An Interview with Lee Konitz on Lester Young

A New Year and another attempt at knocking something off of last year’s to do list. Here is, as promised, the brief interview I did with Lee Konitz for my Lester Young centric article in the latest issue of the Jazz Research Journal.

This interview was conducted by phone on October 5th, 2016 just before I recorded much of the music from Lee Konitz meets Jimmy Giuffre album with Ted Brown and Steve Little featured with my Octet. This conversation covered a bunch of things, but I tried to edit it down as there are some really nice points made by Lee here. Enjoy!

JD: In our interview, Ted Brown said:

I visited New York one weekend while in the Army and saw Lester Young at a club on 52nd Street and was just amazed at his clean sound and how hard he could swing with the rhythm section.

I think this was in the mid-late forties.

Lee: Well that’s it right there.

JD: Did you see him around then too?

I’m not sure about that,  to me his playing with Count Basie in the 1930s was the best, per se, selection of notes and rhythms, sound quality and everything…(hears voice interference on cell phone reception) what did I hear just now, is that Lester Young talking?

I’ve tried to break it down between the kind of influence he had and the influence of Charlie Parker for example.

How is it different?

The delivery, and his ability to take meaningful rests (and only play what he wanted to) …to not over extend the invitation. That’s what makes it very special to me.

To me, he has very strong intention, like he doesn’t play anything he doesn’t mean to play.

Well that’s a fact. It sounds like he prepared it, it sounds so perfect in the delivery. He certainly plays familiar feelings and phrases and things like that but it sounds so correct in his expression of it that we retain it forever.

And do you think that the way he moved phrases around on beat was the main influence on Lennie’s teaching?

Well I don’t know, he never expressed that particularly but it certainly could be, yeah.

It seems to me that going from Lester to Lennie and maybe to Warne, who did so much displacement of the beat, that seems to be the lineage.

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure that that is very much to do with it.

And when someone criticized my current playing, comparing it to the early days, I kind of went along with it because my horn wasn’t functioning properly on this record (Frescalalto with Kenny Barron), pads were sticking and things like that, which gave me a minor dissatisfaction with what I was doing, but my intention was still to play as few notes as possible and as many meaningful ones as possible, so that’s an intention that I try to cover each time as best I can.

But Lester Young is definitely my main reality to my music. All of the Coltrane overblowing with the pizzazz that they offer and a new selection of notes and rhythms and things like that is very stimulating to a point but I don’t feel like duplicating, I can’t duplicate that and I don’t feel like really trying because it feels a little bit overdone.

As far as phrasing, with Lester and your own playing, do you think you’re reacting to the phrase you just played as your improvising?

I think so, definitely. Yeah, that’s a very salient point.

The narrative element you know. Telling a story.

It feels more like that. Just selecting a bunch of licks and trying to place them someplace so they add up is kind of the way a lot of guys are doing it.

That’s how the jazz education system teaches improvising often.

Yeah I mean, the difference between the actual act of playing and… Except for the great words of wisdom I got from Lennie for example, I was respected in some ways, so I could continue to try and find my own way of doing it, and that was a great gift for me…but, it leaves a little difficulty some times, when the pads are sticking and something is not happening perfectly. But overall as I think I’ve told you before, after listening for the first time to some of these records (Lee Konitz records) in my collection, and there’s a lot of them, I’m pleased with and enjoying most of them, which is a great pleasure for me, because I was looking for the sticky pads, and the out of tuneness and the things I didn’t like in the beginning but couldn’t do anything about.

We discuss Lee’s recordings with Gerry Mulligan a bit from 1957…

That was a little while ago…

Yeah, that’s kinda the point, I can’t really fairly somehow compare the way I  was playing a lot of notes then and writing lines on standards and things like that, it was a different music in a sense.

I was just thinking about that while playing through your line “Palo Alto,” and thinking how different that is from the way you play now.

Yeah, I would leave 6/8ths of the notes out now or something like that. But that’s a physical and mental necessity for me to feel comfortable…But I think that there is still some valid meaning to those, whatever you call those, less noted lines.

What did you think of Lester’s use of vibrato.

Well you know, the way Charlie Parker uses it is kind of standard, he has a perfect even measured vibrato and it sounds perfectly natural to me and very musical, but… it’s kind of added to what was before, a more spontaneous vibrato.

Ted said he had a similar vibrato to Billie Holiday.

Oh ho, well he certainly was influenced by Billie Holiday and that specific way is certainly meaningful.

Did you every meet her?

Yeah, at some point due to one guy who was very close to Billie, he brought her out to the club on Long Island years ago and she sat in, sang a beautiful song and then turned to me and said “blow baby!” Oh god I almost had an orgasm, to use an exaggerated expression. (laughs)

Was that at the Cork and Bib by any chance?

Yeah, the Cork and Bib. And then she came to the original Half Note and I don’t remember, she didn’t sit in then, I don’t remember exactly what the contact was but she was very friendly. Ah, Tony Scott was the guy, he was hanging out with her. I believe it was him.

What do you think Warne learned from Lester if you could speak for him?

I think he got most of the subtleties of Lester’s playing. When he was right, the sound was very endearing somehow without being exaggerated in some way. And the rhythms were very much his addition to what he heard from Lester and people who did that with the rhythm. Harmonically he went beyond Lester to some extent but he was the main man that influenced him I think.

Do you think Lester mostly stuck to pentatonic and blues material?

Well, you know he played what was most familiar to him and sounded natural, that’s the impression I got. And they didn’t sound bluesy or corny like they usually do when guys pull that out of the blue.

Yeah, something about his delivery makes it not corny no matter what he plays.

Yeah right, it’s like he’s singing, that’s the main thing I think. It’s like he’s really singing and not just screwing the horn sound.

Somebody just posted a recording of Lester playing “There will never be another you” in 1956 I think, and he stays so close to the melody the whole time, it’s beautiful, like singing.

Yeah, two young boys were at the Vanguard and they introduced themselves and called and wanted to have a lesson…so they came and as they were about to pick up their horns to play an example that I asked them to sing it first, saying that that’s where the music has to start and if you can fit it on to the metal instrument you’ve accomplished that. They both had problems, first  with just singing the melody straight, they were already adding things to it. So I asked them to just sing it straight. So we went through that routine and they got the message and were moved by it. I’m surprised, they’ve studied with a few people, and it seems like nobody emphasizes that point.

They don’t. You gave me that and that’s been the most important thing for me. And sometimes, I lose sight of it, but I find it easiest to see if you’re successful in a duo setting, trading with someone.

Yeah, right, I think that’s true. Well in my public singing, lately, I find that doing it with Brad Mehldau, or Florian Weber or Dan Tepfer in a duo situation is most inviting to me, because there is room to hear it on both sides, both of the players, and I enjoy that very much.  I hear where sometimes my voice cracks and things like that but overall it’s a pleasure for me to do that.

Well you sound so connected, the way you sing and the way you play. I think you’ve achieved that connection.

Well it feels like that, and I’m very proud of that.

What do you think Lester’s overall influence?

I think everybody was moved in some form but many of them preferred to spend their time imitating Ornette or John, or something with more modern melodies, this is like old time music to them. It sounds very contemporary to me on those Count Basie records. In that context he sounds most effective to me, sometimes the small band things are certainly effective in terms of what he feels at that moment, and I enjoy those very much but these are, with those perfect arrangements for him to play on, it’s so satisfying.

Do you have a favorite?

Oh lord, Any of those with Basie are favorites of mine. One after another, Everyone is a favorite. I don’t know maybe one by six notes extra but definitely they are all masterpieces.

I wanted to ask you about the “Lester Leaps In” solo since that’s what I’m covering in my article…

How does that one go?

(I sing first couple of phrases.)

Ha, well that doesn’t sound quite like Lester Young, the notes are swinging in a different way. I mean it’s interesting how subtle that whole thing put together is.  A lot of guys can copy the notes but they can’t deliver them correctly.

How would you sing it?

Lee sings….

Ah yeah it does sound like you have the subtleties down better.

Yeah it feels a little closer but I haven’t worked on that one in a while, your reminding me to go back to the source.

So what was I doing incorrectly?

Well, you’re playing the rhythms too close together and a little more accents to make it sound more bouncy-bouncy. You know what I mean?

So it was too bouncy now?

Yes, the notes are too close together I think.

Lee Sings, more legato, less accent on the upbeats.

I’ve been playing these on tenor at half speed with Lester a lot lately too, but was still missing that feeling. You play these on alto right?

Yeah, I looked at the tenor in my closet yesterday and I thought maybe I should take that out sometime. I feel the same way about soprano which I enjoy playing very much, but schlepping them around traveling is pretty difficult so I just gave that up.

 

We went on to a few more subjects, before Lee flew to Europe to celebrate his 89th birthday with his wife. Now 91, Lee recently surfaced at Barry Harris’ gig at Lincoln Center, which you can watch here: JALC Barry Harris Trio.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much , Jon. I am a non musician but I so enjoy hearing the details of your craft because it gives me extra things to listen for and be moved by in the music. Lee is a master and you can understand why when he talks about the past and present in this music.

  2. I wanted to share, with permission, some anecdotal info I just received from Ted Brown about the Cork n’ Bib:

    The section about Lee’s gigs at the Cork ‘N Bib brought back some memories for me. Oddly enough I saw a couple ads online for that club and have attached them.

    I played a couple week-ends there with him. One was when Roy Eldridge was on the bill. He was so funny…he had what looked like a camera case around his waist but he showed us inside was no camera…but 3 small flasks for Brandy, Bourbon or whatever!

    He also had a special mouthpiece with the sides open so it made no sound, which he used to warm up back stage when he was on Krupa’s band…but one night he forgot to remove it when got up on the stand and on his first solo he started blowing hard and nothing came out!!

    And of course he played great that week-end.

    I also did one of Lee’s gigs there with 3 horns, Lee, me and Willie Dennis. And Willie talked to the owner and got a gig for the two of us with Ronnie Ball. By the way, the ad for that gig also says Sonny Stitt but he didn’t show up.

    It was a nice club and Lee lived on Long Island at the time so it was an easy gig.
    Cork and Bib One
    Cork and Bib Two

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