. I think that, ironically, the reason that they loved Young and Parker so much was because their tones were doorways to white nationalism! Lee Konitz has told me many times that though Tristano never said it, he always got the impression that his intent was to create a style of jazz that was, for lack of a better word, white. In overall aesthetic terms, there is nothing actually wrong or out of line in this decision because so much of modern art in the twentieth century was about using one’s ethic cultural background as an aesthetic element of fundamental importance. Picasso did it, so did Joyce, Faulkner, Ellison, and Bellow. Those additions can provide nuances that made the aesthetic artifact more complex rather than less. The question then is whether the “expressive” timbral elements of instrumental jazz, all of which can be traced to blues, folk, and work song singing, comprised for Tristano an academy that he rejected.
What separates Tristano from those other artists I listed is very simple: they added their ethnic particulars , mixed them in instead of removing as many of the fundamental technical accomplishments as possible while claiming attachment to the things that they were erasing. I once heard Tristano on the radio saying that when he was told by someone that what he was playing was not correct, he responded by saying, “Maybe it’s not right but I want to improvise.” There it is: he wanted to improvise and what resulted was the opening of a door to all of those people who are incapable of swinging, cannot play the blues and don’t like to be told by their rhythm sections what to do. A perfect attitude for the improvised but European-derived stuff that people call jazz today. The less presence it has of the Negro, the more “advanced” it is. That doesn’t matter: blues and swing will always be here.
At the same time that he showed how much he preferred machines to flesh and blood musicians, one Tristano fan who promoted him in Canada told me that Tristano once said, “You think I sound good now, eh? Get me a Miles Davis rhythm section and you will really hear me play then! You have no idea! ”
In other words, he could imagine himself sounding great with a bass player and drummer who were as deep in the bucket as you can imagine. This kind of contradictory stuff is quite common and it almost always has something to do with having been hurt by someone at some time or by a succession of someones at a given moment of time. Being condescended to by mediocre black musicians–who can be the most condescending of all because anything out of the ordinary threatens their supposed importance in the convention–had to get on Tristano’s nerves. His intelligence was vast; he was a literate and sophisticated thinker, which far too many black musicians were not; and Roy Haynes said that he had a sensitive, contemplative nature away from the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
One of the things that black people have long complained about is being talked down to by some mediocre white people who would be in no important place at all unless racism empowered them. It is not hard to imagine the same thing going on in the mind of a brilliant white man who is being dressed down by some black people overwhelmed by musical cliches and the “hip” minstrelsy of the late forties and early fifties. Tristano was also a sturdy man and would have probably had to put his feet in the behinds of many if he hadn’t been spared the gladiatorial knuckle game because he was blind. I think he would have come out well whenever it was necessary to set aside the notes and knock someone upside the head. After that happened a few times, people would have left him the hell alone.
Finally, Lennie Tristano found his own way as did Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Finding your own way is the hardest thing to do in the arts and maybe even in life, but they all did it and that is the most important statement about the Tristano school. It was started by a great original and it produced two great originals. As for influencing the whole of jazz, there was little of that but the most dynamic influence can be heard in Wayne Shorter’s playing with Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel: Listen to those “Rhythm” changes, which deeply influenced Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano, to name two who can play and who can probably sing and or play every Shorter solo recorded that night. When it’s time for what you do to come around, life will send the people to handle the job. That was one of Wayne Shorter’s.
Stanley’s suggestion early on that Tristano was actively trying to reject black music (at least in terms of sonority) is interesting. With the material in An Unsung Cat, that theory takes on some serious weight with Marsh, but really only after Marsh was disgruntled and embittered in the 70’s.
I personally don’t think Tristano was rejecting black music. However, today, the point is what black musicians think about it. Apparently there is a theory, held as common currency in Stanley’s circle of close musician friends, some of them quite young and black, that Tristano’s hatred of Monk is not because he thought that Monk was no good as a pianist. When Stanley cited the interview where Tristano said that Monk was the dumbest piano player he had ever heard, one black musician responded:
“Lennie Tristano plays too much piano to believe that. That’s about something else.”
Tristano heard himself in the line of Earl Hines, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell, all classically trained players who would have impressed a classical musician, but that Monk’s creation fof a decidedly Afro-American technique and his use of space (even though it had to be derived from Basie) was too challenging to Tristano and too original. It went beyond notes and chords into the very unique range of sound Monk could draw from the instrument.
One could draw from that attitude that Tristano would have hated plungers, which were so bent on reproducing the version of the black singing and speaking voice that came out of the blues. But the inevitable contradiction comes because Tristano was so proud of his own blues playing on “Requiem,” easily the greatest blues performance to come out of the Tristano school because it had almost nothing else with which to compete.
It is very telling that even today, these are the kind of All In the Mix issues we are still dealing with.
Very special thanks to Stanley Crouch for contributing to this discussion. Stanley’s valuable response to the Obama race speech is here.