Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp

Lee and Dan

Lee Konitz will be turning 87 in October, and his long and distinguished career as one of the most singular saxophonists in jazz needs no introduction (but if you need one, it’s here). He is known in particular for his intense focus on improvisational integrity, a desire for each musical choice to reflect the present moment as much as possible instead of a pre-made plan or habit.

It’s easy to overlook how radical this position is. In many other styles of music, from classical to pop, the goal in live performance is the opposite: to reproduce a carefully thought-out plan as faithfully as possible. Even in jazz, it’s not uncommon for groups to take a hybrid approach where a good portion of the material, even outside of written sections, is predetermined. Despite all this, Lee has somehow stubbornly insisted on showing up to his concerts prepared to be unprepared, and has (mostly) delighted audiences in doing so.

In my seven years of playing with Lee in diverse contexts I’ve been able to observe his commitment to the moment firsthand, particularly in our duo playing. One direct result of his approach is that his music is rarely boring; audiences seem to intuitively understand that something unique is going on; they pay attention in the way that people do when they genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next.

And yet it’s also become clear to me that our audience doesn’t always necessarily understand what’s at stake when we perform. In his commitment to true improvisation, Lee isn’t taking the easy road. Failure is very much an option. And success, in the form of authentic engagement with the truth of the moment, may not sound like success to a listener used to being wowed by virtuosic effects.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when Lee and I played a duo concert in the Belgrade Jazz Festival. During the afternoon before the concert, I conducted a workshop with young local musicians. A number of them were very talented, but—as is common with young musicians—they had a tendency to play predictable patterns that weren’t closely related to what else was going on. As a result, I spent a lot of the workshop talking about the importance of listening and the goal of reacting as genuinely as possible to what we heard, rather than rattling off what we already knew.

In the audience were a couple of guys in their mid-thirties listening intently. After the concert, one of them approached me and told me that he had loved the concert, but that he might not have if he hadn’t heard my workshop earlier in the day. He explained that if I hadn’t clarified that our main objective on stage was to be as spontaneous and authentic as possible, he might have interpreted the opening of our concert as timid, rather than as a committed search for communication, and walked out. He was an electronic pop composer, and his job was to blow a listener’s socks off as quickly and reliably as possible. But, now that he understood the rules of our game, he found himself intensely engrossed in our concert, bringing his attention to how the notes that we played seemed to accord themselves with the feeling in the room at that moment, and the quality of the listening and communication between us.

I realized then how elusive the concept of real improvisation is. It’s a subtle thing that’s not easy to explain. As a listener, one could even be forgiven for asking what the point of improvising is in the first place. In the following interview, which I conducted for Chamber Music America at the very end of 2012, Lee and I explore this thorny topic, among others. I learned a lot from the conversation.

Lee and Dan London

Dec 4, 2012: Dan Tepfer interviews Lee Konitz

Hosted by Chamber Music America’s Talking Music series
Transcribed by Kevin Sun and edited for clarity by Dan Tepfer

I. Spontaneity

Dan Tepfer: There are a lot of reasons that I feel lucky to have gotten to know Lee over the last seven years.

Lee Konitz: Can you give me one good reason?

DT: Here’s maybe the biggest reason, or the biggest influence that Lee has had on me: we’re sitting here doing this interview, and instead of being very formal about it and, say, trying to adhere to the format of an interview, Lee comes in and he just—this is what he always does—he keeps it real. Janette, in her introduction, talks about mentorship; Lee talks about sex. Or he talks about his teeth falling out. The thing that I really love about Lee is that he’s always expressing his freedom. We talk like this, but he also plays like this, too.

LK: My teeth falling out!

DT: To look at it another way, I always think of Lee as a Zen master. Like there’s nothing keeping you from responding to what’s actually going on in the moment.

LK: Well, I appreciate your bringing that out, because I’m actually pretty shy. I think I have some of what we might call “ham” tendencies in front of an audience. I might figure I have to do something now in front of this audience; what am I going to do? Make a joke, or play a good phrase, or whatever. So usually some silly thing comes into my mind, and, as far as that, I love to hear people laughing.

DT: But you just wait for a silly thing to come to mind; you don’t plan it out.

LK: Oh, right. Well, you know, I memorize some of those lines [laughter].

DT: I just read a novel called Remainder. It’s a new novel by a young author named Tom McCarthy, and the main character is this kind of weirdo who starts to obsess—because his brain was damaged in an accident—over recreating everyday events. So, for example, he goes to a carwash and he gets very obsessed with the experience he had there, which to most people would seem perfectly ordinary. As a result of the accident he’s come into a lot of money, so he decides to hire actors to reenact exactly what happened when he got to the carwash, and he has them do it over and over and over thousands of times with him participating, his idea being to perfect this unremarkable little event. The novel is an exploration of the idea of spontaneity, I think, and what this character is looking for is a form of perfect spontaneity. By rehearsing it over and over again and fine-tuning details of it, he wants it to appear completely spontaneous, but the end of the novel is him realizing that true spontaneity can only happen when unpredictable things happen. And that really got me to think about improvisation, which is something that I’ve learned a lot about from you. So my question is: what is important about improvisation? In what way could improvisation be better than planning it all ahead, planning it all out ahead of time and getting it just right?

LK: Well, I think you could answer that question with a little bit of reflection because we have accomplished that a number of times on the stage. That is one of the miracles of playing this kind of music—that, all of a sudden, you’re in another time frame and another emotional setting and the whole thing feels like magic, and that’s the goal of this kind of playing. The other kind of playing is very valid, of course: being prepared, well prepared, and zipping on through what you know, and it’s certainly a major accomplishment, but compared to taking the chance of walking on the stage and not knowing the first note of what you’re going to play… I swear, considering I’ve been practicing for 65 years—boy, almost 75 years now, I’ve been practicing for a long time—I’ve got familiarity with the keyboard and its possibilities, but the idea for me is to be able to play from the first note whatever occurs to me at the moment. And the only way you can learn how to do that is to do it a lot, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that a lot, and I appreciate when other people join me to make it a conversation—a spontaneous conversation—which is very worth doing in front of people.

DT: If you’re on stage and you don’t know what you’re going to play, the experience is really fundamentally different from knowing what you’re going to play, and, for example, I do things where I play classical music where I know what I’m going to play and things where I improvise where I don’t, so it’s a really, really big difference in terms of mental process, but I wonder: does that difference really communicate to the audience?

LK: I think so. For people who are really looking, listening, they know that this isn’t a prepared situation somehow.

DT: There’s something they can feel about it?

LK: The actual movement, the sound projection, and the choice of notes—it doesn’t sound as slick or prepared somehow. Sometimes it’s positively clumsy, but with the right feeling you can get away with murder. I don’t mean murder…

DT: I always think of the greatest classical musicians who can somehow—or the greatest Shakespearean actors, for example—who can somehow put you in a state where you’re listening to them and you actually believe that they’re making up what they’re saying or playing in the moment, even though you know it’s preplanned.

LK: Yeah, but Laurence Olivier was scared to death of standing in the wings, as he was quoted saying. He was that well-prepared, and he still feared something spontaneous was going to happen. Couldn’t handle it maybe, or something like that.

DT: Do you remember if there was a specific time when you got a clear conviction that being spontaneous was a legitimate way of performing?

LK: Well, it was the result of playing a number of times. I then learned that this was honest, an honest endeavor, and it gave me great faith to spend the rest of my life trying to develop that technique.

DT: So that was 1947? Was that something that you realized immediately when you started playing, or did it take a while?

LK: No, I was very nervous at the beginning and just foomphing on through at some point or another without really knowing what I was doing, I think, and then gradually I got more familiar with what I was doing and how to play it out to the listeners without designing it specifically for them—just to do what I had to do and hope that they could experience it in some way, rather than, you know, preparing to hit a home run in front of the people and all those kinds of things, which I think most jazz musicians that I hear over these years do: prepare so that they have a clear effect on the audience.

DT: Now, if you heard a musician who comes across to you as having something prepared, but you heard him two nights in a row and he played completely different stuff from one night to the next, but still came across as being prepared, how would that affect you?

LK: That would affect me very positively, I think. Strangely enough, Charlie Parker, who I had heard before I came to New York on a 10-inch acetate record, sounded so knowing of what he was doing that when I went to the Three Deuces and heard him play, I said, “Wow, that sounded like the record.” So I realized then that he was really prepared, well-prepared, and listened to him that way and appreciated how well he did it—when he did it well—in the same way that you would appreciate a classical player. They talk about [Vladimir] Horowitz missing notes and [Arthur] Rubenstein missing notes and things like that, but we were left with the great feeling that they gave to that music.

DT: So Charlie Parker is obviously somebody that you admire, but also we’ve talked a lot about Lester Young—also somebody that you and the whole Tristano school greatly admire, and so I’ve heard you on the one hand talk about him as being one of your greatest influences, and on the other hand also acknowledge that on some of those classic solos of his early recordings it felt to you like it was probably fairly prepared.

LK: Well, I think so. Playing every night with a big band where you have a chance to play a 32-bar solo or less, you kind of, you know, end up with something similar each time. You anticipate the background coming in and things like that.

DT: You start to develop a feeling for what works and what doesn’t.

LK: You don’t have time to just stand there and relax; you just pump away. And he was, I think, in condition enough, psychologically and the other way…

DT: Physically?

LK: —smoking, getting stoned, so he just got right to the point.

DT: And what do you make of somebody like Stan Getz, who, from what I’ve heard even from guys who played with him, the first time he played a tune, he would really be improvising. Somebody would teach him a tune; they’d be there at the sound check, and he’d learn the tune by ear from somebody—he was really, really quick—and he’d play his first solo—brilliantly—and then the next night he would play another solo that was kind of closely related to the previous night, but pretty different. And the third night would be a mixture of those first two solos, and by the fourth night it would be starting to crystallize, and then by the fifth night he would have started to develop this very perfectly structured solo that would then become his fixed solo on that piece, and after a while he’d have to fire his band because they knew his solos too well! What do you think of that: somebody who has the ability to improvise but chooses not to?

LK: Well, it’s kind of the easy way out.

DT: Aha.

LK: He had perfect pitch, or perfect recollection or something. I believe he could repeat things the first time he heard them, but then he would be dependent on that.

DT: So this is what I’m so fascinated about. Faced with all these influences in your life—people whom you really respect who took what seems like a different approach—you still developed total conviction in the power of really starting fresh every night.

LK: Well, thank you for verbalizing that. That’s what I intended to do, but I’m very pleased that that’s happened as many times as it has over my playing career, so that it feels that real to me and not just an accident. I don’t get stoned anymore, so it’s not dependent on that or things like that.

DT: I talk to young guys sometimes—not that young, guys my age—

LK: Not very young anymore… [laughter]

DT: —and sometimes there’s almost a backlash against this kind of idea. I think one thing that’s happened—

LK: Do your improvising at home? Is that what you’re talking about? Go out in public and play what you know?

DT: —I think some people feel that the idea of valuing spontaneity very highly could actually be an excuse for laziness.

LK: Absolutely. I fought for that. [laughter] It’s a good opportunity to have a little nap or things like… No, I mean, it’s a specific discipline that requires specific attention and can be developed, I think.

DT: Well, that’s the thing, right? If you’re going to decide to take that route, you’re going to have to be really, really good at that, otherwise it sucks.

LK: Yeah, absolutely. See if anybody came in that didn’t hear that last word.

DT: For example, I was hanging out with a friend of mine a few months ago and he played me two takes of an Ahmad Jamal track—an early track—and they’re just two takes of the same track from a record date, and Ahmad plays pretty much the same solo on both takes. And my friend’s reaction was, “Isn’t this amazing? He cared so much that he developed his solo and wasn’t improvising!” To him, it was a very positive thing, and he also brought up Thelonious Monk, who would sit at home practicing one of his compositions over and over and over again until he kind of worked out what felt like the right thing to play to him—

LK: And he’d play it over and over again.

DT: —and that’s what he would play in public, maybe rearranging the order of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle or whatever. But basically, to my friend who’s a musician I really respect, that was like, “Look how much these guys cared. They weren’t just going out there unprepared.” So this is the crux of the matter to me—why you’ve decided to take the approach you took. Because the thing is, when you, Lee, go out there unprepared, it’s pretty much always great. I don’t know how you do it.

LK: I’m not unprepared! I mean, I’ve been preparing for 70 years, but not in that specific a way, I presume.

DT: So how do you practice this?

LK: I just improvise. I just practice improvising, trying to stay in that frame of mind and remembering things that occur to me that are interesting and jot them down maybe, just to refer to them. And then I go on to the next thing.

DT: So maybe it’s about preparing your taste and not the actual specific information?

LK: It’s definitely taste first. The information is a result of that taste, I think.

DT: So if your goal is to go out on stage and be authentically in the moment, how strong is the influence of the players that you’re working with?

LK: Very strong. It depends entirely on their response, or else I’m playing by myself. It’s easier with only one other person. As soon as you add a third voice and a fourth voice, even though they’re bass and drums usually, you’re responsible for hearing all of that and using it in some way and relating to it in some way, and that is, phew, that is difficult.

DT: And yet, in your career, you’ve toured all over the world—

LK: Not China!

DT: —and played with a lot of pickup bands.

LK: Yes, I have.

DT: So what do you do when you get on stage and you’re playing with people you’ve never played with before, and you realize, you know, three bars into the first tune that they’re not on the same wavelength, in terms of actually listening and trying to create fresh music.

LK: Well, if I continue to play during those few bars, and I obviously am not on the right wavelength to relate to them, then the first thing I have to do is cool it and listen to them—

DT: So you just stop playing.

LK: —and just be influenced by them. Whatever they’re playing can influence me in some way to some degree, and that is what I look forward to.

DT: So whomever you’re playing with, even if what they’re playing isn’t that inspiring, you have to say yes to it.

LK: Yeah, and if it’s not gonna work I’m going to know quickly enough and not do it again, you know.

DT: Now, is this search for spontaneity a reason that you’ve changed bands so much?

LK: No, it’s a result of being asked to do gigs by different people. I’ve never been a gig hunter, so I wouldn’t work if people didn’t invite me, and when I realized that all the guys knew how to play “All the Things You Are” to some extent, I knew I was kind of in business to that extent, since I just know about seven tunes, but I know mine in all keys and stuff like that.

DT: What about change in keys? I remember when we first started playing together we did a tour in Japan without a bassist, just with Richie Barshay on drums and me on piano, and somehow on that tour you were changing key and changing tempos all the time. Now, is that something you do, is that a technique to keep things fresh? Is that something you do when you’re feeling like something’s lacking?

LK: If I just feel like doing it and I’m not concerned that it’s going to upset anybody, really, I’ll do it. I’m not complaining; I’m just trying to stretch it out.

DT: So you’d only do that if it feels like the situation is right for it.

LK: Yeah, and in that particular situation there’s no problem with the drum notes, and I know I can depend on you, so that’s pretty safe territory for me.

DT: And is there ever a situation where you’d actually throw a wrench in the works?

LK: Uh, not voluntarily: just closing up in some way and not feeling compelled to keep going when I’m not listening.


II. Learning

DT: In the West there’s this whole tradition of learning in a classroom, so information is presented in an intellectual way. It’s on paper and you’re supposed to take it in, somehow make it your own, and then put it out in a way that doesn’t sound like you learned it academically. But in a lot of other cultures music is learned through an apprenticeship model.

For example, I was in Cuba earlier this year in April studying with the great percussionist Changuito. The way he teaches is, simply, that he shows you something and he stays with you long enough that you can do it, kind of, then he leaves the room and you work on it on your own until you get it right, and then he comes back and he listens and he plays with you as you play it, and if it feels like you’ve gotten it then he shows you the next thing. And that’s the way music is taught in a lot of parts of the world. There’s never necessarily a verbalization of anything; it’s really about the practice.

That’s what I feel like we’re missing a lot in the way that music is taught in the West, and that’s why I feel so lucky to get to play with somebody like you, because that’s one of the places where I get that direct experience of the history of jazz, beyond what can be put into words.

LK: I think that being able to express it in words is to some extent a newer thing that’s adding to the learning process—in this subject especially—and I think that’s welcome if it’s done in the right kind of spirit. If people actually measure specifically what that is, you know, why you use a metronome to do a certain time realization and somehow talking about the use of the scales, why you use this scale against this chord or whatever kind of analysis—that could help to be talked about to some extent.

DT: Do you see a danger in that?

LK: No.

DT: You’re saying that it has to be done—

LK: No, I’m saying that’s a welcome addition, I think.

DT: —but you said it has to be done in the right kind of spirit.

LK: Yeah, it should be done after the fact, after you’ve already realized it somehow through just trying it. Then you might gradually want to put it into words to someone else, maybe—to other players or something like that.

DT: So in other words, the information should really come to you through the music—

LK: I think so, first of all.

DT: —and then be verbalized.

LK: Yeah.

DT: I think that difference in order is something that we often get wrong.

LK: Yeah.

DT: For example, when you talk about transcribing, you say: first listen to the solo, then learn to sing it, then play it on your instrument, and finally, if you want, write it down so you won’t forget it, but that’s absolutely the last step. The first two steps are really aural, and they force you to organize the information in your own way, whereas I think a lot of people who transcribe actually do it backwards.

LK: Yeah, I think so.

DT: What’s the difference?

LK: Well, you know it, somehow, before you analyze it. I think it’s necessary to be able to hear internally, to be able to express it away from an instrument and then to be able to write it down. It’s like a new experience when you try to put it into notes.

DT: How does the knowing part feel to you?

LK: It means that I can express it by voice or whistling it or playing it before reading it, the finished product.

DT: A person could write down the notes without actually knowing it; they could write down the notes and still not know how to phrase it, or what the feeling is.

LK: Yeah. The Charlie Parker transcription books have a very limited effect because all you get is a litter of notes that could be anybody’s notes, almost. But to learn the solo by yourself makes it very much a part of you.

DT: It’s funny because you can almost think that you’re learning it by yourself if you write it down first, but somehow there’s something really different about using your memory and your intuition or whatever it is that’s happening when you do it without paper. I’m fascinated by how different that is and why it is so different.

LK: Well, it’s just a very specific process, composing a piece like that from learning by ear and then recomposing it, if you will, or transcribing it.


III. Originality

DT: How much do you value originality and did you ever consciously set out to be original?

LK: Not really, no. I was made aware that there are original players and copyists early on and…

DT: By whom?

LK: By colleagues around, you know, fellow musicians. I heard them copying Charlie Parker, basically, or Lester Young or some prominent players. They were using them as models, learning from them as models as young people sitting at the Metropolitan Museum copying Van Gogh learn that way, to know exactly how you do that. And since I couldn’t identify with Charlie Parker’s experience as a human being, so to speak, I was just going by the music, the notes, the way they were played and hoping that I didn’t try to copy him when I left the room and went out to play in public. I usually got away with that by telling people that it was too hard for me to imitate him [laughter]. And I ended up being one of the only alto players that didn’t try to play like him, even though I was copying all his solos and everything, and I found it difficult to play with that kind of energy and that kind of brilliance and all of those things, so I used what energy I got from that and whatever notes, construction of notes, and whatever good phrases and then I mashed it up, mixed it up myself into my way of playing. And all the guys put me down because I didn’t sound like Bird, and every time I met Charlie Parker he said, “Thank you for not trying to play like me.”

DT: I’ve heard you play Charlie Parker solos, even in the last few years.

LK: You mean parts of his phrases?

DT: Not on gigs, but I’ve heard you backstage.

LK: Going through specifically his solos.

DT: Going specifically through a Charlie Parker solo. And obviously you can play many of Lester Young’s solos. That’s interesting to me, because I think some younger players think, “I don’t want to sound like my model,” so they shy away from that kind of study. There might actually be a will to stay away from it, to keep away from directly transcribing. But you totally went there: you studied Charlie Parker as hard you could, you studied Lester Young as hard as you could, and yet you came out sounding like yourself, so there must have been a conscious awareness of the difference between copyists and creators, as you said earlier.

LK: I think Tristano helped make that real to me. First of all, it took me a long time to get around to studying Charlie Parker because of my relationship with Tristano—it felt like it was in another neighborhood. He suggested, certainly, to absorb: this is the master, absorb what you can and make it your own. And that’s pretty much the way I pursued it.

DT: I just love how mysterious these questions are. I mean, how would you go about telling somebody how to on the one hand study as much as they can of their models and on the other stay true to themselves?

LK: Yeah. Well, when I actually played one of his solos pretty precisely, I felt like someone else to some extent, and that was a little bit not comprehensible in some way—how I could change like that. And then I got stoned, and then that really changed, and boy, that was nice! I mean it was still incomprehensible to an extent, but phew, it was very nice terrain to try to traverse. But I somehow felt that I was going to live for a long time, so I thank you [knock on wood] very much for whoever you are up there for letting me stay around and try to get it right.

DT: You felt like you were going to live a long time when you were young?

LK: Oh, I don’t know that exactly, but I never planned on leaving.

DT: You didn’t like the storyline of burning out young?

LK: No, I saw too many of my colleagues dropping the thing way young—Charlie Parker at the age of 34, and Charlie Christian I think at 22, something like that—and it was a great loss, these very talented people.

DT: So the fact that you felt like you were going to be around for a long time was one reason why you felt like you could take your time with the music. You didn’t have to force a result, or…

LK: Well, I felt like I needed some extra incentive or work ethic to be able to practice my eight hours a day like Coltrane presumably did. If I got an hour and a half in, I felt like, “Oh good, I had a good day.” But, you know, I’m still around, so my hour and a half didn’t do me in completely, or something.

DT: So for you there’s always a very clear sense, when you’re playing, of whether you’re sounding like yourself or not.

LK: Yeah, in the sense that it feels like the music is available, that whatever I decide to do during those moments is feeling nice to me—feeling correct, if you will, or pleasant, or whatever. It feels like I’m doing what I enjoy doing most, and I just try to get into that place as much as possible, alone and then with varieties of people.

DT: So being yourself is the feeling of being able to do what you want.

LK: Of course.

DT: And if you’re playing pre-prepared music you can’t be doing what you want, because you prepared it at a different time when you presumably felt differently than you feel at that moment.

LK: Yeah, but that’s a whole different philosophical goal to reach: to play something prepared, you know, is a major achievement if it’s well done and well conceived.

DT: So one could find authenticity in that, too.

LK: Yeah, absolutely. I never feel superior in that sense; I just feel that I’m happy to have found a place to function to some extent.

DT: So it’s not a feeling that this is the only valid way there is, but a feeling of having found something that worked for you.

LK: Right.


IV. Drugs

DT: I’m curious if you feel like in your life the influence of the very limited amount of drug-taking you’ve done has been important, or whether basically your evolution as an artist would have been the same without it.

LK: I can’t answer that accurately, of course, but I know that at some point I felt like I knew that that was something that I loved to do, at best, and that I wanted to live my life without it. I felt a dependence—wanting to have a poke [smoke a joint] before I faced the audience and all that kind of stuff. And when I found out that I didn’t really need it, that was a great reward for me and it’s remained that way. I haven’t snuck a poke before a set since (that anybody knows about) [laughter].

DT: Occasionally you encounter musicians, very brilliant musicians, who will come to rehearsal and sound incredible in the rehearsal, playing very accurately, with great energy and investment, and sometimes—this has happened to me a few times—they’ll be very well-prepared, incredibly serious, and you’re very impressed. You’re thinking, “Wow, this is great, I’m so happy I have this guy here,” and then you get to the gig and they will have taken something that makes them really different. It can even get sloppy, and that’s so disappointing. You’ve seen that, right?

LK: Yeah, of course. Or just freezing up cold sober in front of the audience. Something can be turned off completely in that process for some people.

DT: You mean if you don’t take anything.

LK: Yeah, just the fear of functioning, of being that transparent or that naked in front of a bunch of people looking and listening. That’s very intimidating.

DT: So you were saying at the very beginning of this talk that you felt like you were a shy person, and so maybe in a way the biggest role of taking a poke or whatever was just to combat that rather than creative reasons?

LK: Well, sometimes after a poke I was more shy, so I had to be careful of that, too. More self-conscious, you know, “What am I doing?” and things like that.

DT: Well, that sounds like it hasn’t been entirely positive, then.

LK: No, and thankfully I didn’t have to get into all the heavy kinds of things. Pot was the only thing I liked; I didn’t like to drink or anything like that.

DT: Probably why you’re still around.

LK: Probably part of the reason, maybe. I know some 85-year-old guys who are stoned every day, and they know who they are, right there. [Laughter]


V. Competition

DT: In the book that you did with Andy Hamilton—this is a great book if you guys don’t know it, Conversations On the Improviser’s Art, a great book on jazz—Sonny Rollins challenges you to a duel because you were a little critical of him in a very respectful way, and so he said, “Well, we gotta work this out in a duel,” and first it’s with swords and then it’s with saxophones. What role has competition played in your evolution and do you think that’s important to the scene?

LK: I think that’s unfortunately important, and I’m not a strong challenger in that sense. I was very intimidated by the new guys who really knew what they were doing, so to speak. Trying to improvise in that context feels very, you know, you gotta start someplace and develop slowly. But the other way, [claps] you jump right in to it. You hit a home run and then you’re done or whatever, so I was very inhibited by that.

DT: Because your approach takes more time.

LK: Yeah, and it’s really different all the time. Sometimes it starts with a few spare notes; sometimes I can jump into it immediately. It all depends.

DT: You can’t count on it.

LK: But people who are prepared can count on it. That’s the idea, being prepared.

DT: And yet this is an idea that really interests me about your life. If you look at your career, starting when you’re 20 you’re totally at the top of the game—being hired for great gigs, being hired for great recordings. I mean, you’re really, really active. Maybe you had a less active period, but that was in the ’70s or ’80s. You were totally in demand for a long time without, as you say, being able to get up there and immediately blow everybody out of the water.


VI. Playing Sharp

LK: But part of my charm, if you will, was I played sharp frequently, which made a whole different tonal relationship between the rest of the instruments, which I call “antisocial” in some way, but whatever sound that I was able to produce on the instrument was what got me the job with Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool because I fit into that ensemble according to Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan and those guys, you know what I mean?

DT: I know what you mean, and this is something else that I love about you that I’ve observed over the years, which is: some people will say, “Oh, Lee Konitz plays sharp,” but, in fact, when you want to you’re able to play more in tune that anyone I’ve ever heard.

LK: Ah, look at that. Isn’t that a nice thing to say?

DT: No, but, I mean, it’s exactly what you just said: you will play sharp if you feel antisocial, but you’ll play perfectly in tune if you feel social, and I think that the expressivity of intonation is something that doesn’t get used enough.

LK: Well, that’s the fact, I think. Jackie McLean didn’t want to talk about it. I went into a club where he was playing with Cedar Walton’s trio and the pianist Larry Willis was sitting at the bar in front of me at the Village Vanguard, and Cedar played a couple tunes then called Jackie up, and Jackie was sharp! I mean, no playing around, he was sharp. And so after a little while Larry turned around to me and said, “He can push it in or pull it out, but don’t leave it where it is!” [laughter].

I kind of talked to Jackie afterwards and he didn’t want to talk about it. That was it, that was the way he heard it, and that’s the way I hear it. Sometimes it’s a little bit on the edge, but some so-called critic reviewing a record said, “I can’t stand listening to this man playing flat all the time” [Laughter]. Jesus Christ, what could he say about the music after that? So you can’t depend on those guys.

DT: So remember at the beginning of the conversation I was asking you what you do if you show up with a pickup band and you realize that somehow the musicians aren’t very inspiring, so you said, “Well, you stop playing and you listen and you try to respond, somehow,” so would being sharp be a response sometimes? A way of saying, “Hey! I don’t like you guys.”

LK: No, it’s not a deliberate thing. It’s the way I’m hearing it at the moment and it’s different every time, obviously, at the moment.

DT: I remember feeling like Paul Motian would do kind of the equivalent of that on the drums, which was he could play the most beautiful, meshing music with people if he felt good, and if he didn’t feel good he would let you know immediately.

LK: Bam!

DT: Bam bam! I think it was a very positive thing because it was his way of waking other people up and saying, “Hey, pay attention to the music,” but it also made his own unhappiness very clear. Sometimes I feel the intonation thing is that too.

LK: It could be.

DT: We’re supposed to wrap up, I’m being told. I feel like we’re just getting started here. Thank you very much, Lee.


Cross-posted from JazzSpeaks.org. Thanks to Kevin Sun for inviting me to write the above as a guest-blogger there and for transcribing the interview. Thanks also to Jeannette Vuocolo of Chamber Music America for inviting Lee and me to participate in the Talking Music series back in 2012.

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11 Responses to Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp

  1. john carlo says:

    Very good article. All true. Lee is the real deal. I saw him years ago at William Paterson University on a Sunday afternoon concert. He is a unique and innovative player. I am glad to see he is still active. I would definitely see him perform again if he was in the area.

  2. lalanne says:

    I sincerely thank you for your concert in Bordeaux so few poeple so big present like baden powell concert near bordeaux in 1994 for you part I saw Keith Jarrett many times in concert and I have been impressed by your talent I will never forget that musical dialogue between young and old musican with lee’s very emotionnal voice (which remembered me “old Chet baker’s” one) I learned with the portrait on mezzo channel that he was a specialist of “all the things you are” my favorite standard I wish I didn’t dare to ask him an improvisation of this tune when he came in trio a few years ago in bordeaux he asked public to choose a standard and then chose “song is you” After your concert we bought a CD of your duo with a wonderfull first set we listened it all holliday I am very interested by your work on goldberg variations Glenn gould did something on well tempered clavier undoubtedly you have strong musical parentage all the best

  3. Jens Lo says:

    wow – essence! – (and I am even not half way through)
    can call it improvising, music, reality, life or whatever – THATs it!! :))

    oh, how wonderful – echt, ey!
    (now through III. ;))

    thank you (both) for thinking / experiencing / perceiving all that, and saying all that, and PLAYING that – man, I am deeply interested to bump into your music from now on (even if recordings got nothing to do with my old friend’s Lena Bloch, gigs with her, her playing of Lee’s pieces, her playing while experiencing your kind of musical attitude!)!

    Afaik its pretty rare – to me in fact its the mastership of musicianship, of PLAYing, of BEing real and in reality! -, and its a very very very long way, once one started to “learn” to play an instrument to get THERE!
    (its easy to say that from my point of view; as I can’t do anything else but ..PLAY, in the presence, in reality, the moment, the place, and in everything that I experienced before to get there NOW – as I don’t have, as I can’t do!, bother with all the things I learned – as I never did! So its pretty limited what I can say. But also it could be nothing but the truth – know what I mean? Anyway.. :))

    Thank you for being like you are, you both life-/music-developers, players, singers, and dancers with your instrument, and even with your personal characters!
    And: Alles Gute to you!

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  5. Nick Thabit says:

    Fantastic interview, on a very important subject. A very unexamined subject I would say. Thank you.

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  9. Douglas Brownlie says:

    Such an insightful and inspiring discussion between master and acolyte. The discussion of spontaneity and being available and present is most telling, for me. Thanks!!

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