Monthly Archives: April 2007

J10: Good morning Irene, part 1

Her songs have been covered by the likes of Nat Cole, Anita O’Day and Louie Armstrong. She is the author of “Good Morning Heartache,” one of the most emotionally searing ballads in all of jazz. She was a close personal friend to Billie Holiday. The jazz history books have her born in Worcester on June 11, 1918. To say that Irene Higginbottam is one of our lost treasures would merely be stating the obvious.

Like a lot of jazz women of her day, very little is written about her. She is, in fact, sometimes considered to be two different people. Here in Worcester, the name Higginbotham has disappeared from local directories, only Higgenbottom and Higginbottom appear and are of no relation. The name Kitchings is absent as well. Local bassist Bunny Price, who is now in his 70s, says that there were some black folk in Worcester with the name Higginbotham but moved out of town a long time ago.

Musician Eugene Chadbourne has given us something to work with to help bring Irene Higginbotham’s identity into focus. In his biographical sketch written for All Music Guide, he writes: “While her closest connection in the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s was the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, prolific songwriter Irene Higginbotham was also related by blood and marriage to several famous musicians from this genre.

“The songwriter was the niece of classic jazz trombonist J.C. Higginbotham. She was also the ex-wife of Teddy Wilson by the time he provided piano accompaniment for some of Holiday’s most deeply romantic performances. In a not particularly rare example of jazz combining with soap opera, some of these were Higginbotham’s ballad masterworks, haunting tales of hearts that albeit broken can still be syncopated. Chances are these songs would be on the list of any Holiday fan’s favorite records, including “Some Other Spring” from 1939 and “Good Morning Heartache” from three years later.

Chadborne also notes that in a period of several decades, Higginbotham wrote enough songs to fill the pages of her own biographical volume. See ASCAP pages for a partial list.

Chadborne goes on to say, that despite the association with songs of love and loss, Higginbotham’s songs show a wide range in subject matter and singers who delivered them. He says that “In the Quiet of the Dawn,” is especially worth mentioning because it established her as a seminal presence in the creation of early doo wop.

“She also had a humorous side,” Chadborne says, “concocting material combining on-stage antics and music for the vaudeville team of Stump and Stumpy. Her collaborations with co-writer Syd Shaw were in demand as jumping jive reached up to the R&B shelf.” He cites such witty songs such as “No Pad to Be Had,” “It’s Got a Hole in It,” and “The Bottle’s Empty.”

Evidently, Higginbotham could also write hit material for dancers. “In the early ’50s some of the latter material such as a toll-free “Jersey Turnpike” was published under the pseudonym of Glenn Gibson due to shenanigans involving a BMI contract,” Chadborne reports. “Not every song attributed to Glenn Gibson is Higginbotham vintage, however. Joe Davis — A&R man, record label manager, and one of Higginbotham’s publishers — also used the name Glenn Gibson to copyright songs, some of which were actually in the public domain.” In the 1950s, Davis also recorded Stump and Stumpy singing Higginbotham’s “Two Thirds Dead.”

In closing, Chadborne compliments our lost hero by saying, “In general, high quality is the proof of an Irene Higginbotham composition. Her songs routinely stood out, sparkling with something special, at recording sessions where several sets of writers participated.”

A few years ago, jazz radio host David Brent Johnson on his show “Night Lights,” heard over WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana presented a fascinating show called “Ghosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes (a Jazz Mystery).” In his commentary on the program he claims to have solved the riddle of the two Irenes.

Building his show around the inquiry, Johnson presented a program that featured the Irene Wilson/Kitchings and Higginbotham compositions recorded by Billie Holiday, as well as songs that Holiday co-wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr., the man who supplied the lyrics for Irene Wilson’s songs. In “Ghosts of Yesterday,” he thanked jazz writers Chris Albertson and Chuck Nessa for their assistance in the matter.

An important link to Higginbotham may be traced to Joe Orange, a retired health insurance executive, who is currently running his own health insurance consulting firm near his home in Columbia, Maryland. Orange is a relative of Irene. A jazz musician himself, Orange was born and raised in the Bronx. He is also a noted trombonist who has worked with among others, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Lloyd Price and Herbie Mann. In a musical memoir written as a project for Fordham College, Orange wrote: “Music was also always part of my home life. My mother played piano and Hawaiian guitar, and I had an uncle and cousin that were prominent jazz musicians. My Uncle, J.C. Higginbotham was considered the greatest jazz trombonist, of the 1930’s and 40’s. He had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band, and recorded ‘Saints Go Marching In’ with Louis Armstrong.

“My cousin Irene Higginbotham was a great Boogie Woogie pianist and songwriter. She composed the words and music to Good Morning Heartache’ that was made famous by Billie Holiday in the 1940’s, and again by Diana Ross in the 1970’s. Today the song is considered a standard in the jazz repertoire.”

To be continued …

Here’s a link to a boogie woogie songbook adapted by Higginbotham.

Check out this clip of Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian performing “Good Morning Heartache,” live.

J09: Tristano time, intuition and feeling

In his opening remarks at the Lennie Tristano Symposium on Sunday, April 15, at WPI’s Alden Hall, Jazz Studies Director Rich Falco joked about the weather. He mentioned that the other symposiums were held in February and also impacted by the winter. “So we decided to move it to April,” he said, waiting a beat for the laughs, before introducing the special guests.

The event was held during that freakish week of rainstorms that happened in mid-April. The symposium brought together a collection of family and friends, colleagues and educators who were all there to riff on the late Lennie Tristano. The weather may have effected the turnout. There were only about 50 people in attendance.

The panelists included pianists Connie Crothers and Harvey Diamond, guitarist Bud Tristano and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin, with WPI Prof. Eunmi Shim, the author of the new biography, Lennie Tristano: His Life and Music. Noted critic Ira Gitler and pianist Sal Mosca were also scheduled, but due to personal reasons, were not able to attend. The symposium was moderated by Monica Hatch, host of “Jazz Matinee,” WICN 90.5 FM and interviews were conducted by Tom Reney, Producer/host “Jazz a la Mode, WFCR 88.5 FM. The festivities were recorded by WCCA TV Director, Mauro DePasquale.

Ms. Crothers was the first panelist introduced. “I could talk about Lennie Tristano all day,” she said and proceeded to offer wonderful memories of her studies with what she called the master. Although her lengthy and passionate presentation was not scripted, it read like a dissertation. She talked about her first encounter with Tristano’s music. She was a student at University of California Berkley studying classical music when she heard a recording of “Requiem,” Tristano tribute to Charlie Parker.

“The impact was a transforming experience,” she said. (For more on Crothers’ take on studying with Tristano see Jazzsphere seven.) She called Tristano the greatest jazz improviser ever and the first to figure out how to teach jazz. She very eloquently explained how and why. She also talked at length about the recording of “Intuition,” and little anecdotes about musicians like Roy Eldridge. She said that the trumpeter was one of Lennie’s favorites. “If you want to learn about jazz phrasing, sing along with his solos,” she said.

Reney asked her about “Requiem,” saying that it was a transforming experience in the span of four minutes. He then asked if there was anything else in that Atlantic Sampler (that “Requiem” was released on) that also effected her. Crothers said that she only really heard the one tune. She then talked about how the piece was an elegy for Bird. Lennie told her that Dizzy Gilespie called to tell him that Parker had died. “What you are hearing is the sound of Lennie’s grief.”

Crothers also talked about polyrhythms exemplified in “Turkish Mambo,” and the debate about multi-tracking and the often false take on Tristano’s music as being too “brainy.” She said Tristano played with a stream of consciousness that rendered “melodic lines of stunning logic and musical beauty.”

Reney asked her about the blues and Crothers said that the band wasn’t comfortable playing blues. He also queried her about Tristano’s reputation as being tough on drummers. She then mentioned how many of the greatest drummers wanted to work with him. “Kenny Clark and Max Roach always made sessions at Lennie’s and couldn’t wait to play with him,” she says. She also claims that Tristano was the first to hire Elvin Jones when he arrived in New York and that Billy Higgins worked with him at the Kool Jazz Festival. “So, you see, the very opposite is true,” Crothers said. It was a testy little foray, but Crothers thanked Reney for asking the question, saying she had hoped it would be brought up.

Reney then raised the subject of psychoanalysis, saying that Tristano was very interested in the topic and wondered if Lennie ever suggested to his students to consider it in the creative process.

Crothers answered the question by saying it was not presented to her. However she knew that Tristano’s brother Michael was a practicing psychiatrist who was into something called orgonomy — “something that was very hip in the ’50s. Lennie wanted his students to be open and real.”

In closing, Crothers said that Tristano always made others feel like he was interested in you. “He was like sunshine and water on a plant.”

For more on Crothers click here.

Saxophonist Jimmy Halperin was up next. He studied jazz improvisation with Tristano and Sal Mosca. His performance resume includes work with Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz and Sonny Dallas, among others. He is currently an adjunct professor of the saxophone at the New School University and Queens College and has a private teaching practice. His segment was a rambling historical overview of classical music and how jazz has always been considered a second class citizen. He said, Lennie viewed jazz as art.

“Classical music has always been given that distinction,” Halperin said. Jazz was considered inferior and still is.” He played several samples of music. He began by featuring Charlie Christian and said, “Lennie thought he was the swingingest cat. He was like a meteor.”

Halperin said 1947 was pivotal in the music and in the 20th century – it marked the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the year that Tristano’s “Intuition,” said to be the first free jazz performance ever recorded. The highlight of Halperin’s presentation was his piano example of “Turkish Mambo,” playing all the various rhythms that the piece entails.

For more on Halperin, see:

Next up was guitarist Bud Tristano, Lennie’s son who was named after Bud Powell. He was born in New York City and only got to live with his father until he was four. The family split in divorce. He lived with mother and sisters across the Hudson. Still, Bud recalled countless hours sitting in a rocking chair, listening to records from his father’s collection.

He remembered playing a free form game called dance freeze, where his dad would play music and stop and the kids had to freeze the move they were in at the time. He said he was not conscious of his dad’s musical influence, but said, “He was totally supportive. When I told him that I was not interested in pursuing music, he was totally cool with that.”

As a teenager Bud got into rock guitar and copied the licks of the gods of the day — Hendrix, Clapton and Zappa.

Reney then asked a series of questions: “How close were you to your father? Would you care to say anything about how it feels to be the son of this brilliant, yet under-appreciated musician? Do you think of Lennie’s philosophy as being manifest in your music?”

To which Bud answered, “At first I was reluctant to talk about it.” He said, he began to notice his father’s “conspicuous omission in the history.” He talked about how if in any given year ASCAP royalties were $700, only $1 would be from U.S.”

In the 1990s, Bud started spending more time in New York City re-connecting with his father’s closest associates like Crothers. He said listening to the music of Igor Stravinski and Bela Bartok provided the missing link.

In 2001, Bud released a duo recording with Connie Crothers called Primal Elegance. See more at:

At one point there was a long and healthy volley about Tristano being misclassified as a “cool” musician. Reney commented that Gerry Mulligan said that Tristano may have had more of an impact on the Cool School than Davis’s Birth of the Cool recordings.

At this point. Prof. Shim jumped into the discussion refuting the argument and went on to site a series of quotes from Tristano and others on the subject, essentially saying that his music should never be considered cool. The discussion grew even more dense with a spate of dialectics ranging from black musicians and white players, East Coast versus West Coast, Miles and Lennie, etc.

Bud broke some of the log jam by mentioning that Lennie loved Bach. Connie weighed in by recalling Lennie’s band playing Bach at Birdland and not announcing it as such until the performance ended. She went on to mention how Lennie there was always a “brilliance and logic to Tristano’s music.”

“Someone stood up and asked if anyone knew if Tristano liked Thelonious Monk. Connie volunteered, “Lennie didn’t think Monk was a good pianist. Hey, he was opinionated.”

The discussion then veered into the rudiments of music. Another audience member said with all this talk about feeling the music, did Lennie talk about study and discipline. Connie took that on as well and said, “Am I allowed to curse in this forum? Pardon the expletive, but Lennie always said you’ve got to do the ‘shit’ work. You’ve got to put your time in.”

Sensing that the audience was growing weary of the academic exercise and all the talk, Diamond played a gorgeous reharmonization of the standard “You Don’t Know What Love is.” It beautifully conveyed this convergence of heart and mind and losing yourself to the music.

Crothers also played. She introduced her piece by saying, “I’m going to play one of Lennie’s favorite songs, ‘My Melancholy Baby.’ She played two choruses of the tune on one hand. The first time through she delivered only the melody, straight with no chaser. The second time, she played a slight variation with approach notes.

After the break Prof. Shim read from what must have been a section from her book about Tristano’s take on drummers and then launched into a slide show demonstration on Tristano’s piano playing. Shim, who received her B.M. in Piano Performance from Seoul National University Seoul, Korea, and her Master’s and PH.D. in Musicology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented a detailed analysis that can be found in the appendix of her book.

Her book on Tristano was recently published by the University of Michigan Press, which, according to the press release, is the “first in depth treatment of Tristano’s life, music and teaching. This book discusses Tristano’s pioneering role in extending the concepts and practices of jazz, and reevaluates Tristano’s position in jazz history through thorough research, combining oral history, archival research, and musical analysis, illustrating that Tristano’s position in jazz history is a unique one.” See more at:

The session finally ended at 6 p.m. Panelists and audience members alike then retired to Spaulding Hall downstairs for a reception where a variety of musicians played many of Lennie’s tunes.

All in all, The Lennie Tristano Symposium was an important look at one of the unsung heroes of jazz. Prof. Falco should be commended for organizing this event that was free and open to the public in Worcester. There were many highlights and just as many low ones. On paper, the program was well constructed and looked like it would make for a lively discussion and presentation. Unfortunately, being an academic exercise, it grew too heavy at times with minutiae and not balanced with more musical examples from the exceptionally talented panel.

Clip of the week:
Site of the week:

J08: Jaki Byard and the indestructible aluminum baby

On Thursday, April 19, at 8 p.m. the New England Conservatory (NEC) Orchestra, under the direction of jazz department chair Ken Schaphorst, will present a free concert of the music of the late Jaki Byard. See related story at: NEC Website.

Byard was quite possibly one of the most famous musicians to come out of Worcester – certainly the most prominent in jazz. While still a teenager, growing up in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood, he was already a legendary figure. An account of his Worcester days are vividly chronicled in Don Asher‘s classic memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand. Asher is also a pianist who studied with Jaki and remembers comparing notes on his lessons with another famous Worcester pianist, Barbara Carroll.

Jaki went on to effortlessly scale the heights of jazz greatness before dying tragically from a gunshot in his home in Queens, NY in 1999. He was 76. The case is still unsolved.

In its press release for the concert, NEC’s sent out this little bio sketch of Jaki that reads: “Byard was a member of the bands of Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson. He recorded extensively with Charles Mingus, and toured Europe with him in 1964. He contributed to Mingus’s landmark recordings Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. He also made important recordings as a sideman with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin and Sam Rivers. As a leader, he recorded a series of critically acclaimed recordings for the Prestige label during the 1960s: Here’s Jaki, Out Front, Hi-Fly, Freedom Together, Sunshine of My Soul, and The Jaki Byard Experience.

To see a clip of Jaki live with Mingus in Norway click here.

Gary Giddins, in his memorial tribute said this about his piano playing: “Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush.

Often overlooked in Byard’s career is the fact that he was a trailblazer in the way of jazz education. He shared his skills privately at NEC and the Manhattan School of Music. This fact is not lost to such notable players and ex-students as Jason Moran, Fred Hersh, Anthony Coleman and D.D. Jackson.

As a jazz educator, Schaphorst says Byard was “one of the first in a way. He certainly influenced NEC and I think his influence is still felt there. I thought a lot about this recently because, first of all, he has this complete historic understanding of the music, which very few people have – not just intellectually, but being able to play all those styles — and yet he was very modern. He was very interested in the latest thing – whatever that was. I think that influenced the school to this day. There’s been a dedication. That’s not that common in jazz education. I’m grateful to be at a place where that is understood.”

The immensity of Byard’s talent as a player, composer, arranger and teacher is virtually impossible to measure. In tribute, noted jazz critic Don Schlitten said this about him: “Jaki Byard: Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning.” Fortunately, a great deal of Byard’s music was documented on record. One only has to listen to the expanse of his music.

Here are some listening samples.

Unfortunately, the written documentation of Byard’s output still need to be collected. Here’s where Schaphorst comes in.

“I had heard Jaki years ago with the Boston version of his big band,” he says. “This was probably the summer of 1979. It impressed me. I hadn’t heard any music like it. It was kind of wild, chaotic but very beautiful. He certainly was an impressive pianist and saxophonist.”

In 1969, the then president of NEC, Gunther Schuller hired Jaki Byard to teach at the school. Byard was also in residence for many years at Michael’s Pub, a local bar where he led the Apollo Stompers, consisting largely of NEC students such as Anton Fig and Ricky Ford, among others. Byard taught arranging and jazz improvisation at the conservatory for more than a decade.

Schaphorst arrived at NEC first as a student studying for his masters in composition in 1982. “I met Jaki then, but I didn’t study privately. He wasn’t as involved at that point as he was earlier,” Schaphorst says. “Then I came back to teach at NEC in 2001.”

In his third year of teaching, NEC celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jordan Hall, the school’s main concert venue, and Schaphorst thought the big band should play and present the music of Byard. Unfortunately, although he had arranged for such big bands as Herb Pomeroy’s, Maynard Ferguson’s and his own Apollo Stompers many of the charts were either not available, lost or in some cases never existed on paper.

“I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find his music” Schaphorst says. “Since then Herb Pomeroy gave me a couple of things. So we ended up playing ‘Aluminum Baby.’ Byard arranged that for Herb. It was recorded in 1957. The recording I have is called Life is a Many Splendid Gig. Jaki is playing in tenor in the section.

Schaphorst says that the NEC big band played a short set of Byard tunes and the 2003 concert went off beautifully. “I guess ever since I’ve been digging around seeing what I could find,” he says “I got in touch with his daughter, Diane. I heard at one time that she was considering donating some of the stuff to the school. She sent me a little bit. My goal, and I told this to Diane, and I think this is one of the reasons she was really supportive of the project, was to have a book that we could play – maybe once every generation – so every group of students who come to the school will get a chance to hear and play his music.”

A small collection of Byard’s works were left at the school, but there were also quite a few missing parts as well. “It was frustrating but fun because I had to reconstruct a few things, from a combination of recordings and guessing,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten to know his style — ‘Okay, this is the way he is voicing the saxophone section. The missing note must be this.’ So there were a few things where pages were Xeroxed and there was a note or two off the page.

“I was at a lunch with Eddie Palmiei. He’s at Harvard and the guy at Harvard says, ‘Oh, I have a couple of things of Jaki. So, I’m hoping that just the fact that we are doing [the concert] will draw some attention to it and maybe we can collect more music. My goal more than anything is to have his music played. Because it’s not played. That’s the sad thing — as great as his arrangements are – high school band’s should be playing them. Some of them are difficult. Some of them are out. It’s sad. I try to be optimistic and thinking that the truth of that music will survive. It needs a little help. So it’s been more work than usual in terms of getting music ready, but I think it is going to be a great concert.”

The program for Thursday’s concert is filled with highlights. Special guests include pianist Anthony Coleman. As a child, he studied with Byard in New York City. Ran Blake, who had recorded with Byard, is also on the bill. Blake is a longtime NEC faculty member. After Jaki was shot he wrote a piece dedicated to him called “Only Yesterday.” He will play the piece at the concert. The NEC big band will play “Up Jumps One,” which is Byard’s take-off one on Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” Audiences will also hear an arrangement of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” “St. Thomas,” “God Bless the Child,” “Satin Doll,” as well as Byard’s “Aluminum Baby,” “Two-Five-One,” “Apollo Theme” and “Spanish Tinge.”

“He wrote so much,” says Schaphorst. “I haven’t heard anything that I haven’t liked. There’s so much history. One thing that inspired me to do this is I got a hold of one chart and it was number 251. Typically in a big band book you number every chart from 1 to whatever. That suggests that there is a lot of music out there that we still need to find and I hope we can.”

The concert will be held at Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St. It is free and open to the public. For more information call 617-585-1122 or visit

Here’s a clip of Jaki with Earl Hines.

Click here for information on Anything for Jazz, a Rhapsody Films documentary.

Here’s a fan’s tribute.

A discography site.

J07: Connie’s requiem for Lennie

On Sunday, April 15, from 2 to 6 p.m. the music division of WPI will present the Lennie Tristano Symposium, a celebration of the life and music of one the most enigmatic figures in jazz. The symposium was inspired by the publication of the new biography Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music written by WPI professor Eunmi Shim.

In addition to Prof. Shim, the event features such esteemed panelists as pianist Connie Crothers, noted jazz critic Ira Gitler, saxophonist Jimmy Halperin, pianist Sal Mosca and Lennie’s son, guitarist Bud Tristano. The symposium’s moderator will be Monica Hatch, host of “Jazz Matinee,” WICN 90.5 FM. Interviews will be conducted by Tom Reney, host of “Jazz a la Mode,” WFCR 88.5 FM, Amherst. The program will be held at Alden Hall, 100 Institute Road. It is free and open to the public. Contact: Rich Falco, Director of Jazz Studies at 508-831-5794.

Born in Palo Alto in 1941, Crothers was studying at the University of California Berkley when she first encountered the music of Lennie Tristano. Six months later she moved to New York to study with him. For a full biography on Crothers

Ms. Crothers spoke with me by phone from her Williamsburg studio in Brooklyn Tuesday, April 3, at 9:30 a.m. I was struck by her patience, her gentle voice and generous spirit in sharing information about Tristano and accounts of her own life in the music. Below is the complete interview.

I understand that you moved to New York specifically to study with Lennie Tristano. What precipitated this?

I had been a classical musician and a composer. I was studying theory and composition, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I thought that I might be able to find what I wanted in jazz, but I didn’t know anything about it. A very close friend of mine played me one track from an Atlantic blues sampler. The track was “Requiem.” When I heard that, I realized immediately, not just that I’d be able to open up my music in this way, but I knew instantly that I had an enormous affinity with his conception and that I would be able to find my own identity by studying with him. I didn’t know much about him. In fact, I didn’t know much about any jazz musicians, but just from the strength of hearing that one track alone, I made my plans to move to New York.

That’s a serious leap of faith. You must have been searching for something that resonated in your being to go that far.

It was immediate. Everything that I felt in that moment, while I was listening to the track proved out to be true. I had some responsibilities when I was in California. I had to make some adjustments in my life situation before I could leave. Then I did. It took me about six months.

At that time were you put on a waiting list? Did you have to introduce yourself?

Before I went, on the bulletin board at school, there was a notice by Lee Konitz. At that time, I didn’t even know that Lee was associated with Lennie. I went over to his place and studied with him for about four months. Lee called Lennie and recommended me. Beyond that, I must say, when I came out to Lennie’s house and met him for the very first time, the thing that impressed me instantly, when he opened the door to greet me, was his enormous warm. He was a tremendously warm person.

So you were looking for connections in the music other than just the notes on the page?

Well, its never about the notes on the page. When you are a creative musician ultimately its about the deep person. It’s not about the personality. I think Lennie would say it is about the person’s character. So yes it is very personal. It’s the person’s deepest feelings and the way they express them.

You knew you wanted to study jazz. You knew you were interested in improvisational music. Were you heading in a direction of opening up your music from a more personal place?

To tell you the truth, I had been composing since I was a kid. When I went to school to study and I thought that would be it. During that time, which was in the early ‘60s, the composing world was pretty much dominated by a theory approach rather than sound or feeling. It was more about the theory. I never could I identify with that. For me music has always been about expressing feeling and beauty. I didn’t encounter that when I was in school. I didn’t feel that it was the way I could express the music that would have meaning to me. Now, when I say this, I don’t mean to criticize them because I know that there are many great musicians among them. I am never out to criticize any artist for any reason, accept if they are insincere of course.

Talk to me about mentoring.

In those years jazz was not taught in school. There were no classes. It was more that I felt a connection with Lennie that was based on a deep conceptual affinity. I felt that right away. That proved out to be true. So it was even much deeper than a mentor. I felt like I had found actually a kindred soul.

So gigging in clubs was not a part of your early development?

When I came to New York, although I was an accomplished classical pianist, I was not an improviser. It took me a few years before I could express myself as an improviser in a way that would have made it possible for me to get on a bandstand. By then jazz had pretty much shut down. There was one club in the city, the Village Vanguard. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, once I went to see Thelonious Monk and there were six people. It just wasn’t happening.

Lennie Tristano live:

So you had to create your own venues?

Eventually Lennie did that. He started presenting me in little recitals in his home. We called them “scenes.” Then he presented me in a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall. That was my first gig.

In your first lessons did you have to learn tunes and play changes?

When I was a teenager, I listened to the radio and I picked up a lot of standard tunes. I used to sing them so I had already learned a lot of standard tunes mostly from Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat Cole. I had never studied chord changes. I’d have to say that chord changes was not Lennie’s approach. It’s not that he didn’t teach harmony. He taught very complex harmony, but his approach was not based on improvising melody from the chord changes.

His approach was to deeply internalize the melody of the tune and release your improvisation from that melody first. Then, when you are improvising, if you add an understanding of the harmony, then you will deepen your improvising. But if you start first with no melody from the chord changes you will always be limited by them.

Did you keep a through line of melody or could you fracture it?

Neither one. Lennie didn’t believe in a style. He didn’t have one approach. Actually, I think the premise of his teaching was “everybody’s different.” He was one to talk up either a fractured approach or long line. It depends on the way you hear.
Lennie always thought that teaching was very much like a conversation. He was wonderful at talking. He was also very good at drawing people out. Yes, there was a lot of conversation. However, I must say, when I came to New York I knew nothing and for me I just wanted to sop up as much as I could from somebody who I would knew as a great master.

Later on, I guess about six years into our association, I started coming up with a lot of things that I wanted to do. I came in once with a piece of paper covered on both sides with things that I wanted to do. It was a problem because I didn’t know how I could do them all in a week. So we went over it and gave me a few suggestions. Then he told me I had to work on my own. So that was it. I had six years of formalized instruction and from then on I was pretty much guiding my own work. We were associates though and a little after that he wanted me to be a teaching associate. So I had that association with him also.

Did you discuss the concept of swing?

He approached that in every way imaginable. He’s renowned for that. I don’t even know how to break that down in a way, but the main way I got to the concept of swing was to sing with records. That’s something that you can’t transmit. There are no words that are going to transmit it. Suppose I say to you, “Well you keep a pulsation and within that context, which is steady, you stretch the time. If you are a classical musician, you can’t understand that.

A lot of teachers try to teach swing in a different way. They want people to stagger the eighth notes based on a kind of underlying triplet rhythm. They call this “swinging the eighth note.” This is very detrimental. If people internalize that they will never really be able to swing because they get stuck on that particular way of expressing an eighth note.

If you listen to the great masters of improvisation that’s not what’s going on with their eighth note line. The reason why it sounds different from a straight eighth note line like a classical musician is because they are inflecting it all the time. There’s no concept of inflection in classical music. Inflection means every note has a different quality of sound. It’s not just the timing. It may be extremely subtle, but each not is its own individual and it has it’s own sound within the phrase. So of course it doesn’t sound like straight even eighth notes, but you really can’t transmit that to someone who has no concept of it. It’s almost like in the brain, there’s no receptive circuit to hear that information and to process it.

So the way that Lennie transmitted that particular concept was to get everybody into singing with records. You can’t sing with Billie Holiday, for example, and keep your notion of placing rhythmic subdivisions in one spot, in a meter, because she never does that. That’s the primary way that he transmitted the concept of swing.

Here is Billie Holiday singing “Fine and Mellow” —

Lennie told me that when he was coming up as a teacher in Chicago, although he was already quite an accomplished theoretician and he could teach many different thing to his students, and he had outstanding students. Lee Konitz was studying with him when he was 14 years old. He could not really transmit improvisation itself until he discovered singing with records. He felt that was his great breakthrough as a teacher.

Lee Konitz live:

If you sing with records you not only get the conception, you get the feeling. That was the thing that mattered most to Lennie. This is the thing that I heard him repeat over and over again all through the years. It came up constantly in his teaching – feeling. One of his favorite things was to ask you: “How did that feel?” He would want students to describe in any way they could how the music felt to them.

He had so many ways to teach somebody something. I got into all kinds of rhythmic conceptions. Starting with the quarter note. I never like the metronome and he never insisted on it. Once I grasped that it was about the pulsation, I did get way into it and I spent a lot of time listening to it.

I did a lot of work with Lennie on the bass line, which is all about the quarter note. For him the left hand bass line is not really a counterpoint, but he wanted to be inspired and influenced by the great bass players like Oscar Pettiford. They had a wonderful way of centering the quarter notes. There’s like a little burst of energy that comes out of the center of every quarter note. So I play a lot of left hand quarter notes. There’s one example of really getting into timing and rhythm. A lot of musicians now don’t even consider the quarter note.

This is a rare clip of Oscar Pettiford with Coleman Hawkins:

Lennie’s not the only one to feel this way. I’ve had this conversation with Max Roach. That’s his favorite subdivision. Max Roach will talk at length with you – if you are willing to sit and listen of course – about the quarter note. Louie Armstrong also. You can hear that very strongly. Max often referred to Louie quite a bit. Start with the quarter note.

Max Roach —

Lennie taught rhythm in many ways like for example: I learned many different counter rhythms. He is renowned for being an innovator in this area. I learned subdivisions. Not only do I have the quarter note, and the eighth note, and the sixth, but I’ve got the seventh, the ninth and tenth. Also how to make the timing more elastic. So for example, being able to imagine music that is not confined to the form. The form is the container but it shouldn’t be the straightjacket. That’s a larger concept of rhythm because form is really about rhythm. It’s like the pacing of the piece. If the form is expressed through measures that’s a time concept. So if you can imagine your phrases flowing through this container rather than being contained by it, to be flowing through it or on top of it, then you get a much more flexible and open time conception. You don’t resolve for example on one. You can but you have the option.

What will you present at the symposium?

I don’t know. My tendency is not to take the academic approach. I am an improviser and because I have chosen to spend my life in music that way, it’s had a profound effect on how I express other things in my life. I prefer not to plan. I’d rather be there and in the moment. It will spontaneously come to me. I’d like to be able to respond to where people are right in that moment, rather than decide up front what I’m going to present.

Aside from being a great teacher, Lennie was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. People don’t accord him this kind of credit, but I think they will because there’s so much documented and the musical evidence is unequivocal.

Clips of the week

Connie with Valentina:

Here is a comprehensive Website dedicated to Lennie:

To see my full article on the symposium, check out JAZZEd magazine at

J06: The jazz ambassadors

Every other year for the past 20 years students in the jazz ensembles at WPI have been traveling abroad sounding the world on America’s music. The troupes are led by jazz studies director Rich Falco, founder of the program who, in addition to teaching classes at the college, conducts the large stage band and small ensembles. The first sojourn across the pond was in 1988 and I was fortunate enough to be invited to go as a special guest, performing on both blues harp and chromatic harmonica. We toured France, Luxemborg and Belgium. The highlight for me was our performance at university in Caen. It was recorded by France’s version of National Public Radio and written up in the local newspaper. I had heard about how Europeans love jazz, but witnessing their admiration in the way of signing autographs for a half hour after the show was a “pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m-awake-experience.” If that wasn’t to beat all, we were then invited back to the mayor’s palace. He wanted to personally thank us for what our fathers had done in the liberation of France during WWII. One can only be humbled by this kind of experience. I carry it with me as one of my fondest memories to this day.

Since that time, Falco and the bands have globe trotted throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and elsewhere. This year, March 3-10, they traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic and Budapest, Hungary to perform in a cultural center, jazz club, concert venue and best of all in a boat floating down the Danube. “Midnight on the Danube. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Falco says.

The gig wasn’t on the itinerary. It was the inspired notion of the gentleman who booked them to play in a downtown jazz club in Budapest called Gödör Klub.

Falco picks up the story from here: “This was a hardcore jazz club. After our performance, the impresario, Lazlo Irinyi – of the whole country in fact — was just overwhelmed with the quality of the music. He wasn’t expecting that at all from a college ensemble – sight unseen. ‘His whole reputation was at stake,’ as he often said throughout the tour. He was so knocked out.

“Anyway, he had another foreign tour, a group of Japanese students from Kyoto. There were over 100 of these kids in an orchestra. These are all college age students. That particular group rented a boat to go down the Danube River at midnight following their last concert. When the impresario heard us perform in the jazz club, he had a brainstorm – maybe these Japanese students would enjoy hearing American jazz. That’s the second largest market for jazz outside the United States.

“Being orchestra players anyway, maybe they would like to see American musicians. So we surprised them. Right at midnight, the students got off their bus. We were already set up with our jazz ensemble and to the last kid who came on to the boat there was a smile from ear to ear as we played jazz when they walked onto the boat.”

Falco says that the group featured with the small jazz ensemble, who performed “primarily the more mainstream jazz from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Bobby Watson, Ron McClure, James Williams. We played some Real Book tunes as well.”

As many local fans know, Prof. Falco is also an acclaimed jazz guitarist. When he travels with his students he is their conductor and rarely plays. This time he did.

“Some of my students were so taken with the beauty of the city at night, that I asked if some of them wanted to take a little break and walk around the ship. They did. So I took over, played a little guitar and bass. The boat was glass. You just look out the window and see the whole city lit up at night. We had a fabulous time.”

When asked if he feels like American ambassador of jazz when he travels overseas, Falco says, “Absolutely. In fact, not so much this time but in almost all previous tours we are invited to either participate with local ensembles in a concert or go literally to a music school or conservatory, as was the case in other Eastern European countries, we had the opportunity to lecture and demonstrate jazz music.

“There’s a great deal of interest in how this actually developed and then how we actually execute it. So the questions are really pointed and the students tend to be really with it in these music schools. They have an interest in interacting with our students as well. So normally that includes a Q&A after my lecture, a performance, followed by a Q&A and then just a hang. They usually have a reception. Students just want to get together and mix.

When asked if there is anything that he says to his students in terms of trying to get them ready to be fellow jazz ambassadors, Falco says, “The first thing I tell them is: We are going there to make the best music we can. That’s the most important thing. Having fun, touring, all of that, of course it’s important, but secondary to our real mission, which is going there as American music ambassadors. That’s really important to me, especially because our portion of the program involves jazz, which is uniquely American music.

“With that in mind we want to present the music in the best possible light. We want to come off as professional as possible. I do have this attitude towards my students. They are always treated like young professionals. That’s just the attitude. Each person has the responsibility of producing the best music imaginable.

Asked if he is ready for the next trip, Falco says, “Yes. It will be in two years. There are a number of options. I’d very much like to bring the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts and/or the Paul Winter Missa Gaia to Puerto Rico. I think it would be really fun to get a number of college choirs together with the big band. Then the smaller ensemble to do the Earth Mass of Paul Winter.

“I would love to return to Italy. All the students thought that was a fabulous tour. One of the most unique tours was in Egypt. That was incredible. Probably for this reason: There was absolutely no orientation towards Western music, even in the city of Cairo, which is the capital city. You would think it to be more cosmopolitan but it is certainly not the case at all.

“The tour person who was with us, our guide, a fairly educated guy, spoke many languages. I remember after one performance, he said, ‘I really understand where jazz is coming from– it’s just the most amazing music. I understand it because you play a theme then you do variation on the theme and each person has a chance to express themselves. That’s kind of what we are doing in our music in Egypt. That other music — that European music, that’s some weird shit.’ That killed me.”

For more on WPI jazz see:

Pick clip of the week: Judy Alpert