Lennie Tristano and Charlie Parker
Among Charlie Parker's many admirers, Lennie Tristano was especially respectful of Bird's character and astute in his assessments of the saxophonist's music. The blind pianist recognized Parker as the single most important innovator of modern jazz, and rejected the commonly held view that bebop was formulated in a workshop-like atmosphere at Minton’s and Monroe’s and other after-hours venues. Eunmi Shim’s 2007 biography, Lennie Tristano: His Life and Music, quotes a 1973 interview in which Tristano told Irv Schenkler, “It all came from Bird, who was influenced by Pres, musically speaking.”
For Tristano, stylistic development in jazz was centered on a lineage that went from Louis Armstrong to Roy Eldridge to Lester Young to Parker. “That took time,” he said, “because during the middle and late Thirties everybody thought Pres was kind of cute, ‘cause everybody was on [Hawkins], who was a good saxophone player but he was no Pres. But it was in the Forties that people began to realize that Pres was a great genius. But I think Bird knew it [already].”
Tristano famously instructed student-disciples like Billy Bauer, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh to avoid copying Parker and hew to what he saw as jazz’s first principle of artistic integrity, originality. “The jazz musician’s function is to feel,” he said in a 1962 interview. “Unfortunately, Bird put notes in people’s mouths…How intense can you be with someone else’s words?”
Charles Mingus was of a similar bent as Tristano in insisting that his sidemen play themselves, not Bird. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who as a teenager came to know and idolize Parker. and then grappled with the challenge of moving beyond his influence and finding his own means of expression, worked with Mingus in the mid-Fifties and credited the bassist with giving him his “exploration papers.”
And while Mingus and Tristano pursued different stylistic aims, they found common cause and pithy ways of expressing their frustration with the legions of Parker imitators who dominated jazz in the Forties and Fifties. Mingus did so with a composition entitled, “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.” Tristano said as much in a 1951 Downbeat Blindfold Test: “You can…pick at random any five records by well-known boppers, and compare the ideas and phrases. You’ll see that if Charlie Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws he could sue almost everybody who’s made a record in the last ten years.”
Tristano prided himself on earning Bird’s respect for his originality and lack of imitation. In a 1953 article for Downbeat, Nat Hentoff quotes Parker saying, “As for Lennie Tristano, I’d like to go on record saying I endorse his work in every particular. They say he’s cold. They’re wrong. He has a big heart and it’s in his music…He can play anywhere with anybody. He’s a tremendous musician. I call him the great acclimatizor.” Bird also discussed Tristano in a Boston radio interview that year.
Tristano and Parker appeared on three recording dates between 1947 and ’49. The 1947 Metronome All-Stars sessions were sponsored by the Treasury Department for its “Bands for Bonds” series, and featured Bird and Lennie, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Allen Eager, John LaPorta, Billy Bauer, Tommy Potter, Max Roach, and Buddy Rich. The third session employed a 13-piece band whose trumpet section included Navarro, Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Only two titles were recorded in ’49, Pete Rugolo's "Overtime" and Lennie's “Victory Ball,” and as Ira Gitler wrote in Jazz Masters of the 40’s, “Parker plays the devil out of Tristano’s line, and both men’s solos show that despite the differences in their music, their styles were compatible.” Click here for "Victory Ball." And here for "Overtime."
Tristano recalled the session for Bob Reisner’s book, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. "Before we were to go on together to do a couple of Mutual Network shows, I was sitting at the piano, playing something. He started playing with me, and he played his ass off. He wasn't used to the chords I played...In a lot of ways they were different. I don't remember the tune, but whatever I did, he was right on top of the chords, like we had rehearsed. He has always been limited by the people he played with...Harmonically, the rest of the band [was] not with him." In the midst of this recollection, Tristano exclaimed, "If [only] he had made records without a piano!"
Carl Woideck notes in his biography of Parker, that in Tristano and Thelonious Monk, he had occasion to play with pianists “whose harmonic conceptions might have spontaneously led him in new harmonic directions,” but Woideck doesn’t find Bird “markedly responding to [their] pungent voicings and reharmonizations.” Nonetheless, “Victory Ball,” which is based on “’S Wonderful,” not only inspired Bird to “play the devil” out of it, but the head is pure Lennie, and as played in unison by Parker, Tristano, and guitarist Billy Bauer, it’s one of few performances in Parker’s career in which the concept belongs as much to a colleague as to Bird himself.
Scores of musicians made the trek to Tristano’s home in Hollis, Queens, over the years to study with him and attend the music school he established in 1951, among them Bud Freeman, Bob Wilber, Phil Woods, and Dave Liebman. The teen-aged Woods used to take the bus from Springfield for Saturday afternoon lessons with Tristano, and on one of these sojourns met Bird for the first time and shared a slice of cherry pie with him. Parker and Kenny Clarke visited Lennie in '51, and with “Klook” deploying brushes on a telephone book, they recorded these private takes of “All of Me” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me.”
Tristano confined his remarks on Bird almost exclusively to his music and avoided discussion of the great saxophonist’s chaotic personal life; to him, Parker was ever courteous and compassionate. He told Schenkler, “Bird was a musical genius. Whether he had been born in China or Czechoslovakia or Russia or the United States, whether he had been white, black, whatever color, he would have been a great musical genius.” To Reisner, he said, “The kind of music he invented, on the spot in solos, could have been transformed into preludes, fugues, symphonies, and concertos…His music is so structurally perfect that you cannot change a note in it to make it better.”
Tristano rarely played in the blues idiom, but he did so when Dizzy Gillespie called him with the news that Parker had died in March 1955. “[That night] I did something that I rarely did, which was just to sit down and play the blues.” He titled his moving memorial to Parker “Requiem." Barry Ulanov, who began writing about Lennie as soon as the Chicago-born pianist settled in New York in 1947, said the elegy was the expression of “a man thinking grief, feeling deprived, thinking and feeling in the logical medium for grief and deprivation in jazz: the blues.”
Tristano was fond of recalling the first time he met Parker in 1947. He told Reisner, “My group was opposite his at the Three Deuces. He sat through my entire first set listening intently. When it was over, the two fellows I was playing with left the stand, leaving me alone. They knew I could get around all right, but Bird didn’t know that; he thought I was hung up for the moment. He rushed up to the stand, told me how much he liked my playing, and subtly escorted me off the bandstand.”
In recalling the event for Schenkler twenty-five years later, Lennie added, “He’s telling me how much he enjoyed my music, but he’s making sure I’m not gonna break my neck, either. And he was so hip in doing it…completely beautiful. ”
Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation produced a documentary on Tristano in 1983 that you'll find linked on this NEPR page. It features fresh interviews with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Connie Crothers, and Sheila Jordan, the great singer who was married to Duke Jordan, the pianist with Bird's classic quintet. Sheila Jordan studied with Lennie and was a friend of Parker's, and had this to say about what she perceived of their mutual admiration. “Bird loved Lennie, I know that for a fact. Because Bird used to hang out at my loft a lot, and I know that he loved Lennie. What’s not to love about Lennie? He was an original. He was his own thing, and he was one of the musical heavies.”