Leon (Lee) Konitz (October 13, 1927 – April 15, 2020) was an American jazz composer and alto saxophonist.
He performed in a wide range of jazz styles, including bebop, cool jazz, and avant-garde jazz. Lee Konitz’s association with the cool jazz movement of the 1940s and 1950s included him playing in the legendary Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” sessions, and working with pianist Lennie Tristano. He was one of only a few alto saxophonists of his era to retain a distinctive style, when Charlie Parker exerted a massive influence on most others. Like other students of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz improvised long, melodic lines with the rhythm coming from odd accents, or odd note groupings suggestive of the imposition of one time signature over another. Other saxophonists including Paul Desmond and Art Pepper were strongly influenced by Lee Konitz.
Leon Konitz was born in Chicago on October 13, 1927, to Jewish parents of Austrian and Russian descent. At the age of eleven, Leon Konitz got his first clarinet but later dropped it in favor of the tenor saxophone, and eventually moved from tenor to alto saxophone. His greatest influences at that time were the swing big bands he listened to on the radio with his brother, in fact hearing Benny Goodman on the radio was what made him ask for a clarinet.
Lee Konitz began his professional career in 1945 with the Teddy Powell band as a replacement for Charlie Ventura. A month later, the band broke up and between 1945 and 1947, he worked intermittently with Jerry Wald. In 1946, he met pianist Lennie Tristano, and the two men worked together in a small cocktail bar. His next big job was with Claude Thornhill in 1947 with Gil Evans arranging and Gerry Mulligan as a composer.
Lee Konitz played with Miles Davis in a group that had a brief booking in September 1948 and another the following year, and he recorded with Miles in 1949 and 1950 on tracks that were collected on the “Birth of the Cool” album. The presence of Leon Konitz and other white musicians in the group angered some black jazz players, because many of them were unemployed at the time, but Miles Davis ignored their criticisms.
Lee Konitz’s debut as leader also came in 1949 with tracks collected on the album “Subconscious-Lee”. He turned down an opportunity to work with Benny Goodman in 1949, a decision he soon regretted. Charlie Parker lent him support on the day Leon Konitz’s child was born in Seattle, Washington, while he was stuck in New York City. The two great saxophonists were good friends and not the bitter rivals some jazz critics made them out to be.
In the early 1950s, Konitz recorded and toured with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, but he also continued to record as a leader. In 1961, he recorded “Motion” with Elvin Jones on drums and Sonny Dallas on bass on a spontaneous session which consisted entirely of standards. The loose trio format aptly featured Konitz’s unorthodox phrasing and chromaticism.
In 1967, Lee Konitz recorded “The Lee Konitz Duets” in configurations that were often unusual for the period (including saxophone and trombone, and two saxophones). The recordings drew on nearly the entire history of jazz from Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” with valve trombonist Marshall Brown to two free form improvisation duos, one with a Duke Ellington associate, violinist Ray Nance, and one with guitarist Jim Hall.
In 1981 Konitz performed at the Woodstock Jazz Festival, which was held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Creative Music Studio.
Lee Konitz worked with other legendary musicians including Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Mingus, Attila Zoller, Gerry Mulligan, and Elvin Jones. He also recorded trio dates with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden, released by Blue Note, as well as a live album, with drummer Paul Motian, recorded in 2009 at Birdland and released in 2011. Konitz became more experimental as he grew older and released a number of free jazz and avant-garde jazz albums, performing with many younger musicians.
In August 2012, Lee Konitz played to sell-out crowds at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village as part of Enfants Terribles, a collaboration with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron. Days after his 87th birthday in 2014, he played three nights at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, California, with the Jeff Denson Trio, improvising on the old standards he favored.
Leon (Lee) Konitz had heart problems requiring surgery in the past, and died at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City on April 15, 2020, aged 92, as a result of pneumonia brought on by COVID-19 (coronavirus).
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