Tristano, c. August 1947
|Birth name||Leonard Joseph Tristano|
March 19, 1919|
Chicago, Illinois, US
|Died||November 18, 1978
New York City, New York, US
|Genres||Cool jazz, bebop, post bop, avant-garde jazz|
|Occupations||Musician, composer, arranger, music teacher|
|Associated acts||Lee Konitz
Leonard Joseph Tristano (March 19, 1919 – November 18, 1978) was a jazz pianist, composer and teacher of jazz improvisation. He performed in the cool jazz, bebop, post bop and avant-garde jazz genres. Historically important are the first recorded free group improvisations ("Intuition"), his preoccupation with atonality and Bach's counterpoint, as well as his early experimentations with recording techniques such as overdubbing (his own playing). In addition, his work as a jazz educator meant that he has exerted a substantial influence on jazz through figures such as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
Tristano was born in Chicago on March 19, 1919. His mother, Rose Tristano (née Malano), was also born in Chicago. His father, Michael Joseph Tristano, was born in Italy and moved to the United States as a child. Lennie was the second of four brothers.
Lennie started playing the family player piano at the age of two or three. He had classical piano lessons when he was eight, but found that they hindered, rather than helped, his development. He was born with weak eyesight, possibly as a consequence of his mother being affected by the 1918–19 flu pandemic during pregnancy. A bout of measles when aged six may have exacerbated his condition, and by the age of nine or ten he was totally blind as a result of glaucoma. He initially went to standard state schools, but attended the Illinois School for the Blind in Jacksonville for a decade from around 1928. During his school days he played several instruments. At the age of eleven he had his first gigs, playing clarinet in a brothel.
He studied for a bachelor's degree in music in performance at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago from 1938 until 1941, and stayed for another two years for further studies, although he left before completing his master's degree. One of his aunts assisted Tristano by taking notes for him.
Later life and career
In the early 1940s Tristano played tenor saxophone and piano for a variety of engagements, including in a rumba band. He gave private lessons from around the same time, including to saxophonist Lee Konitz. From 1943 Tristano also taught at the Axel Christensen School of Popular Music. He received press coverage for his piano playing from early 1944, appearing in Metronome's summary of music from Chicago from that year, and in Down Beat from 1945. He recorded with some musicians from Woody Herman's band in 1945; Tristano's playing "is characterized by his extended harmonies, fast single-line runs, and block chords." He also recorded solo piano pieces in the same year.
Tristano's interest in jazz inspired a move to New York City in 1946. As a preliminary step to moving there, he stayed in Freeport, Long Island, where he played in a restaurant with Arnold Fishkin (bass) and Billy Bauer (guitar). Tristano was Metronome's musician of the year in 1947. This trio, with an assortment of bassists replacing Fishkin, was recorded in 1946–47. Reviewers at the time commented on "the novel nature of the trio in the contrapuntal interaction between piano and guitar and the innovative harmonic approach reminiscent of the early twentieth-century composers".
Tristano first met saxophonist Charlie Parker in 1947. They played together later that year for radio broadcasts. The pianist reported that Parker enjoyed his playing, in part because it was different from what Parker was accustomed to and did not copy the saxophonist's style. In 1948 Tristano played less often in clubs, and added Konitz and a drummer to his regular band, making it into a quintet. This band recorded the first sides for the New Jazz label, which later became Prestige Records. Later that year Warne Marsh, another saxophonist student of Tristano's, was added to the group.
This sextet had two recording sessions in 1949 that proved to be significant. They recorded original compositions based on familiar harmonies; reviewers commented on the linearity of the playing and that it was a departure from bebop. The same musicians also recorded the first free improvisations by a group – "Intuition" and "Digression". The sequence in which the musicians would join in the ensemble playing, and the approximate timing of those entrances, were planned, but nothing else – harmony, key, time signature, tempo, melody or rhythm – was prepared or set. Instead, the five musicians were held together by "contrapuntal interaction". Both sides were praised by critics, although their release was delayed – "Intuition" was released late in 1950, and "Digression" not until 1954. Parker and composer Aaron Copland were also impressed. Numerous other musicians of the time, however, thought Tristano's music too progressive and emotionally cold, and predicted that it would not be popular with the public.
The sextet struggled to find enough work, but did play at Birdland's opening night "A Journey Through Jazz", a subsequent five-week engagement at that club, and at various other venues in the north-east of the US late in 1949. They performed free pieces in these concerts, as well as Bach fugues, but found it difficult over time to continue to play with the freedom that they initially felt.
The sextet's personnel sometimes changed, but it continued performing into 1951. In the early 1950s Tristano gave lessons at his home in Flushing, Long Island. From 1951, he used a Manhattan loft property that he had converted into a recording studio. This also served as the location for frequent jam sessions with various invited musicians. The location became the title of one of his compositions – "317 East 32nd Street". At around the same time, he started a record label, named Jazz Records. It released "Ju-ju" and "Pastime" on a 45 record in 1952 before Tristano abandoned the project because of time demands and distribution problems. The two tracks were from a trio session with bassist Peter Ind and drummer Roy Haynes. The pianist later overdubbed a second piano onto the trio recording. Ind described them as "the very first overdubbed and improvised jazz recordings". Early reviewers largely failed to realize that overdubbing had been used. The recording studio remained in use, and was the scene of early sessions for Debut Records, co-founded by musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
In 1952 Tristano's band performed occasionally, including as a quintet in Canada. In the summer of that year, Konitz joined Stan Kenton's band, breaking up the core of Tristano's long-standing quintet/sextet, although the saxophonist did on occasion play with Tristano again.
Tristano's 1953 recording "Descent into the Maelstrom" was another innovation. It was a musical portrayal of Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same title, and was an improvised solo piano piece that used multitracking and had no preconceived harmonic structure, being based instead on the development of motifs. Its atonality anticipated the much later work of pianists such as Cecil Taylor and Borah Bergman (who specifically mentioned the piece as an important influence on his work).
In 1954 Tristano's sextet played at the first Newport Jazz Festival. This may have been his only jazz festival appearance – he considered them to be too commercial. Marsh left Tristano's band in the summer of 1955.
Tristano recorded his first album for Atlantic Records in 1955; he was allowed control over the recording process and what to release. The eponymous album included solo and trio tracks that contained further experiments with multitracking ("Requiem" and "Turkish Mambo") and altered tape-speed ("Line Up" and "East 32nd"). "Requiem", a tribute to Parker, who had died a short time earlier, has a deep blues feeling – a style not usually associated with Tristano. For "Line Up" and "East 32nd", Tristano's "use of chromatic harmony, especially side-slipping, secures him a position of a pioneer in expanding the harmonic vocabulary of jazz improvisation", in biographer Eunmi Shim's words. Stylistically, the solo and trio tracks are highly linear, "as he focused on the single line as well as counterpoint of multiple independent lines", and use "polyrhythm further in the direction of rhythmic counterpoint". The use of overdubbing and tape manipulation was controversial with some critics and musicians at the time. The second side of the album is a straightforward club gig in the company of Lee Konitz.
In 1956 Tristano had to leave his Manhattan studio; he established a new one in Hollis, Queens. Some of his core students moved to California after Tristano's base was relocated. This, coupled with a separation from his wife in the same year, meant that he was physically more isolated from the New York music scene. He gave fewer concerts than earlier, but from 1958 had sometimes lengthy engagements at New York's Half Note Club, after the owners persuaded him to perform, in part by replacing their club's Steinway piano with a new Bechstein of Tristano's choosing.
1960s and 1970s
Tristano's second album for Atlantic was recorded in 1961. The New Tristano consisted entirely of piano solos and no overdubbing or tape-speed manipulation was employed. The tracks contain a left-hand bass line that provide structure to each performance as well as counterpoint for the right-hand playing; block chords, unclear harmonies and contrasting rhythms also appear. Other solo piano recordings that Tristano made in 1961 were not released until the 1970s.
In 1964 the pianist reformed his quintet with Konitz and Marsh for a two-month engagement at the Half Note and more performances in Canada. The quartet, missing Konitz, played in Toronto again in the following year.
Tristano's distrust of jazz record labels and increasingly infrequent public performances meant that his recordings are comparatively scarce, and many of them are concert recordings of very variable fidelity. Some of his concert performances were recorded and have been released. He played on occasion at the Half Note Club until the mid-1960s, and toured Europe in 1965. His European tour was mainly as a solo pianist, and was in the style of his The New Tristano recordings. He played with Ind and others in concerts in the UK in 1968; they were well received, and Tristano returned the following year. He was one of the first musicians to start his own record label. His last public performance in the US was in 1968.
By the mid-1950s, Tristano focused his energies more on music education. He is regarded as one of the first to teach jazz, particularly improvisation, in a structured way, beginning in the early 1940s and continuing until the end of his life. He taught musicians irrespective of their instrument. Tristano approached each student individually and hence lessons were structured to meet the needs of each individual; students were challenged in ways that would allow them to find and express their own musical feelings, or style.
Tristano encouraged his students to learn the melodies of standards by singing them, then playing them, before working on playing them in all keys. He also often had his students learn to sing and play the improvised solos by some of best-known names in jazz, including Parker and Lester Young. Solos were often learned by first playing them along with the original recording, from a phonograph record or magnetic audio tape, at half the normal speed, hence the pitch would drop by one octave. Eventually the student would learn the solo at normal speed. Tristano stressed that the student was not learning to imitate the artist, but rather should use the experience to gain insight into the musical feeling conveyed by the artist. Such activities stressed the idea of feeling being fundamental to musical expression, and the value of ear training.
One of the key teaching tools used by Tristano was the metronome. In practicing fundamentals such as scales, the student would set the metronome at or near to its slowest setting and play the scales and arpeggios in a legato fashion covering the full range of their instrument with very even dynamics. Having a concept of scales as music and a basis for harmony were foundational elements. Developing a strong awareness of the beat was a key element of his teaching philosophy.
Influences and playing style
Tristano's advanced grasp of harmony pushed his music beyond even the complexities of the contemporary bebop movement. Parker and Lester Young were important influences on his own development. Other key ingredients in his style were Nat King Cole and Art Tatum, influences most audible in his early drummerless trio recordings. Early in his career, he practiced solo Tatum pieces; he gradually moved away from this influence in search of his own style. He and his followers remained at something of a slant to mainstream bebop. Tristano on occasion played and record with bebop's preeminent figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Parker, and he was a pallbearer at Parker's funeral. The playing of Tristano and those taught by him has often been contrasted with bebop, by being labelled "cool jazz", though this is a vague categorization that fails to capture the range of his playing.
From his early recordings, Tristano sought to develop the use of harmonies that were unusual at that period. By the late 1940s he was experimenting with different rhythmic patterns. For example, he would use "a seven eighth-note phrase, repeated a number of times, so that it would spill over the bar lines, without him losing his place in the harmonic flow of the piece"; bassists and drummers often struggled to support this playing, as they tended to stiffen their timing so as not to lose their place. His main interest remained improvisation and the expression of feeling through it, rather than with personal style itself.
Biographer Eunmi Shim summarized the changes in Tristano's playing during his career:
The trio recordings of 1946 show a novel approach in the linear interaction between piano and guitar, resulting in counterpoint, polyrhythm, and superimposed harmonies. The sextet recordings of 1949 are notable for coherent ensemble playing and soloing, and the free group improvisations based on spontaneous group interactions and the contrapuntal principle. In the 1950s Tristano employed an advanced concept in jazz improvisation called side-slipping, or outside playing, which creates a form of temporary bitonality when chromatic harmony is superimposed over the standard harmonic progressions. Tristano intensified his use of counterpoint, polyrhythm, and chromaticism in the 1960s[.]
Grove Music commented that "Tristano's music stands apart from the main tradition of modern jazz [...] Rather than the irregular accents of bop, Tristano preferred an even rhythmic background against which to concentrate on line and focus his complex changes of time signature. Typically, his solos consisted of extraordinarily long, angular strings of almost even quavers provided with subtle rhythmic deviations and abrasive polytonal effects. He was particularly adept in his use of different levels of double time and was a master of the block-chord style".
In Ind's opinion, Tristano's legacy "is what he added technically to the jazz vocabulary and his vision of jazz as a serious musical craft". Ind also suggested that Tristano's reputation became less than was deserved – "He stuck with his convictions and would not commercialize. His dedication, plus the lack of general appreciation by many jazz critics, led inevitably to his being sidelined." Grove Music's summary is that "Because of his knowledge of several instruments and broadminded approach, Tristano attracted players of different instruments and schools, [...] Tristano's influence is felt most strongly in the work of his best pupils – many of whom also became outstanding teachers – and in his example of high-mindedness and perfectionism, characteristics which presupposed for jazz the highest standards of music as art."
Shim suggests that Tristano's "historical significance and contributions to jazz have not been fully acknowledged; his stylistic individuality that transgressed conventional style categories has posed a problem in the tendency toward categorization and canonization in jazz historiography."
Personality and views on music
In Ind's view, Tristano "was always so gentle, so charming and so quietly spoken that his directness could be unnerving. This directness was noted by others, including Chubby Jackson, who commented that "I think he owns as little tact as any human I've ever met in my life", and that Tristano would not worry about "upsetting somebody or insulting them or making them feel inadequate."
Writer Barry Ulanov commented in 1946 that, for Tristano, "in the realms of literature and philosophy, as in music, he was not content merely to feel something, [...] he had to explore ideas, to experience them, to think them through carefully, thoroughly, logically until he could fully grasp them and then hold on to them."
Tristano criticized the free jazz that began in the 1960s for its lack of musical logic as well as its expression of negative emotions. "If you feel angry with somebody you hit him on the nose – not try to play angry music", he commented; "Express all that is positive. Beauty is a positive thing." He expanded on this by distinguishing emotion from feeling, and suggested that playing a particular emotion was egotistical and lacking in feeling.
Tristano also complained about the commercialization of jazz and what he perceived to be the requirement to abandon the artistic part of playing in order to earn a living from performing. Later commentators have suggested that these complaints ignored the freedom that he was given by Atlantic and blamed others for what in many cases were the outcomes of his own career decisions.
Tristano's first wife was Judy Moore, a musician who sang to his piano accompaniment in Chicago in the mid-1940s. They married in 1945, and had a son, Steve, who was born in 1952. The couple separated in 1956, as a result of the pianist having affairs with some of his students, and formally divorced six years later. Apart from one visit in the late 1950s, Tristano did not meet his son again after the separation.
Tristano married again in the early 1960s. His second wife was Carol Miller, one of his students. They had a son, Bud, and two daughters, Tania and Carol. The couple divorced in 1964, and Tristano later lost a custody battle with his ex-wife over the children.
Tristano was survived by his son and two daughters. His record label, Jazz Records, is run by his daughter, Carol Tristano.
|This section requires expansion. (February 2014)|
- Live in Toronto (Jazz, 1952)
- Lines (1955)
- Lennie Tristano (Atlantic, 1955)
- New York Improvisations (1956)
- The New Tristano (Rhino, 1962)
- Manhattan Studio (Elektra, 1983)
With Dizzy Gillespie
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- The Lennie Tristano Experience
- Lennie Tristano Symposium collection
- "Twelve Essential Lennie Tristano Tracks" by Ted Gioia (Jazz.com)