Lennie Tristano, His Life in Music

By Eunmi Shim
University of Michigan Press

By Ken Waxman

Arguably the most undeservedly undervalued jazz figure, pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) made the first recordings of free jazz ensemble playing – in 1949 – pioneered an original current in modern jazz, and taught improvising to hundreds of students. Although criticism of Tristano revolves around his so-called “cold” styling, a good part of Tristano’s neglect can be attributed to the pianist himself, explains Eunmi Shim in this major study of his life and work.

An uncompromising aesthete, who disdained what he called “commercial jazz”, Tristano was never shy about expressing his opinions, while asserting his place in history. Blind at an early age, the Chicago-born musician learned to function in an environment unsympathetic to a sightless person. Yet when his move to New York didn’t facilitate acceptance, Tristano curtailed his nightclub gigs, recorded sporadically – including one of the first successful uses of multi-tracking – while concentrating on teaching. His influence is acknowledged by a few musicians, but he is also blamed for helping to create the lightweight Cool School of jazz.

His obstinacy worked against him. Although Tristano’s methods of improvisation were innovative, they were also inflexible. Master of polyphony, counterpoint and substitutions in his own improvising, he forbid students to play in any other tempo than 4/4. Studying with him could also take decades.

Tristano practically invented jazz pedagogy and his instruction included singing along to recorded improvisations, transcribing improvisations, endless practice of scales and, for drummer and pianists, perfecting playing with one limb. Against musical compromise, he actively discouraged his students from becoming professional and mocked those, like alto saxophonist Lee Konitz – his best-known student –who worked with other bands. With the pianist their “father confessor”, many followers ended up not only playing like him, but also speaking like him and living at his house.

Shim, who devotes a major section of her book to Tristano’s teaching, elucidates the benefits and drawbacks of his methodology. Succinctly most students insist that the odds of them becoming “little Lennies” was dependent on their age and susceptibility to his overpowering personality. Yet it’s worth noting, that with the exception of Konitz and the professionally passive tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh – both members of the pianist’s influential early combos – the longer and more intensely a musician studied with Tristano, the less likely he or she was to become a full-time musician.

More critically, Shim’s book – which includes 27 pages of musical analysis of Tristanto’s recordings, plus 43 pages of notated musical examples – is dedicated to rehabilitating the pianist’s reputation as a “cold” player, and to properly situate him in the jazz firmament.

Initially Tristano was interested in a jazz career, saying that when he supplemented his Chicago gigs with teaching, he initially learned how to teach “through [my] students”. Profoundly affected by the innovations of guitarist Charlie Christian, pianist Bud Powell and saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker, he was also influenced by modern classical music. In the late 1940s he said: “…the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines would be more complex”, and he attempted to do this himself.

Considering all of his compositions were contrafacts, his sextet’s 1949 recording of “Intuition” and “Digression” was an auspicious breakthrough With the structural principle based on contrapuntal interaction among the players in the absence of a prescribed harmonic framework, the session is ground zero for free improvisation.

While praised for sheer audacity, reception to the tracks – and his combo’s few gigs – negatively concentrated on the coldness of his playing. Other musicians countered that his work was too advanced for the average listener. Since Tristano considered improvisation so much the essence of jazz that he often avoided melody statements, his few performances didn’t alter this perception. Additionally, the pianist was already known for his “moralistic” outspokenness. Shim speculates that “this factor of his personality, in combination with the close circle of students evoking suspicion of cultism, played a significant role in the [negative] reception of Tristano’s music.”

Undervalued therefore were his later experiments with multi-track recordings. Someone who was vocal in his dislike of incompatible rhythm sections, he released some tunes with pre-recorded bass and drum tracks, and other, more controversial, solo pieces where he overlaid up to four different piano lines, each in different meters. He called this “simultaneous combinations of time” and also altered the tape speed in some sections.

Although the multi-tracking influenced pianist Bill Evans, and some critics linked his free playing to later advances of pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, contemporaries refused to acknowledge his breakthroughs. Yet such was his musical skill that although Tristanto refused to answer technical questions about his work, in his final recording he acoustically created a multiplicity of lines from both hands, not just the superior right one. “Tristano … created an independent line in his left hand, exhibiting a further evolution in his pursuit of counterpoint”, Shim writes.

Still, until his death, Tristano turned down most engagements. “I would much rather stay home … teach, and make records”, he said. Presenting his students in concert in New York, he was very likely to turn up on stage in his bathrobe.

Tristano also refused to recognize any sociological association with music, putting him at odd with the 1960s Free Jazz movement linked to emerging Black consciousness. Praise for some of those players coupled with lack of recognition for his free music breakthrough may have contributed to his bitterness. However he was similarly negative towards most jazz musicians who worked regularly.

Tristanto’s status in jazz history is complicated because he was a self-directed individual in a music already populated by individualists. No imitator and with an allegiance to no movement, his so-called avant-garde sound was eventually accepted by others – and influenced the music of some who don’t even know it.

As Shim writes: “He maintained a remarkable level of musical integrity throughout his life; he was not afraid to express himself even at the risk of expulsion from the ranks of jazz musicians….Tristanto tested boundaries of jazz and transcended them.”

In MusicWorks Issue #99