Remembering Lee Konitz

October 13, 1927 – April 15, 2020


A tribute to the remarkable altoist

Alto-saxophonist Lee Konitz passed away on April 15, 2020 at the age of 92.

He was born October 13, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois.

Konitz began playing clarinet when he was 11, soon switching to tenor and then permanently to alto although he occasionally played tenor and soprano later in his life.

Lee Konitz began his very long professional career with the Teddy Powell Orchestra (1945), Jerry Wald (1945-47) and in 1947 with Claude Thornhill with whom he made his recording debut, 72 years before his final album.

One of the very few altoists of the 1945-50 period not to be strongly influenced by Charlie Parker, Konitz had his own distinctive cool sound and thoughtful way of improvising, and throughout his career he never lost his creativity.

He met pianist Lennie Tristano in 1946 and was inspired by Tristano’s style and approach, working regularly next to tenor-saxophonist Warne Marsh with Tristano on some classic recordings in 1949 (including the first two recorded free improvisations) and on and off in the 1950s.

Konitz was part of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool Nonet, working at their only live engagement and appearing on their three record sessions of 1949-50.

Lee Konitz made his recording debut as a leader in 1949, worked with arguably the finest version of the Stan Kenton Orchestra during 1952-53, and otherwise was mostly heard as a leader throughout his career.

Year in and year out, Konitz was one of the most consistently creative saxophonists while retaining his cool tone and basic style; highlights of his career included recordings with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker (1953), later reunions with Warne Marsh, his 1967 album The Lee Konitz Duets, Alto Summit (1968), unaccompanied solo recordings, the nonets that he led at various times, and his occasional explorations of free improvisation and avant-garde jazz.

Even as he entered his nineties, Lee Konitz never lost his sound nor his desire to stretch himself, leading a new nonet of much younger players on a 2019 recording.

It is difficult to think of any other jazz artists who maintained such a high level of creativity for 70 years.

Here is Lee Konitz at his 92nd birthday in an informal duet with pianist Dan Tepfer, playing an often-abstract version of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

– Scott Yanow

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