Tristano at 100

(Lennie Tristano was born on March 19, 1919.)

Charles Ives wrote his forbidding mashups of genre without expecting his works to be performed. Conlon Nancarrow created furious cascades of sound by punching holes in player-piano rolls.

When jazz was popular, Lennie Tristano filled a similar role as a hermetic genius and aloof experimentalist. Ives sold insurance to support his composing; Tristano was the first jazz innovator to make a living teaching instead of gigging. Overdubbed Tristano pieces “Line Up,” “East Thirty-Second,” Turkish Mambo” and “Descent into the Maelstrom” share striking machine-like similarities with the Nancarrow sound world.

Ives, Nancarrow, Tristano: their reach only seems to grow over time. Tristano came from jazz but he stayed apart from jazz. He will always be inspiring for those looking for something fresh and different.

From the moment he heard Charlie Parker 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. Charlie 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.

The old saw, “There are no wrong notes in jazz,” isn’t quite true. “Wrong” notes have to be bought and paid for by the integrity of the line. Bird was already exceptional at making unexpected notes authentic in the classical jazz style, and Tristano took it even further, consistently figuring out how to “acclimatize” extremely dissonant pitches.

Those avant-garde notes were built on a rock-solid foundation. Tristano was born a prodigy and worked hard to get even better. His first records have a constant whirl of arpeggios that recall another blind pianist, Art Tatum. (A particularly exciting example is the Tristano solo on “Tiger Rag” with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.) Eventually this Tatumesque flair would get replaced by a post-Bud Powell grit, but Tristano never forgot the folkloric lessons he absorbed as a child of the big-band era.

Rather than staying put and playing conventionally brilliant jazz piano, Tristano’s life mission turned into something comparatively esoteric: “pure 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 basic changes: “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “All The Things You Are,” “All Of Me,” “I Remember April,” “Out Of Nowhere,” “Back Home In Indiana.” His one “original” set of changes is “Pennies From Heaven” made Mephistophelian by a move into the minor key.

The process worked. Part of the charisma found in classic performances by Tristano and his two best students Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz is derived from the pursuit of “pure improvisation.”

“Pure improvisation” is an easy goal to appreciate intellectually; it’s also an easy goal to offer inexperienced students. All of Tristano’s major solos have been transcribed. The book Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music by Eunmi Shim is excellent. Many jazz critics have embraced the “Tristano alternative” from the beginning. Indeed, compared with many jazz personalities, the Tristano literature goes on and on.

The essential material boils down to a small but vital discography.

1) Early trios and group material with horns, first issued on 78s. The vital work with Konitz and Marsh was later collected on Crosscurrents. The virtuosic original melodies on standard changes are still powerful, the two “free improvisations” are timid and boring (this last opinion is controversial).

2) Two astounding Atlantic LPs, Lennie Tristano and The New Tristano.  Discs that belong in any pantheon of jazz. I was just listening to “G Minor Complex” and struck anew by how much Tristano’s screaming and shouting right hand sounds like an earlier master like Earl Hines.

3) Descent into the Maelstrom, a valuable anthology of dimly-recorded later trios and experimental pieces. The title track is dense and foreshadows 60s energy music. (Although this LP came out in the 70s, “Descent into the Maelstrom” was reportedly tracked in the early 50s).

Incredibly, the above is the only material available when Tristano was alive. Much more has come out posthumously. My picks would include:

4) Manhattan Studio (or New York Improvisations) with Peter Ind and Tom Weyburn, mid-50s. “Lover Man” is one of my favorite performances,  three perfect minutes of noir. During some of the faster pieces, Tristano’s famously long lines extend almost too far; he was changing fast and improving all the time.

5) Video and audio of “Subconscious Lee,” “Background Music,” and “317 East 32nd” from the Half Note in 1964 with Konitz, Marsh, Sonny Dallas, and Nick Stabulas. Great stuff. Dallas and Stabulas are Tristano’s hardest swinging rhythm section.

and this outlier:

6) Note to Note was originally “trio” with Sonny Dallas and metronome. This official issue has overdubbed drums by Carol Tristano, a posthumous decision that obscures both the metronome and the wonder of the existing tracks, which include some of Tristano’s greatest playing. I have heard the tapes without overdubbing and hope they are restored to their original form someday, for the obvious presence of a click helps clarify the aesthetic of  “experimental music” like Ives and Nancarrow.

[The rest of this page is not a normal centennial celebration, but what’s left of an essay originally published on DTM in 2008 as “All in the Mix.”]

“Pure improvisation” was the official doctrine, but not everybody in a Tristano band was allowed to be a improvisor. For Tristano’s wild lines to speak properly, he required his rhythm sections to play very simply. The ultimate example of this approach is “Line Up” from the 1954 Atlantic LP Lennie Tristano.

Despite its obvious excellence, for many years I rejected “Line Up” because the piano was overdubbed over the rhythm section of bassist Peter Ind and drummer Jeff Morton. (The speed was probably adjusted as well.)

Now I don’t care; music is music, and however you get there is fine with me. Nancarrow used the piano roll, Tristano manipulated tape.  “Line Up” remains in a class of one. (The sister track “East Thirty-Second” is fabulous as well.)

This rhythm section concept works well here, in this futuristic, mechanical setting, but on some of Tristano’s other records with bass and drums the ensemble can sound pretty constricted.

It is hilarious to read Tristano on the topic of jazz drumming. In an abrasive article from 1945, “What’s Wrong With Chicago Jazz,” Tristano 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.

In a 1958 interview for Down Beat Tristano lets it all hang out:

I think that one of the worst elements today is the inability of men to play with each other. There are no sidemen anymore. 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…

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. 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. To improvise under these conditions is absolutely ridiculous. This condition has been developing over a period of five or six years.

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. 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.

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 with the left hand. That gives him much less to do and eliminates my having to put all my subdivisions against his left foot. It’s become a hideous thing. Everything has gotten tighter. Drums are tyrannical.

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 himself played with Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Shelly Manne, Buddy Rich, Art Taylor, and Paul Motian.

If I was one of those drummers and saw this interview in Down Beat, I would be 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. It gets complicated real quick, for there was no piano-based music that had anything to do with groove before American slavery.

Now, if you knew Tristano personally, you might have had a different impression than when reading these interviews. 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:

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.’]”

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.

One side of Lennie Tristano is a collection of live tunes at a Chinese restaurant in a quartet with Konitz, Gene Ramey, and Art Taylor. In Art Lange’s review of this recording, he wrote a paragraph about the drumming that has been quoted extensively in the Tristano literature:

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. The drummer sounds fine, but those wanting to hear Art Taylor power a band with enthusiasm and finesse should go to any John Coltrane record with Red Garland and Paul Chambers.

Peter Ind uses this 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.

H’mm. 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.

The drums were not the only instrument Tristano wanted completely even. He wanted the bass exactly even as well. Eventually Tristano learned to supply this for himself, and the resulting solo disc The New Tristano has astonishing left hand bass lines.

Jazz critic Barry Ulanov was an important 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. At the time of release they must have been shocking.

As far as I know, the only time Tristano is documented playing his unconventional basslines with a drummer is the video of “Pennies in Minor” with Connie Kay in Berlin. Kay is listening, but a certain amount of skepticism about 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1 might also be seen on Kay’s face.

Kay is skeptical because beats are not usually supposed to be 1,1,1,1,1,1,1.  Tension and release help generate swing. Tristano’s feel draws on “unswinging” science fiction. I love it, but I can’t blame Kay or any other heavy swinger for not paying it much attention.

At any rate, Tristano’s 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 are no anticipations, syncopations, roll-offs, skip-beats, or any other grease to add to the swing.

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 favorite beat might have come from the most even instrument of all, the metronome. But few musicians deeply connected with the African diaspora worry much about the metronome. Jimmy Garrison showed up at Tristano’s studio to play a session, and Konitz recalled:

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. It’s a 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.”

The best book on jazz is still the collection of interviews by Art Taylor, Notes and Tones. Among so many other memorable passages, Art Blakey offers a good example of gallows humor:

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.

On the same page, Blakey praises Tristano!  This comes in the context of Blakey complaining about energy free jazz of the 1960’s.

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.

Blakey’s amusing condemnation of white players while also crediting Tristano as in innovator in nearly the same breath suggests something about the complexities of race in classic jazz.

There has always been something at least a tad segregated about the Tristano school. An overwhelming percentage of the players associated with the Tristano style are white.

Tristano, Konitz and Marsh were probably worried about this, which might be why each of them made a mid-fifties album on Atlantic with a black rhythm section. Perhaps they didn’t take this attempt at outreach far enough.

At first there didn’t seem to be a problem. Charlie Parker went on record endorsing Tristano. Miles Davis hired Lee Konitz and spoke admiringly of Tristano in public. It makes sense, for it is hard to imagine any jazz musician, black or white, not being stunned by the earliest Tristano music with Konitz and Marsh. The lines were utterly fresh 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.

Again, this music is unquestionably valid. So, if it was so valid, why did it end up so segregated?

Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov were visible jazz critics in that era. While they battled against Jim Crow and were the among the first to call Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie geniuses of the century, not all of their assertions have stood the test of time.

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. Shim’s book highlights the importance Ulanov 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:

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 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.

These “All-Stars” are the Tristano circle plus the very heaviest black musicians of the new music. This is 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 Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones, Dizzy 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.

Indeed, 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…[EI: This Gillespie band featured Chano Pozo, started the Afro-Cuban revolution in jazz, and is the basis of much of Miles Davis’s 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.

There was definitely 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…

I’m not sure what Tristano thought of Miles Davis, but after his initial support, the Prince of Darkness had this to say in his autobiography:

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.

Ouch. Somehow we’ve gotten from “Wow” and Charlie Parker endorsing Tristano to deep in the weeds. Obviously the critics played a part. What about the music itself?

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 ditty might be 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 Safford Chamberlain biography of Warne Marsh, 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 is not correct in the Charlie Parker Omnibook.)

The performance of Parker and Gillespie on the head of “Koko” is very accurate, very fast, very loud, very stop and start, and very loose. It’s something only for initiates to perform. Miles Davis praised this passage in discussion with Gillespie.

While I don’t know how Parker and Gillespie talked about their rhythm, these days the word “Clave” can be used by 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 is a way of organizing musical sentences where specific spacing and 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 syncopated 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 was of no interest to the Tristano school at that time.

Gillespie: “The cool period always reminded me of white people’s music. There was no guts in that music, and not much rhythm, either…” Davis: “They didn’t start nothing, and they knew it, and they weren’t the best at what was being done.” To some extent, these accusations are backed up by the comparison of these tracks.

However, after we note the correct pecking order, there’s no reason to disparage “Marshmallow.” It is stunning that Marsh and Konitz could figure out how to do something new with “Ko-Ko” so soon – just four years later! Even the self-deprecating, color-conscious title helps keeps it in the right place.

I’m sure if the critics had understood this pecking order there wouldn’t have been the same kind of problem with Gillespie and Davis.

Feather said Tristano was 20 years ahead of the beboppers, Ulanov said Tristano was the most original voice around.  Lee Konitz placed above of Charlie Parker as top alto saxophonist in Down Beat. Harvey Pekar wrote, “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.”

These were valid reasons to get mad at white critics.

In all the Tristano literature, I haven’t seen any interviews of older black musicians about the critical and poll-winning attention given the Tristano school in the late 40’s and early 50’s. This attention by the white establishment is surely a major factor in some black musicians’ refusal to accept Tristano’s contribution to jazz.

A Konitz story told to Andy Hamilton is relevant:

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 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, a supreme master of funky walking, listening to any Tristano-school bassist and being really unimpressed.

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.”

Tristano was a genius, but apparently he didn’t see that something was going south in managing the basic race relations of his school. (Perhaps his literal blindness was a contributing factor, not unlike one of those post-racial types today who claim, “I don’t see skin color.”)  He didn’t like drummers. He didn’t like Thelonious Monk, even going so far as to say, “In my opinion, just about the dumbest pianist I’ve ever heard.” Other Tristano comments are just as tone-deaf.  After he recorded the blues “Requiem” for Charlie Parker, he grumped, “And you know? Nobody said a word about it, especially black people.” Tristano even had the gumption to be irritated about a black community-forward narrative concerning the birth of bop.

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.

Politics aside, Tristano’s concepts were too valuable to be ignored. Sonny Clark said he was inspired by Tristano. At times Herbie Hancock sounds very aware of Tristano, especially during the uptempo piano solos on Miles Smiles. Two of the most obvious children of Tristano are Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett. (Auditing Tristano, Bley, and Jarrett recordings of “All the Things You Are” confirms an obvious trajectory.) In every one of these cases, the strictures against the rhythm section are loosened.

Was the Tristano school the first literal school of jazz? The two best known exponents, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, have extensive discographies without Tristano. Most would agree that 1959-1961 was a particularly vital moment, with examples like Konitz Motion, Marsh Release Record Send Tape, and both saxophonists together at the Half Note with Bill Evans (who showcases his own major debt to Tristano on this extraordinary recording). It is also educational to listen to much later documents of these master horn players in collaborations with consecrated pianists that had nothing to do with Tristano: Marsh and Hank Jones Star Highs (1982), Konitz and Barry Harris Lullaby of Birdland (1991).

Less famous practitioners in the Tristano tradition have included such wild cards like Sal Mosca and Connie Crothers. This school has tended to be rather insular, almost a cult, and at times I’ve been rather skeptical. The final NYC concert of Mosca at Birdland was profoundly disheartening. Mosca’s talent was formidable: I left that gig fighting mad that he didn’t he stay closer to the conventional jazz community and connect with a wider group of vital players. (The best Mosca on record I’ve heard is the ruminative solo LP For You.)

Later I concluded that the fully committed could achieve special effects not heard elsewhere. When I attended the 2015 induction of Lennie Tristano in the Ertegun Hall of Fame at JALC, the Tristano school was out in force. For most of them this would be their first and last time playing Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. Kazzrie Jaxen’s rhapsodic, elliptical, and unexpected choruses on “Out of Nowhere” over a quiet and metronomic rhythm section was a magical and unforgettable moment.

CODA: A Note on Tristano from Stanley Crouch (from 2008)

Stanley Crouch is quoted the books by Shim, Chamberlain, and Hamilton. Over email, Stanley commented on the first iteration of the above essay:

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.”  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.


Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews by Arthur Taylor

Lennie Tristano: A Life in Music by Eunmi Shim

Warne Marsh: An Unsung Cat by Safford Chamberlain

Lee Konitz: Conversations About the Improvisor’s Art by Andy Hamilton

Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his Legacy by Peter Ind

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz by Paul Bley and David Lee

also on DTM:

18 with Lee K. (listening to Lester Young with Lee Konitz) 

Memories of Connie Crothers (by Marta Sanchez)