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: www.jimmyhalperin.com.

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: http://www.budtristano.com/mypage.html

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: http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=17728

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGLpczTtnEM
Site of the week:http://www.lennietristano.com/

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