March 6, 2019

Lennie Tristano at 100 — Scenario for a Jazz Legend

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.

Faster Than Art Tatum?

During the war Tristano played at servicemen’s centers. By 1945 he was working in “good cocktail lounges” with, he claims, no thought of becoming “a great jazz musician.” Yet he told another interviewer that by 1944 he’d reached a point where he could “rifle off” anything of Art Tatum’s “with scandalous efficiency.” He claimed to be able to play “Elegie,” one of the likewise blind virtuoso’s fastest pieces “and finish ahead of Tatum.” A legend reported by Gitler has a pianist walking past a bar in Chicago when he thought he heard Tatum and ran downstairs to listen, “and it was Lennie.” If this were my novel, I’d leave it there. But Gitler is writing non-fiction. When he asks Tristano’s student and eventual bandmate alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, who shares the same chapter, Konitz says, “he’s a blowhard,” but “with affection.” Konitz adds, “I never heard him do that particular thing, but I did hear him play the tenor like Lester Young once.”


It was thanks to being mysteriously cut loose from the internet that I settled down to read Gitler’s chapter on Tristano. Had I been surfing online, I’d have skimmed it instead of giving it my full attention. Internet deprivation also led me to spend my day offline driving around listening to Tristano and brainstorming my hypothetical novel. The forthright, full-steam-ahead power of his playing on tracks like “Line Up” and “Turkish Mambo” has little to do with the remote, cerebral performer I mistook him for when I was a teenage subscriber to Downbeat.

The benefit of being back online is you can type a few words in the search box and be listening to Tristano’s actual voice speaking to you from the nocturnal depths of cyberspace. “I don’t compose anything,” he’s saying. “See, that’s the great difference between jazz and any other kind of music.” He sounds like a lifetime city dweller, with a touch of urban wise guy, not a hustler but someone who knows and speaks his mind. I’d cast Al Pacino or maybe Adrien Brody in the film version of my Tristano novel. You can hear city streets as he says, “The music is already in your head and all you do is let your hands reproduce what you hear as you hear it so that what you come up with is something completely spontaneous. Like when you hear a great Charlie Parker solo, what you actually do is experience somebody in the act of creating beauty.”

Mysterious Intuition

Close to the heart of my novel would be the mutual admiration society of Tristano and Parker, a departure from the usual black legend/white sidekick formula played out in otherwise admirable films such as Clint Eastwood’s Bird and Bernard Tavernier’s Round Midnight. It was Tristano who famously said in a 1951 Downbeat Blindfold Test, “If Charlie Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws, he could sue almost everybody who’s made a record in the last ten years.” Interviewed in Robert Reisner’s Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, Tristano recalls the time in 1947 when his group was playing opposite Parker’s at the Three Deuces on 52nd street: “He sat through my entire set listening intently. When it was over, the two fellows I was playing with left the stand, leaving me alone. They knew I could get around all right but Bird didn’t know that; he thought I was hung up for the moment. He rushed up to the stand, told me how much he liked my playing, and subtly escorted me off the bandstand.”

Reisner accompanies Tristano’s remarks with an anecdote almost too good to be true, although it makes emotional sense if you keep in mind Parker’s gesture at the Three Deuces. During his funeral, where Tristano was one of the honorary pall-bearers, “at one juncture, they dropped the casket,” and “by some mysterious intuitive process, Tristano stuck out his arm at that precise moment and caught it.”

A Masterpiece

Now picture Tristano sitting at the piano, all alone, playing “Requiem,” which he composed for Bird the month he died, March 1955. It can be heard on the Atlantic album, Lennie Tristano (1956), between the almost punishing excitement of “The Line-Up” and “Turkish Mambo.” In his liner notes, Barry Ulanov observes that the “achievement is in the form, a kind of ‘prelude and blues’ structure, in which first of all Lennie sets a mood with unexpected Schumannesque figures, and then, even as Charlie did, plays a rest into the blues. There is a tender deliberateness about the performance: it is a man thinking grief, feeling deprived, thinking and feeling in the logical medium for grief and deprivation in jazz: the blues.”

In “Requiem” you hear the musical equivalent of the “mysterious intuitive process” that enabled Tristano to catch hold of the casket at the exact right moment; as the meditative prelude finds its way toward the soul of a masterpiece, the left hand provides the cadence of a slow funeral procession following behind the farewell flight of the right hand until the music marches into silence. “Intuition” is a word close to Tristano’s compositional heart. Besides being the title of one of his best-known works, it reflects what a colleague told Ira Gitler, that Tristano reads as much as he plays, which means “between six or eight hours a day.” Although he uses braille, he does most of his “reading” by listening to recordings for the blind. He singles out Proust and Dostoevsky as favorites, along with Emily Dickinson.

Spontaneous Bop Prosody

It’s likely that at some point Lee Konitz or someone else in Tristano’s circle introduced him to the writings of Jack Kerouac. Or he may have been in the Half Note on one of the nights Kerouac was reading his blues and haikus to the playing of tenormen Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. While the composer of works like “East Thirty-Second,” with its driving, wholly unsentimental and unself-pitying urban ambiance, might have found Kerouac’s prose rhapsodies off-putting, he’d have surely appreciated the free spirit of improvisation alive in the author of On the Road’s  “spontaneous bop prosody,” especially if he’d been told that Kerouac’s sense of style had been directly inspired by Tristano’s devotion to “something completely spontaneous.”

If I could write it my way, Tristano would be a mystery guest at the New Year’s Eve party Kerouac describes in a Jan. 2, 1948 letter to Allen Ginsberg: “We had a recording machine and made mad jazz records all night, singing and riffing with the piano” and discovering “a new mode of singing” that combines Sarah Vaughan with Tristano, the genius who is “standing the music world on its ear.”

Gitler’s Liner Notes

You could say that the story of every jazz album is there to be told in the liner notes, and the master, the poet laureate of the form, was Ira Gitler. According to his colleague Gary Giddins, Gitler’s liner notes “are as much a part of those albums as the sequencing of tracks and the cover art.” Gitler wrote the notes for the Wardell Gray Memorial albums that introduced me to one of the musicians I most admire. Two other favorites with Gitler’s touch that come to mind are Sonny Rollins’s Tenor Madness and John Coltrane’s Soultrane, where Gitler put the phrase “sheets of sound” into the vernacular.”