Lennie Tristano was one of the most radical voices in the jazz of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Called “the mystery man of jazz, a blind pianist with a reputation as a pedagogue who rarely performed in public during the last 20 years of his career,” by Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer, Tristano was responsible for a number of groundbreaking jazz innovations. He performed and recorded the first “free jazz.” He was the first to use overdubbing and tape manipulation in recording. He pioneered music that later became popular as “cool jazz.” He introduced themes and sensibilities of classical music to jazz. Unfortunately for Tristano though, musicians and fans at the time almost unanimously rejected his ideas—their time had simply not yet come. During his career Tristano released only four LPs worth of music. Even as his career was beginning, he elected to withdraw from public performance and recording, and ultimately his significance would not begin to be fully appreciated until after his death.
Tristano was born on March 19, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois. His vision was poor from birth, the consequence of exposure as a newborn to the flu pandemic of 1919. By the time he was ten, he was completely blind and he was placed in a state institution where he would remain for ten years. Even before, he had displayed remarkable talent on the piano. At the age of four he could play by ear. He continued to study piano at the school for the blind, along with saxophone, clarinet, and cello, and by the time he was 12 he was playing piano in public. While at the institution, he put together his own band, which was allowed to perform at taverns around Chicago. When he was about 19, a music teacher at the institution helped him gain admission to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where in only three years time Tristano earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition. Tristano was 24 when he graduated from the conservatory. He continued to play around Chicago in a variety of groups, including a Dixieland group and a Mexican rumba band.
He was playing with the rumba band when saxophonist Lee Konitz, then only 15, heard him for the first time. “I could hear all these fantastic locked-hands chords over the music,” Konitz related in Whitney Balliett’s American Musicians II. “I sat in, and he didn’t say anything. Years later, in an interview, he said I had sounded rotten. Anyway, I asked him if we could get together, and I started studying with him. We eventually worked together in some of the Chicago cocktail lounges.” Konitz was the first and eventually the most illustrious of Tristano’s numerous student/disciples. He would later perform in Tristano’s most prominent groups and participate in his most groundbreaking experiments.
Tristano moved to New York in 1946. Bebop was all the rage and Tristano was drawn to its rapid-fire tempos and harmonic complexity. Within months he was performing
Born Leonard Joseph Tristano on March 19, 1919, in Chicago, IL; died on November 18, 1978, in New York City, NY. Education: American Conservatory of Music, bachelor of arts degree in music composition.
Played first paying gigs in Chicago bars, 1931; entered American Conservatory of Music, 1938; played in various Chicago jazz groups and dance bands, 1940-46; moved to New York, performs with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, 1946; cut first sides for Keynote label, October 1946; Tristano’s sextet singles “Wow,” “Crosscurrents,” “Marionette” together with first experiments in free jazz, 1949; Tristano made “Ju-Ju,” the first single to utilize overdubbing, 1951; opened first important school for jazz in the United States, 1951; modified the playing of his accompanists by manipulating speed of recorded tape, 1955; released solo album, The New Tristano, 1962; toured Europe, 1965; gave last American performance, 1968; subject of documentary for French television, 1973.
Awards: Metronome magazine Musician of the Year, 1947.
with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, two of bebop’s founders. Metronome magazine named him Musician of the Year in 1947. Tristano’s rise was swift. He proved himself a pianist of remarkable technical prowess with knowledge of music that extended far beyond jazz. Those who knew Tristano said he was able reproduce the performances of virtuoso jazz pianists such as Art Tatum and Earl Hines after hearing them only a single time. One of his technical strengths was the independence of his left and right hands—musicians report that he was able to play different time signatures simultaneously with each. He brought an interest in classical music, and used themes by composers such as Bach in his jazz performances. His adventurous sense of harmony which he would soon display on his first recordings put him close to the pioneers of twentieth century classical music. In fact, it was partly Tristano’s familiarity with the music of Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg that gained him entree to Charlie Parker’s circle.
Tristano cut his first sides for the Keynote label in October of 1946, just two months after his arrival in Manhattan. Called “a stupendous debut session” by Dan Morgenstern, Tristano teamed up with guitarist Billy Bauer, one of his students, and bassist Clyde Lombardi to record some of the pieces from his performance repertoire. The complex interplay between Tristano’s piano and Bauer’s guitar produced remarkable results on Tristano’s composition “Out on a Limb” and the standard “I Surrender Dear.” According to Coda’s Art Lange, jazz historian Gunther Schuller called the trio’s performance of “I Can’t Get Started” “one of the most prophetic recordings in all jazz history.” Tristano later described his approach in Charles Eugene Clayhorn’s Biographical Dictionary of Jazz. “Our harmonies are strongly impressionistic. I try to go beyond bop, which adheres largely to the given harmonic structure. We don’t restrict ourselves to the chord when we play melody. Our rhythms are superimposed one on the other. Sometimes I play three different rhythms at once, while the other boys are each playing separate ones….”
Tristano produced another historic session in 1949 for Capitol. He had formed a sextet that included his student proteges Lee Konitz and Wayne Marsh on sax, Billy Bauer on guitar and Peter Ind on bass. The date was noteworthy just for tunes like “Wow,” “Crosscurrents” and “Marionette,” which some jazz observers consider the true beginning of the “cool jazz” that was later popularized by the likes of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. Like many of Tristano’s innovations, though, this music emerged well before its time and sold poorly.
In 1949 he moved even further beyond the borders of established taste. After a session the sextet did for Capitol, Tristano arranged with engineers to continue recording. He told the band that they were going to play without any pre-established plan: no standard melody, no set chord changes, no set key, nothing. The music would be completely improvised. Dave McElfresh described the outcome in Coda: “The resulting music was the ultimate experiment in jazz as music created in the moment. Time signatures shifted constantly. Tristano changed keys so frequently that the music sounded atonal, and the group interacted without the logic and direction of a predetermined chord progression.” The musicians had played together long enough as a unit to forge music in Tristano’s furnace. But Lee Konitz admitted later that at the time they were not really aware of what it was they had accomplished.
The music they cut—pieces like “Intuition” and “Digression”—was the first example of what came to be known as “free jazz.” It predated similar, better known experiments by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane by ten years or more. So radical was the music Tristano’s group had created that the record company refused to pay him for the session. “Digression” was released only because Symphony Sid, an influential New York jazz disc jockey, obtained a test pressing which he began playing enthusiastically on his show. Other musicologists recognized Tristano’s experiments as the first successful use in jazz of classical 12-tone harmony.
Besides breaking the boundaries of jazz theory, Tristano made adventurous forays into new areas of music technology. In 1951 he recorded “Ju-Ju,” reportedly the first the use of multi-tracking and overdubbing techniques ever. He dubbed in piano tracks again in 1955 on “Turkish Mambo” and “Requiem,” for his album Lennie Tristano. He went even further on this recording, however, mechanically modifying the speed of his accompanists’ (bassist Ind and drummer Jeff Morton) playing.
Such tape manipulations would be used again in the production of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in the late 1960s, and by the 1990s they would be so commonplace as to be required for any artist making a record. In the mid-1950s, however, the jazz world was scandalized by Tristano’s tape experiments. Records were expected to reproduce a live performance, and an artist was thought to be cheating if he released a record that he was not able to play in concert. Such slurs on Tristano’s ability as a pianist eventually led to the release of The New Tristano in 1962. The record jacket of the album, comprised of remarkable solo pieces, played in complex time signatures, bore the disclaimer “Lennie Tristano is heard on this album in unaccompanied piano solos. No use is made of overdubbing or tape speeding on any selection.”
Tristano’s radical innovations called down scorn from jazz purists. In addition to objecting to his unorthodox recording practices, critics found his music too intellectual, cold, unemotional, and detached. It was, his detractors maintained, not jazz at all: It did not swing. It was not rooted in the blues. It relied too much on European models and sounds. It was too “white.”
In 1951, Tristano reduced his club appearances and his recording schedule to devote himself to teaching. He opened his own school of jazz in New York City, the first important institution of its kind. The faculty was made up of other musicians who had been Tristano’s students, including Lee Konitz, Wayne Marsh, Billy Bauer and pianist Sal Mosca. As these musicians became more involved in their own musical careers they gave up teaching, and within a few years Tristano was forced to close the school and return to private instruction, first in his home in Queens and later on Long Island.
Tristano had a reputation as a contentious, difficult person. He was openly critical of the talent of many of highly regarded contemporaries, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. He also demanded absolute loyalty from his students and colleagues. “Once you were a part of Tristano’s school, you were regarded as a traitor if you left, as I was when I joined Stan Kenton in 1952, even though I needed the work,” Lee Konitz told Balliett. “I left Tristano for good in 1964, and we never communicated again.”
Despite such personality problems, he acquired a name as a remarkable teacher. He inculcated precision and demanded that his students acquire a full command of their instruments. Every student began the same way. They learned to play the recorded solos of greats like Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. Only after students were intimately familiar with these accomplished solos were they allowed to start working on solos of their own. Tristano’s students were not limited to young musicians, they included accomplished players such as Art Pepper and Bud Freeman. “I studied with Lennie four or five years in all,” recalled Konitz to Balliett. “It’s hard to say exactly I learned. I mean, you learn the major scales, the minor scales, the triads, but beyond that it’s the things you talk about when you’re not playing or studying. I once asked him about a large concern of mine, which was to eliminate what was making me play mechanically at the time. The hippest thing you can do is not play at all,’ he said. ‘Just listen.’ Since then, I have been very concerned about not playing unless it means something.”
Tristano performed only rarely from the early 1950s on. He told Robert Reisner for his book Jazz Titans: “I have found great degrees of hostility in the music business. It is a grueling profession. The world is seen as a bar after a while. The hours, the dulling, the deadening surroundings, the competition, the hassles, the drinking which produces maudlinism or aggressiveness of an ugly sort. It is no wonder that no one can sustain a high level of creativity without stimulants of some sort.” He made a concert tour of Europe in 1965 and gave his last concert in the United States in 1968. He was the subject of a documentary for French television in 1973. Tristano died on November 18, 1978, in New York.
“Yesterdays,” Jazz Guild 1008.
“Out on a Limb,” Keynote 647.
“I Surrender Dear“/”Coolin’ Off with Ulanov,” Keynote 680.
“A Ghost of a Chance,” Vic. 27-0145.
“Abstraction,” Cupol 9003.
“Dissonance,” Selmer Y7154.
“Progression“/”Retrospection,” New Jazz 832.
“Subconscious-Lee’/Judy,” New Jazz 80001.
“Wow“/”Crosscurrent,” Capitol 60003.
“Yesterdays“/”Intuition,” Capitol 1224.
“Digression,” Jap, EAP1-491.
“Ju-Ju“/”Passtime,” Jazz 101.
The Lost Session, Phontastic, 1945.
Live at Birdland 1949, Jazz Records, 1945–1949.
Holiday in Piano, EmArcy, 1946.
The Rarest Trio/Quartet Sessions 1946–7, 1946–1947.
Cool In Jam, 1947.
Wow, Jazz Records, 1950.
Live in Toronto, Jazz Records, 1952.
Descent Into The Maelstrom, Inner City, 1952.
Requiem, Atlantic, 1955.
Lennie Tristano Quartet, Atlantic, 1955.
Lennie Tristano, Atlantic 1224, 1955; reissued with The New Tristano, Rhino R2 71595, 1994.
New York Improvisations, Elektra 96-0264-1, 1955.
Continuity, Jazz Records, 1958.
The New Tristano, Atlantic 1356, 1960; reissued with Lennie Tristano, on Rhino R2 71595, 1994.
Solo in Europe, Unique Jazz, 1960.
Note To Note, Jazz Records, 1964.
Manhattan Studio, Elektra, 1983; reissued by Jazz Records.
The Complete Lennie Tristano, Mercury.
Concert in Copenhagen, Jazz Records.
Out on a Limb, Indigo, 1998.
Tristano, Lennie, “What’s Right With the Beboppers,” Metronome, July 1947, p. 14.
Tristano, Lennie, “What’s Wrong With the Beboppers,” Metronome, June 1947, p. 16.
Balliett, Whitney, American Musicians II, 1996.
Clayhorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, 1982.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, The Grove Dictionary of American Music, vol. 4, 1986.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, vol. vii, 1998.
Lyons, Leonard and Dan Perlo, Jazz Portraits, 1989.
Reisner, Robert George, Jazz Titans, 1977.
Coda, September-October 1996; January-February 1999.
Rolling Stone, April 5, 1979.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 14, 2000).
Morgenstern, Dan, The Complete Lennie Tristano liner notes, Mercury, 1987.
—Gerald E. Brennan