Lessons with Lee Konitz
(For a terrific guide to Lee Konitz’s amazing career,
see Owen McNally’s piece for WNPR)
In Newark we had a piano in our apartment. It was previously-owned, a creamy white old-fashioned color. We got it into our heads to spray paint the entire baby grand piano a gaudy gold speckle finish that would have given Billy Bob Thornton a panic attack (he avoids antiques and anything ornate). The piano renovation was fatiguing, and we did a lousy job. For a few years of my young life 11-14? 10-13? “Mr. Levy” came to the apartment to give me lessons. He was a small man, and all I can remember are these few things:
His fingernails were a bit long and clacked on the keys and skeeved me out.
He made a joke about the movie “La Dolce Vita” that I understood, and this made him comment on my youthful sophistication, which skeeved me out.
He implied that if I really applied myself, I could be a good pianist. This was around the time I was practicing Mozart’s Sonata in C, Beethoven Sonata in G Major, and, at my request, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte by Ravel.
Lessons faded, we moved from Newark, and I went on to the lure of chord progressions and picking styles on the acoustic guitar, taught to me by 18 year old long-haired boys who thought both Mississippi John Hurt and Brian Wilson were geniuses. Such abilities were useful seduction tools (for them and me!)
A gold-speckled piano in Newark
I was always glad that I had learned to read music. Years followed where I insisted on a piano wherever I lived. NYC apartments on the Upper West Side, a cabin in the woods in Westport, CT – first a rented instrument, and then in 1971, my very own Yamaha console (in between a spinet and an upright, a pretty solid-sounding piano that I still own). I’ve got the original paperwork for the piano and the felt cover for the keys. I play “for myself.” That is, I pull out Joni Mitchell songbooks and have memorized “He Played Real Good for Free,” “Willie,” and “Judgment of the Moon and Stars,” the latter a reliable cathartic wail about Beethoven. This is one that works best if you sing it while you play . “You gotta curse your fists at lightning now/You gotta roar like forest fire…You gotta spread your light like blazes all across the sky….They’re gonna aim the hoses on you! Show ‘em you won’t expire…!” And so on.
Because of extended family members ensconced in studying the ‘cool jazz’ of Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz, I was hearing that music as a background to many meals and arguments and laughter….I met Lennie, chatted with Warne and his wife and young boys, and during the early 1970s, while living in Manhattan, heard that Lee Konitz was also on the Upper West Side and taking students. I guess he “took me on,” because I tromped weekly to his apartment, where he taught me on a piano made from a refurbished organ. The insides were exposed like an unfinished invention, but he liked the tone. I never loved jazz, but I was so impressed with his saxophone playing….the cool melodic runs, the distinctive tone, that I was drawn to his mentorship.
The Gift of a Borrowed Selmer
We started with exercises. Playing scales while the metronome ticked on. Arpeggios, backwards scales. Diatonic, pentatonic; I have whole notebooks of his writing – chords, notes…I see that I arduously wrote out chords on music pages, labeling notes, and assignments involving lots of practicing. I had never studied music in any formal way. I worked hard for Lee. When I didn’t have a piano, I went up to Columbia University to the practice rooms. They didn’t mind.You could go in with your metronome and your cassette machine. Then I'd return to my part-time job typing sermons at The Riverside Church.
Lee Konitz wrote out Sax notes for me. Note "Breathe thru nose"
Lee always wore a vest. He was wry, laid-back, funny, somewhat inscrutable. My memory of the apartment includes a female presence who might have been petite and Asian…or tall and bejeweled…but someone hovered. He told me to sing along with records (pre-CDs!). I chose “Autumn In New York,” an instrumental Charlie Parker version. With no lyrics, I was to boldly scat sing, a lot of doo-be-dos and dwee-bops.Lee gave me permission to just sing. There was no use in being inhibited. I sung along to Billie Holiday’s “Lover Man,” and sent my family into hysterics with my party trick – I could sing it as if Billie was speeded up, like how a 45 rpm record would be. I wasn’t a particularly gifted singer, but I had her inflections down cold at any speed.
Lee would have me improvise on standards like “Stella by Starlight,” and “All The Things You Are” – I was adequate, but my vamping had a Yiddish sound.
An ex-boyfriend’s brother had a Selmer alto sax that he wasn’t using. He lent it to me around the time of the Konitz lessons. It seemed logical that I start having Lee Konitz teach me that instrument (what did I know), and so I had it cleaned up. Lee lent me a metal mouthpiece and I learned how to properly wet the reeds. We stood side by side, saxophone to saxophone, in his living room.
“Play a 'G'” – Lee said. “Get that down. Really, really master that G until you’re satisfied with the sound. It’s the easiest note to blow.”
“Now make that same sound on an 'A,' and all the other notes. Match it. Everything will flow from there.”
This Zen Koan served me well; it made sense to me. Make a success evoke another success. Build the ladder. Years later, while learning to rifle shoot, I was told when I made a good shot, “to make that same picture” with my eye and the target. And many years later, during my foray into learning how to box, my coach said “Jab in the middle of the punch mitt. Do it again. Again. Again! Smack! Get that same sound!”
Pianos, saxophones, rifles, boxing… Get the “G” note down and work outward.
One day Lee Konitz said “I hope you keep playing. I hope you’re not just some suburban lady who gives it up.”
Yeah, I gave it up. The saxophone took too much breath, and my borrowed instrument had to be returned. “Maybe what I need is a soprano sax….” I mused, and then life circumstances pushed music, jazz, and NYC into the background. Music stayed in my life, though. I’ve hosted a weekly music and interview show at WPKN for quite a number of years. And there's always that Yamaha console...
When I read that Lee Konitz (now 87 years old), was to play at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on Dec. 12, 2014, I didn’t hesitate to get the tickets. The room was filled.
He appeared, as always, in his signature vest.
Most of the time he played seated.
When he did rise, I felt like cheering.
“Good to be here,” he said.
“Good to be anywhere,” and the crowd laughed, as he put them at ease.
Sometimes, when he wasn't playing the horn, he made soft crooning noises, do-be-doo...doh-doh-doh! Like a hipster pigeon...
I went up to Lee afterwards and reminded him he had taught me in the 1970s and mentioned the refurbished organ. I didn’t mention the saxophone per se, but he asked whether I learned anything from him.
“You told me to play a ‘G,’ and that everything would follow from that,” I said, amazed by how easily my words came. People around us were taking pictures and crowding around for his autograph.
“And did it?” asked Lee Konitz.
“No,” I said.
The crowd roared.