JJ 05/81: Lee Konitz talks to Al Levitt

Forty years ago, the altoist talked about playing with Miles Davis and Charles Mingus and the danger of deaf drummers. First published in Jazz Journal May 1981


Drummer Al Levitt first met Lee Konitz in 1950, when they both worked with Lennie Tristano. Subsequently they were together with Charlie Mingus on two separate occasions. In the late seventies Al made several records with Lee, and has kept in touch through the years.

This article by Al Levitt is based on an interview from December 1979, when Al and Lee were playing in Paris.

In November, 1979, Lee Konitz toured Europe with the Karl Berger Woodstock Orchestra which is composed of students and some of the teachers at Karl’s school in Woodstock, New York. Speaking about this experience Lee related, “I accepted this tour as a teacher at the school, with Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, plus a couple of other guys who were with us at the beginning of the tour, Don Cherry and George Lewis, the trombone player. The idea was that teachers sat in the orchestra, the emphasis being on a kind of group improvisation thing.

“So the idea of just coming in and sitting there, just being part of the group without a star system was very appealing to me. Anyway, when Karl asked me to do this, I was interested, because I like to get into different situations when I can. I really still think of myself basically as a ‘sideman’. The closest thing to a really organised band is my nine piece band, and that is, I guess, because there was written music there, you know. It called for certain instrumentation. We worked one or two nights a week for a long time and kind of built up a little library. The club that the band was working at closed and I was doing so much travelling that I couldn’t really keep another thing going. The two records we had made got to some places here in Europe and they asked me if I could deliver the band for a couple of festivals and television in Holland.

“In some ways this band is very similar to Miles Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ band in which I also played, and it can play the same music. I didn’t really have in mind to form an extension of Miles’ group when I started. It was just kind of an accidental starting. We have two trumpets and two trombones in this band, one trombone doubles on tuba and a trumpet player can play flugelhorn to take care of the French horn and it’s the same band then.

“About some of my earlier collabora­tions with Miles: I was with Claude Thornhill’s band in 1947 and Gil Evans was writing for the band and Gerry Mulligan was playing with the band towards the end, and writing for the band and writing beautifully too. When we got to New York, both of them were already associated with Miles. I met Miles and they were talking about this band. I went right in and started rehearsing with them and it was all rather short lived. That’s why there wasn’t too much made of it except that the band happened to score, you know, in it’s short history. The band was supposed to have played two weeks and somehow or other the second week was cancelled and so he asked me if I just wanted to do a week playing with the rhythm section. (Max Roach, John Lewis, and Al McKibbon).

“I felt a little bit alien somehow in that situation, not really as prepared as I would like to have been for that. My experience up till then was rather limited. I felt very much welcome, so to speak. They were all very friendly and encouraging and every­thing, but when I listened to the record that was released of some of the live broadcasts, I know I played better at times than I did on that recording, I’m sure.”

Miles Davis, responding to the implication he should have had a black altoist in his nonet: ‘If I could find anybody, whatever they were, that could play as well as Lee Konitz, I would hire them’

In an interview with Miles Davis, Lee’s name was brought up in that context, and also the fact that someone asked Miles why he had him playing in his group. I guess the inference was why they had a white saxophone player and Miles’ response was, “If I could find anybody, whatever they were, that could play as well as Lee Konitz, I would hire them.” It was obvious that Miles enjoyed Lee’s playing and had a purpose in mind in having him in his group.

Lee commented: “I think Miles has always had an ear open for people who were trying something. I can remember him coming over to Billy Bauer’s studio in the Henry Adler building to run over one of my lines. You know he made one record date with me, with Max Roach and Sal Mosca, and we played that line, Hi Beck, that I wrote. I ended up playing it alone, because Miles kind of, you know, looked at it, that son of a gun. I can play his Donna Lee in all twelve keys, but he kind of gave up on that one. But anyway, he agreed to make that record and all through the years, as we all know by now, he has managed to hear good players and put them to work for him in the best possible way always. Cats always sounded their best with him. Except me.”

Lee also had several opportunities to work with Charles Mingus in various contexts, small groups and large orchestras. Recalling some of those experiences he told a story: “I remember the record we both made with him at Lennie Tristano’s studio. Jackie Paris sang on it and Phyllis Pinkerton played piano and there was a cello player. I remember that I was under contract to Norman Granz at the time and I told Mingus that I couldn’t play any solos on the record, so he wrote some out. He wrote something that when you look at it, it doesn’t register, see, and when you’re doing a recording date, looking at the music for the first time, that is something you want to happen, hopefully. ’Cause I can read, you know. I could always read, but this was all written in sixteenth notes, like maybe one sixteenth note ahead of the beat or something, and I played it like I play eighth notes and he said, ‘Great, that’s just what I wanted.’

“I think he wanted maybe a tendency to lag a little bit or something like that. Just to be relaxed eighth notes, but anyway it was impossible to play and many years later, Mingus had a big band that played at Avery Fischer Hall. It was recorded, and Bill Cosby announced it, and there came that tune again, ESP, I think it was called. The saxophone section was scuffling with that part and I still couldn’t make any sense out of it and Mingus at one point said, ‘Listen to Konitz, he knows it from 25 years ago.’ I said, ‘Thanks a lot.’ I didn’t even play it at the concert. Man, it was just very awkward, but it ended up kind of more or less my making one of his first records and one of his last. I had very little association with Mingus over the years, and incidentally, the last meeting I had with him was when he was in the wheelchair. Anyway, we had a nice communication that time. Partly, I guess ’cause he was kind of sitting in one place and ’cause he’d been kind of putting me down over the years.”

Through our relationship over a long period and through conversation and impressions, I have the feeling that Lee Konitz is very sensitive about drummers and that they sometimes have more of a disturbing effect on him than on other soloists that I know. When I broached this subject, Lee said, “It’s mostly an acoustical problem, an imbalance all the time. There are very few cats who have chops enough to find a correct balance so that a guy can play naturally. So, everybody overblows because of drummers. Not just because of drummers, but because of the weight of a rhythm section and to kind of rise to that thing, you have to press and force and I don’t like to force. I love to play with drummers and I’ve played with drummers who were really loud.”

“If it’s really socking in there, you know, then I just kind of get into the sound somehow and don’t even worry about not hearing. I just kind of play and listen to the music and it’s not important that I hear myself. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to tell someone that they are not listening properly. The implication would be that I don’t dig what they are doing and that sets up a different feeling. I just try to make it happen. In the last few years it has been possible to play without a rhythm section. I’ve done a lot of duo things with Martial Solal and also with other pianists in the States, and it gives another kind of openness to the music which is fun. I love to play with a rhythm section when it’s working. I have certain inhibitions about playing, in fact just playing in a relaxed, intense way is still something which is a goal to me. I don’t just take it for granted, you know. It doesn’t really come that easy for me. I love to play with Shelly Manne, I really like the feeling I get from him. It feels very infectious. I can hear him responding and reacting and encouraging and acknowledging all the time and that’s what makes it happen.

‘I still consider myself a student of the music although I’ve been lucky to be able to couple that with going out and working as a professional musican. Believe me, I never forget that for very long’

“Recently, I’ve been thinking about how in this music, especially in this music, you grow older and mature and continue to try things. I still consider myself a student of the music although I’ve been lucky to be able to couple that with going out and working as a professional musican. Believe me, I never forget that for very long. I might be complaining about how hard it is to travel around sometimes, because it is, but I love it.”

During recent years, Lee has made appearances at George Wein’s festival in Nice, ‘The Grand Parade of Jazz’. He summed up his impressions of some of the situations he found himself playing in by saying, “I really enjoyed them very much. I played with Dizzy and played with Bill Evans and various other people and it was really like one continuous jam session for 11 days. I think that George Wein should be commended for being able to realise these various situations. He has been quite an influential entrepeneur and has given a lot of cats an opportunity to play and be pros.

“But just in general, about the music, I think that swinging will never go out of style. I enjoy experimental things and they have their place, you know, but left to my own devices, I still would like to play with a nice rhythm section and just feel like we know each other.”