By Stuart Mitchner
Sometimes I think a novelist made this man up. If you were creating a fictional jazz genius, would you name him Parker or Davis or Rollins or Gillespie? Or would you name him Tristano?”
Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) is for real. He was born in Chicago 100 years ago this month, March 19, 1919, and is the subject of a long, in-depth, consummately readable chapter in Jazz Masters of the 40’s (Macmillan 1966) by jazz critic Ira Gitler, who died February 23.
The fictional possibilities jump out at you from Gitler’s opening paragraph, where Tristano is “mentor, teacher, nursemaid, and confidant of a small cell of young musicians.” Outsiders are “apt to name the hypnotist Svengali when describing Tristano, although he has been totally blind since the age of 10.” Picture a blind Svengali also known as “the witch doctor” and you begin to see the novelistic slant of the message on the cover of Gitler’s book: “the lean days and brave nights of Bebop and the Hipster; musical revolt and intellectual curiosity; the sardonic beauty and necessary self-pity which formed the basis of Modern Jazz.”
According to Gitler, Tristano’s first job, at 11, was in an Illinois whorehouse, “downstairs at the bar.” He’d begun listening to and “fooling around with” a player piano when he was two. Imitating it, he tells Gitler, “gave me the clue.” His eyesight was weak from birth and, depending on your source, either influenza or measles left him vulnerable to total blindness. At eight he was placed in a handicapped class at a public school, and a year later he was in a state institution for the blind, where he studied piano, saxophone, clarinet, and cello and formed a band that occasionally played gigs off the grounds. At Chicago’s Conservatory of Music he wrapped up a two-year harmony course in six weeks, got his bachelor’s degree in three years, and his master’s in a year. When the school insisted that he pay $500 for the time that a full course normally takes, he turned down the diploma and began teaching his own students, as he would do for the rest of his life. more