Tristano, Lennie (actually, Leonard Joseph)

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Tristano, Lennie (actually, Leonard Joseph)

Tristano, Lennie (actually, Leonard Joseph), influential third-stream/cool jazz pianist, composer, educator; b. Chicago, March 19, 1919; d. N.Y., Nov. 18, 1978. Born during an epidemic of measles, he was totally blind by the age of nine. He had begun playing piano at age four. He spent almost ten years in a state institution for the blind in 111., and while there learned to play saxophone, clarinet, and cello. At 19, he led his first band. He later studied at the American Cons. in Chicago and earned a Bachelor’s of Music degree. During the early 1940s he gigged in Chicago on piano and tenor saxophone and became seriously involved in teaching; among his first students were Lee Konitz and Bill Russo. He moved to N.Y. in August 1946, played gigs there and in Calif, in late 1946 and then settled on Long Island. He formed a trio with students Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkind, with whom he made his first commercially released records. Championed by critic Barry Ulanov, Tristano enjoyed some fame in 1948-50, he lead a sextet with Konitz and another student, Warne Marsh; he recorded with and arranged for the Metronome All Stars; and broadcast with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. On ballads his groups played a free counterpoint that would sometimes take a piece far from its origins. At a sextet session in early 1949, two tracks were the first “free jazz” ever documented; the group had practiced improvising in a contrapuntal texture, one entering at a time, but in free atonality; their record label, Capitol Records, was outraged with the results and refused to pay for the dates. Disk jockey Symphony Sid played the yet unissued titles on his program helping to convince Capitol to finally release them.

During the late 1940s, Tristano worked with Charlie Ventura, but was mainly active leading his own trio at the Three Deuces, N.Y, his own quintet at The Royal Roost, and his own sextet at The Clique. In June 1951 he opened his own studio and instructed Konitz, Marsh, Bauer, and Sal Mosca, among others. For a 1955 recording on Atlantic he used techniques he had been practicing at his home studio; overdubbing himself on piano, playing over pre-recorded bass and drum parts, and speeding up his own piano part. Although his virtuosity was unmistakeable, several critics accused him of tampering with the music and of not being capable of playing without tape manipulation. This experience also contributed to his ceasing to record commercially, but not before responding to his critics in 1962 with an all-solo piano album that clearly stated on its sleeve: “no overdubbing/7His “C Minor Complex” is spellbinding and dazzling. He was later associated with Peter Ind, Lenny Popkin, and Connie Crothers. During the 1960s and 1970s he was mainly active as a teacher, but played dates with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in the late 1950s and in the 1960s (Half Note in 1964 was broadcast on radio and on TV); he also played solo dates in Canada, and in Europe in 1965 and 1968.

Tristano was a remarkable musician whose earliest recordings from the mid-1940s feature dense dissonance and polytonality; his mid-1950s recordings feature him improvising long, intense, brilliant melodic lines with an even eighth-note feel. He had a direct impact on the large circle of disciples that grew around him and an indirect impact on many others including Martial Solai, Bill Evans (who credited Konitz and whose private recordings from around 1950 bear an unmistakeable Tristano influence), probably Cecil Taylor, and possibly Herbie Hancock (judging from his work on Davis’s E.S.P. and Miles Smiles). Yet his reputation has suffered. He required a cultish dedication of students; was an outspoken critic whose verbal pronouncements appeared in print and on radio; his compositions occasionally expressed a somewhat classical esthetic and his music was unfairly dogged by a recurrent charge of emotional coldness; he played less and less in public and even stopped making studio recordings after 1962. His teaching stressed perfect tempo (not rushing) and a proficiency on the solos of Lester Young, Parker, and others so that one could not hear the soloist when playing along with the recording. He required that students learn to associate scales and altered scales with chords. For the most part he and his disciples improvised over the chords of standards, composing fantastic heads that often threatened to turn the beat around. He insisted that drummers play quietly and not rush, but steadiness of tempo seems to have been more important than volume, as he had no trouble playing with Buddy Rich, Ray Haynes, and Art Taylor.


Live at Birdland (1945); Lost Session (1945); Holiday in Piano (1946); Rarest Trio / Quartet Sessions (1946); Crosscurrents (1949); Lennie Tristano Quintet (EP; 1949); First Sessions (1949-50); Wow (1950); Descent into the Maelstrom (1952); Lennie Tristano Mmorial Concert (1952); Live in Toronto (1952); Lennie Tristano Quartet (1955); N.Y Improvisations (1955); Requiem (1955); Continuity (1958); New Tristano (1960); Note to Note (1964); Lennie Tristano Memorial Concert (1979); Complete Lennie Tristano on Keynote (ree. 1940s-60s).


François Billard, Lennie Tristano (Montpellier, France,1989); John Francis McKinney, The Pedagogy of Lennie Tristano (diss., Fairleigh Dickinson Univ., 1978).

—John Chilton/Lewis Porter