Lee Konitz (born October 13, 1927) is an American jazz composer and alto saxophonist born in Chicago, Illinois. Generally considered one of the driving forces of Cool Jazz, Konitz has also performed successfully in bebop and avant-garde settings. Konitz was one of the few altoists to retain a distinctive sound in the 40s, when Charlie Parker exercised a tremendous influence on other players. Konitz, like other students of pianist and theoretician Lennie Tristano, was noted for improvising long, melodic lines with the rhythmic interest coming from odd accents, or odd note groupings suggestive of the imposition of one time signature over another. Paul Desmond and, especially, Art Pepper were strongly influenced by Konitz. Konitz’s association with the Cool Jazz movement of the 1940s and 50s, includes participation in Miles Davis’ epochal Birth of the Cool sessions, and his work with Lennie Tristano came from the same period. During his long career, Konitz has played with musicians from a wide variety of jazz styles. Konitz was born in 1927 in Chicago, Illinois. At age eight Konitz received his first instrument—a clarinet—but later dropped the instrument in favor of the tenor saxophone. Konitz eventually moved from tenor to alto. His greatest influences at the time were the swing big bands he and his brother listened to on the radio, in particular Benny Goodman. Hearing Goodman on the radio is actually what prodded him to ask for a clarinet. On the saxophone he recalls improvising before ever learning to play any standards. Konitz began his professional career in 1945 with the Teddy Powell band as a replacement for Charlie Ventura. The engagement apparently did not start out smoothly, as Ventura is said to have banged his head against a wall when Konitz played. A month later the band parted ways. Between 1945 and 1947 he worked off and on with Jerry Wald. In 1946 he first met pianist Lennie Tristano and worked in a small cocktail bar with him. His next substantial work was done with Claude Thornhill in 1947, with Gil Evans arranging and Gerry Mulligan as a composer in most part. In 1949 he teamed up with the Miles Davis group for one or two weeks and again in 1950 to record Birth of the Cool. The presence of Konitz and other white musicians in the group angered some black jazz players, many of whom were unemployed at the time, but Davis rebuffed their criticisms. Konitz has stated that he considered the group to belong to Gerry Mulligan, and credits Lennie Tristano as the true forebearer of “the cool”. His debut as leader also came in 1949, with the release of Subconscious-Lee on Prestige Records. He also turned down an opportunity to work with Benny Goodman that same year—a decision he is on record as regretting. In the early 1950s, Konitz recorded and toured with Stan Kenton’s orchestra. In 1961, he recorded Motion with Elvin Jones on drums and Sonny Dallas on bass. This spontaneous session, widely regarded as a classic, consisted entirely of standards. The loose trio format aptly featured Konitz’s unorthodox phrasing and chromaticism. Charlie Parker lent him support on the day Konitz’s child was being born in Seattle, Washington with him stuck in New York City. The two were actually good friends, and not the rivals some jazz critics once made them out to be. He has also had problems with his heart which he has received surgery for in the past. In 1967, Konitz recorded The Lee Konitz Duets, a series of duets with various musicians. The duo configurations were often unusual for the period (saxophone and trombone, two saxophones). The recordings drew on very nearly the entire history of jazz, from Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” with valve trombonist Marshall Brown to two completely free duos: one with a Duke Ellington associate, violinist Ray Nance, and one with guitarist Jim Hall. Konitz contributed to the film score for Desperate Characters (1971). Konitz has been quite prolific, recording dozens of albums as a band leader. He has also recorded or performed with Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Elvin Jones and others. Amongst his latest recordings are a pair of trio dates with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden released on Blue Note as well a live album recorded in 2009 at Birdland and released by ECM in 2011 featuring the same lineup with the addition of drummer Paul Motian. Konitz has become more experimental as he has grown older, and has released a number of free and avant-garde jazz albums, playing alongside many far younger musicians. He has released albums on contemporary free jazz/improv labels such as hatART, Soul Note, Omnitone and the aforementioned ECM. He was scheduled to appear at Melbourne’s Recital Centre as a key attraction of the 2011 Melbourne International Jazz Festival. However he fell ill causing the last minute cancellation of the performance. In August 2012 Konitz played to sell-out crowds at The Blue Note in Greenwich Village as part of Enfants Terribles, a collaboration with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron.
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