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 see:www.newartistsrecords.com.

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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZWumSW3O7A

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” — youtube.com/watch?v=IUtPODn7cCc

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: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBcHP1R2SUU

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: youtube.com/watch?v=x0m3QWnxOKA

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 — www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tmxIXehwV4

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: www.sonnysinstantpiano.com/gal_students_detail_18.php?EditID=71

Here is a comprehensive Website dedicated to Lennie: www.lennietristano.com/cgi-bin/links.cgi

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

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