Monday, April 20, 2020

The act of remembrance…

On April 15th, 2020 saxophonist Lee Konitz passed.

It was January of 1977 and I was in the practice room at Towson State College, my first year there.  I was playing through a John Coltrane transcription of Giant Steps when there was a knock at the door.  It was my saxophone professor Dr. Briscuso and he said that someone wanted to see who it was playing.  He opened the door wider and there was Lee Konitz.  He was at the school as a guest artist for the Single Reed Workshop which Dr. Briscuso had organized.  I don’t remember exactly what he said but he was positive and offered encouragement.  The masterclass he offered later that day left a lasting impression, a story that I often tell.  Confronting a large roomful of people, he introduced himself.  After making a few awkward comments he kind of shrugs and asks “well…are there any questions?”

This seemed to indicate a downward trajectory and I don’t recall much of what was said afterwards.  Seemingly at a loss he decides that he will demonstrate to us how he practices.  It’s a rather simple process in which the melody is stated and restated until he’s satisfied.  Then in beginning his improvisation he restricts himself to whole notes only.  He plays a few choruses in whole notes impressing upon us that when doing this at home it may be at least twenty minutes or however long it takes to get a good chorus in just whole notes.  He won’t move on until he’s ready and then it’s choruses in half notes.  Same thing, as long as it takes to get a good one.  Next, quarter notes.  Finally eighth notes.  By now I don’t know how long his demonstration has gone on but there is a palpable sense of fatigue among my fellow students.  They are finding this interminable to listen to let alone entertain any idea of actually doing it.  Personally I’m fascinated.  The first thing I want to do is get to the practice room.  As the class breaks up I’m already hearing complaints and griping and in the hallway as I’m waiting for the elevator comes Dr. Briscuso.  “He didn’t even have a lesson plan!” Dr. B. says, incredulous.  I laughed and headed upstairs.  Devoting the next hour to the exercise I’m amazed at the freedom I’m experiencing when I finally get to my eighth notes.  It’s as if I couldn’t make a mistake if I wanted to.  Taking all that time in hearing the note you want to play before you play it leads to a space in which every note offers every possibility for every other note to come next.  I didn’t really understand why it worked at the time but the effect was powerful.  It was also elusive, providing a taste of freedom that would require many years in further cultivating.  In looking back I see that it afforded an entrance into any and every aspect of improvising that I might consider today.

On March 1st, 2020 Dr. Joseph Briscuso passed.  When I arrived at Towson I didn’t know that I was entering a classical music program.  I enrolled because of the jazz band and assumed that the musical training would be that.  There was to be an audition and I practiced the required etudes feeling quite assured I was going to nail it and knock it out.  I enter the audition room and there is Dr. Briscuso along with some other teachers.  I can already sense that there is something he’s noticed but I don’t know what it is.  But no worries, I just plow straight into it.  It’s pretty short and now I sense something in the silence after my impassioned performance.  Dr. B asks me to step outside and wait.  Now I’m uncomfortable.  After a long few minutes I’m called back in.  I’m given an exceptionally brief but potent rundown of the difference between a jazz approach and a classical approach centering largely on the bright metal “Berg Larson” mouthpiece I’m sporting and how that’s not going to work at all.  And I’m being put on probation.  I haven’t been denied into the program but I have six months to get with the program, as it were.  I was shocked.  This is how I learned that there was even such a thing called classical saxophone.

Fortunately it didn’t take long before I was operating from within an acceptable distance from the ideal.  And I enjoyed it.  Still, I’d come into my lessons with Dr. B. thinking that I had the concept down only for him to tell me I sounded like Stan Getz.  I was surprised and a little disappointed.  It’s not that he didn’t like Stan Getz, it was just not what he wanted.  But still, it was a little confusing since inside I’m thinking “that’s great, he said I sound like Stan Getz!”  My time as a student was generally very positive although fraught with a certain amount of emotional confusion over the fact that I knew what I needed and sensed that what was available from the school and the program at the time was not going to give me that.  It was mostly geared towards training music teachers to enter the school system.  But there were enough of us who wanted to play.  Dr. Briscuso and some of the other professors in the department were responsive and supportive.  But still this tension was frustrating and not all of my day to day decisions were good ones.  I’m very grateful to Dr. B. for navigating those waters with me.  He was a relaxed, humorous and laid back fellow but at the same time, totally candid, realistic and no-bullshit.  He didn’t have to lean on you for you to know what was most important.  He expected something from you.  He was going to be OK no matter what, you were the one who was hanging.

As for our lessons he laid a foundation that has been in place all these years.  I almost take it for granted since it’s hard to know exactly what it was.  I just soaked it up.  It was sound, technique and musicality as a given.  And knowing how important it is to bow properly to the audience.  Somehow that sticks out to me, I’m not sure why.  We can be somewhat oblivious at that age but I sensed this was more than protocol, this bowing.  He was the kind of teacher who tended to stick to the simple point.  But I could see it on his face, there was something important he wanted us to know.  You had to see it in his eyes.  I still see it.

Somehow I made it through school, went on the road and moved to NYC.  While I was always self-assured and full of drive, sometimes I think I made it by the skin of my teeth.  But certainly with the help of many dedicated people who themselves helped countless others, not just me.  I didn’t see Dr. B. except for a few times after graduation.  The most recent was a few years ago at his home.  He’d been retired for some years but he still had all the same energy and enthusiasm.  His horn was set up and ready to go in his music room.  He had his students that came to the house.  He wife taught piano and his son also taught saxophone.  It was wonderful to catch up and I’m so glad I had that chance.

Sitting here thinking about all of this is a welcome and necessary break from dwelling on current events.  Almost as if these worlds were separate, a respite from anxiety.  But they’re not, they can’t be.  This is the part that requires some attention.  

It must have been around 1985.  I was living on the upper west side at the time, near Manhattan School of Music.  I needed to get some flyers made for a gig I had.  This being way before computers, you had to do the artwork yourself and then go to the copy shop to get cards and flyers made.  This was a summer day, pretty warm and I’m running around doing errands that I’d rather not do, wanting to get it all done and over-with.  I get to the copy shop and there’s a bit of a line, moving slowly.  People are fanning themselves, a little hot and bothered.  I’m a bit too full of nervous energy, impatient and can’t quite stand still.  I accidentally bump into the guy ahead of me who turns around with an unpleasant glare.  It’s Lee Konitz.  I’m mortified and unable to say a word.  He turns back around.  Now I’m even more nervous.  Here we are, in line together at the copy shop, a perfect opportunity to chat.  And I kind of blew it.  I considered whether I should just be honest and say “sorry, but I recognize you and in fact we’ve met.”  I could tell him how much I admire him and maybe have a normal conversation.  I’m so lost in this that I inadvertently bump into him again.  Again he turns, his gaze no more inviting than it was the first time.  Now I’m just humiliated.  Total fail.  And a very long wait to get to the front of the line and get the hell out of there with my copies.

There would be other opportunities although each would be brief.  I heard him play a number of times over the years, occasionally saying hello.  I think I once gave him one of my CDs.  I remember seeing him in the large crowd of folks filing out of an Evan Parker show at the Knitting Factory.  He saw me and said, about Evan, “best damned bagpipe player in the world”.  While that may sound pejorative I knew he was impressed.  It had been a great concert and no matter what you may have thought there was something undeniable that took place, larger than anyone’s opinions about it.  I was glad to see that he had been there and heard it.  Incidentally, I recall Andrea Parkins also being there, saying “pre-verbal” and leaving it at that.

Speaking of Andrea, that reminds me that our friend and colleague Jim Black had some direct experiences with Lee Konitz.  Jim stopped by my apartment late one afternoon before a gig at Birdland led by Lee.  It was a week long engagement and he’d already played a night or two.  Apparently Lee could be a bit hard on drummers.  Jim was doing his absolute best to fill the gig properly, giving Lee exactly what he needed.  Jim is very conscientious about serving the music but there is also no getting around the fact that he hears music and his role as a drummer in a rather different way than most.  He’s filling me in on the night before saying “I’m just playing completely normal and Lee stops playing during the music, comes over to me and starts shouting “play time!”  At another moment it’s the same thing again, Lee walking back, standing in front of the drums saying “we’re in FOUR”, holding up four fingers.

I came later in the week to check it out.  There was Lee on the low stage.  Around and behind him are Tomasz Stanko on trumpet, Dan Tepfer on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass and Jim at the drums.  There is a microphone on everyone but Lee is standing well back from his, actually not even using it.  Plus there’s a rag in the bell of his horn.  Birdland is not a small room.  The sound through the PA system is fine but he sounds amazing.  He’s not coming through the PA at all but his sound is permeating every inch of the room with a clarity and warmth that feels like the healing embrace from a well loved friend.

His stage manner was true to his somewhat gruff and irritated persona but it was mixed with something else.  At one point he announced to the audience that they were going to play “All the Things You Are”, beginning with a duo between he and Dan which he described with something approaching affection.  Suddenly and dismissively he remarks, “and then those guys” (pointing behind him) “are going to do…something”.  But even in this odd moment there was an awareness, a mischievous humor, subtle as it was.  Reminds me, somewhere on Youtube is a video of Lee on a television program from the early seventies in which he’s about to play along with something on a tape recorder that he’s brought with him.  He’s explaining to the audience how it’s supposed to work and trying to get the microphone stand raised properly and coordinate all of this but it’s not working.  He might have made a great stand up comic.  Found the link.

Lee had a great sense of intensity tempered within a wonderful balance of simple musical elements.  I was struck by a comment he made that was cited in one of the pieces I read last week.  “It’s possible to get the maximum intensity in your playing and still relax.”  I think this demonstrates just how he got straight into the heart of the matter.  He didn’t have things all worked out.  And yet his playing could be unbelievably clear and concise.  I felt a relentless passion from him.  It just burned in a different way than many of the players I more closely emulated.  That you can detect the workings of his mind is to experience a unity of mind and body that transcended either.  He just played.  It’s a complete investment of one’s self in which the result is truly selfless.  We can safely call that beauty.  

I’m not sure if this was always appreciated during his career but it demonstrates that you must go to where the artist is if you want to truly hear them.  You can’t put yourself at a distance and expect to fully get it.  He was certainly not operating at a distance.  But he wasn’t going to grab you and say “listen to what I have to say.”  And yet what he had to say was impossible to convey without your involvement.  He may have sometimes seemed aloof to that but I think he absolutely trusted the music.  And he sustained it for more than seven decades.

I just took a break from writing this to play a little bit.  What I struggle with in words comes easily on the horn.  Suffice it to say that Lee was an inspiration, in ways that I still don’t understand.  It's not unlike that initial experience practicing the technique he gave at his masterclass.  It's still unfolding.

The last time I saw Lee I kind of felt like this might be my best chance to try and covey my admiration and respect.  He was a hero to me and I wanted to let him know.  I forget what I said but when I finished he looked me right in the eye and barked, “Well, I’m a jazz master!”  I was momentarily taken aback until I detected a glint in his eye, his finger pointing to the hat he was wearing.  Indeed, there was an insignia saying just that, “Jazz Master”.  It’s given to awardees of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters program.  I hadn’t even noticed it, involved as I was in my revery.  He laughed a good laugh.  But yes, it was certainly true, that.

And so…reading about his life, considering his music, all in the confines of my room wondering what is happening, along with everyone else.  It almost seems incongruous.  But in fact his life, having reached the age of 92 was ended by this virus that is of global concern.  And I cannot avoid expressing during this time my own frustration with the theater of the absurd coming out of the White House.  I don’t say this out of divisiveness since the events that have led to this moment are vast.  Best to simply take responsibility for my own abilities and inabilities and appreciate that there is much work to be done.

In some ways it would seem impossible to correct everything that needs addressing at this stage.  But as I play the horn here in this room, I feel very directly what is needed to even begin.  I hear it in the playing of Lee Konitz.  I felt it in the teaching from my professor, Dr. B.  I hear it in the entire music we call jazz, or black american music.  It’s the truth.  It’s the only thing that can hold up and withstand the impossible.

We can safely call this love.


  1. Thank you Ellery. Beautiful thoughts. Yes. And it is still unfolding. All the best and hang in there---- t v

  2. thanks for this EE, this was really inspiring to read.