Lennie Tristano

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Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano 1947 (Gottlieb).jpg
Tristano, c. August 1947
Background information
Birth nameLeonard Joseph Tristano
Born(1919-03-19)March 19, 1919
Chicago, Illinois, US
DiedNovember 18, 1978(1978-11-18) (aged 59)
New York City, New York, US
GenresCool jazz, bebop, post bop, avant-garde jazz
OccupationsMusician, composer, arranger, music teacher
Years active1940s–1969
Associated actsLee Konitz
Warne Marsh
Billy Bauer
Peter Ind
Arnold Fishkin
Art Taylor
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Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano 1947 (Gottlieb).jpg
Tristano, c. August 1947
Background information
Birth nameLeonard Joseph Tristano
Born(1919-03-19)March 19, 1919
Chicago, Illinois, US
DiedNovember 18, 1978(1978-11-18) (aged 59)
New York City, New York, US
GenresCool jazz, bebop, post bop, avant-garde jazz
OccupationsMusician, composer, arranger, music teacher
Years active1940s–1969
Associated actsLee Konitz
Warne Marsh
Billy Bauer
Peter Ind
Arnold Fishkin
Art Taylor

Leonard Joseph Tristano (March 19, 1919 – November 18, 1978) was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger and teacher of jazz improvisation. He performed in the cool jazz, bebop, post bop and avant-garde jazz genres. Historically important are the first recorded free group improvisations ("Intuition"), his preoccupation with atonality and Bach's counterpoint, as well as his early experimentations with recording techniques such as overdubbing (his own playing). In addition, his work as a jazz educator meant that he has exerted a substantial influence on jazz through figures such as Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.

Early life[edit]

Tristano was born in Chicago on March 19, 1919.[1] His mother, Rose Tristano (née Malano), was also born in Chicago.[2] His father, Michael Joseph Tristano, was born in Italy and moved to the United States as a child.[2] Lennie was the second of four brothers.[2]

Lennie started playing the family player piano at the age of two or three.[2] He had classical piano lessons when he was eight, but found that they hindered, rather than helped, his development.[2] He was born with weak eyesight, possibly as a consequence of his mother being affected by the 1918–19 flu pandemic during pregnancy.[3] A bout of measles when aged six may have exacerbated his condition,[4] and by the age of nine or ten he was totally blind as a result of glaucoma.[3] He initially went to standard state schools, but attended the Illinois School for the Blind in Jacksonville for a decade from around 1928.[4] During his school days he played several instruments.[3] At the age of eleven he had his first gigs, playing clarinet in a brothel.[3]

He studied for a bachelor's degree in music in performance at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago from 1938 until 1941, and stayed for another two years for further studies,[5] although he left before completing his master's degree.[6] One of his aunts assisted Tristano by taking notes for him.[6]

Later life and career[edit]


In the early 1940s Tristano played tenor saxophone and piano for a variety of engagements, including in a rumba band.[7] He gave private lessons from around the same time, including to saxophonist Lee Konitz.[7] From 1943 Tristano also taught at the Axel Christensen School of Popular Music.[7] He received press coverage for his piano playing from early 1944, appearing in Metronome's summary of music from Chicago from that year, and in Down Beat from 1945.[8] He recorded with some musicians from Woody Herman's band in 1945; Tristano's playing "is characterized by his extended harmonies, fast single-line runs, and block chords."[9] He also recorded solo piano pieces in the same year.[9]

Tristano's interest in jazz inspired a move to New York City in 1946.[10] As a preliminary step to moving there, he stayed in Freeport, Long Island,[11] where he played in a restaurant with Arnold Fishkin (bass) and Billy Bauer (guitar).[12] Tristano was Metronome's musician of the year in 1947.[13] This trio, with an assortment of bassists replacing Fishkin, was recorded in 1946–47.[14] Reviewers at the time commented on "the novel nature of the trio in the contrapuntal interaction between piano and guitar and the innovative harmonic approach reminiscent of the early twentieth-century composers".[15]

Bill Harris, Denzil Best, Flip Phillips, Billy Bauer, Lennie Tristano, Chubby Jackson, Pied Piper, New York City, c. September 1947

Tristano first met saxophonist Charlie Parker in 1947.[16] They played together later that year for radio broadcasts.[17] The pianist reported that Parker enjoyed his playing, in part because it was different from what Parker was accustomed to and did not copy the saxophonist's style.[18] In 1948 Tristano played less often in clubs, and added Konitz and a drummer to his regular band, making it into a quintet.[19] This band recorded the first sides for the New Jazz label, which later became Prestige Records.[20] Later that year Warne Marsh, another saxophonist student of Tristano's, was added to the group.[21]

This band, without the drummer, had two recording sessions in 1949 that proved to be significant.[14][22] They recorded original compositions based on familiar harmonies; reviewers commented on the linearity of the playing and that it was a departure from bebop.[23] The same musicians also recorded the first free improvisations by a group – "Intuition" and "Digression".[24] The sequence in which the musicians would join in the ensemble playing, and the approximate timing of those entrances, were planned,[24] but nothing else – harmony, key, time signature, tempo, melody or rhythm – was prepared or set.[24][25] Instead, the five musicians were held together by "contrapuntal interaction".[24] Both sides were praised by critics, although their release was delayed – "Intuition" was released late in 1950, and "Digression" not until 1954.[26] Parker and composer Aaron Copland were also impressed.[27] Numerous other musicians of the time, however, thought Tristano's music too progressive and emotionally cold, and predicted that it would not be popular with the public.[28]

The sextet struggled to find enough work, but did play at Birdland's opening night "A Journey Through Jazz", a subsequent five-week engagement at that club, and at various other venues in the north-east of the US late in 1949.[29] They performed free pieces in these concerts, as well as Bach fugues,[30] but found it difficult over time to continue to play with the freedom that they initially felt.[31]


The sextet's personnel sometimes changed, but it continued performing into 1951.[32] In the early 1950s Tristano gave lessons at his home in Flushing, Long Island. From 1951, he used a Manhattan loft property[33] that he had converted into a recording studio.[34] This also served as the location for frequent jam sessions with various invited musicians.[35] The location became the title of one of his compositions – "317 East 32nd Street".[36] At around the same time, he started a record label, named Jazz Records.[37] It released "Ju-ju" and "Pastime" on a 45 record in 1952 before Tristano abandoned the project because of time demands and distribution problems.[38] The two tracks were from a trio session with bassist Peter Ind and drummer Roy Haynes.[39][40] The pianist later overdubbed a second piano onto the trio recording.[39] Ind described them as "the very first overdubbed and improvised jazz recordings".[41] Early reviewers largely failed to realize that overdubbing had been used.[42] The recording studio remained in use, and was the scene of early sessions for Debut Records, co-founded by musicians Charles Mingus and Max Roach.[43]

In 1952 Tristano's band performed occasionally, including as a quintet in Canada.[44] In the summer of that year, Konitz joined Stan Kenton's band, breaking up the core of Tristano's long-standing quintet/sextet, although the saxophonist did on occasion play with Tristano again.[45]

Tristano's 1953 recording "Descent into the Maelstrom" was another innovation.[46] It was a musical portrayal of Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same title, and was an improvised solo piano piece that used multitracking and had no preconceived harmonic structure, being based instead on the development of motifs.[46] Its atonality anticipated the much later work of pianists such as Cecil Taylor[47] and Borah Bergman (who specifically mentioned the piece as an important influence on his work).

In 1954 Tristano's sextet played at the first Newport Jazz Festival.[48] This may have been his only jazz festival appearance – he considered them to be too commercial.[49] Marsh left Tristano's band in the summer of 1955.[50]

Tristano recorded his first album for Atlantic Records in 1955; he was allowed control over the recording process and what to release.[49] The eponymous album included solo and trio tracks that contained further experiments with multitracking ("Requiem" and "Turkish Mambo")[14] and altered tape-speed ("Line Up" and "East 32nd").[51] "Requiem", a tribute to Parker, who had died a short time earlier, has a deep blues feeling[52] – a style not usually associated with Tristano. For "Line Up" and "East 32nd", Tristano's "use of chromatic harmony [...] secures him a position of a pioneer in expanding the harmonic vocabulary of jazz improvisation", in biographer Eunmi Shim's words.[53] Stylistically, the solo and trio tracks are highly linear, "as he focused on the single line as well as counterpoint of multiple independent lines", and use "polyrhythm further in the direction of rhythmic counterpoint".[54] The use of overdubbing and tape manipulation was controversial with some critics and musicians at the time.[55] The second side of the album is a straightforward club gig in the company of Lee Konitz.

In 1956 Tristano had to leave his Manhattan studio;[14] he established a new one in Hollis, Queens.[56] Some of his core students moved to California after Tristano's base was relocated.[57] This, coupled with a separation from his wife in the same year, meant that he was physically more isolated from the New York music scene.[57] He gave fewer concerts than earlier, but from 1958 had sometimes lengthy engagements at New York's Half Note Club, after the owners persuaded him to perform, in part by replacing their club's Steinway piano with a new Bechstein of Tristano's choosing.[58]

By 1959 his main concern was teaching, although he still toured and played in New York clubs with a variety of bands in that year;[59] he also played in Canada again with his quintet.[60]

1960s and 1970s[edit]

Tristano's second album for Atlantic was recorded in 1961.[61] The New Tristano consisted entirely of piano solos and no overdubbing or tape-speed manipulation was employed.[61] The tracks contain a left-hand bass line that provide structure to each performance as well as counterpoint for the right-hand playing;[61] block chords, unclear harmonies and contrasting rhythms also appear.[62] Other solo piano recordings that Tristano made in 1961 were not released until the 1970s.[63]

In 1964 the pianist reformed his quintet with Konitz and Marsh for a two-month engagement at the Half Note and more performances in Canada.[64] The quartet, missing Konitz, played in Toronto again in the following year.[65]

Tristano's distrust of jazz record labels[66] and increasingly infrequent public performances meant that his recordings are comparatively scarce, and many of them are concert recordings of very variable fidelity. Some of his concert performances were recorded and have been released. He played on occasion at the Half Note Club until the mid-1960s,[14] and toured Europe in 1965.[14] His European tour was mainly as a solo pianist,[67] and was in the style of his The New Tristano recordings.[68] He played with Ind and others in concerts in the UK in 1968; they were well received, and Tristano returned the following year.[68] His last public performance in the US was in 1968.[13] Tristano declined offers to perform in the 1970s; he explained that he didn't like to travel, and that "if you want to do concerts, you must make a career. You see, a career means you spend most of your time doing concerts. I don't want to do that."[69]

The album Decscent into the Maelstrom was released in the 1970s; it consisted of recordings made between 1951 and 1966.[70] Tristano continued teaching, and helped to organize concerts for some of his students.[71]

Tristano had a series of illnesses in the 1970s, including eye pain and emphysema (he smoked for most of his life).[72] He died of a heart attack at home[73] in Jamaica, New York, on November 18, 1978.[14]

In 2013 Tristano was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for the 1949 album Crosscurrents.[74]


By the mid-1950s, Tristano focused his energies more on music education. He is regarded as one of the first to teach jazz, particularly improvisation, in a structured way,[75][14] beginning in the early 1940s and continuing until the end of his life.[76] He taught musicians irrespective of their instrument.[66] Tristano approached each student individually and hence lessons were structured to meet the needs of each individual;[77] students were challenged in ways that would allow them to find and express their own musical feelings, or style.[78]Having a concept of (principally diatonic[79]) scales as music and a basis for harmony were foundational elements.[80]

Tristano encouraged his students to learn the melodies of standards by singing them, then playing them, before working on playing them in all keys.[81] He also often had his students learn to sing and play the improvised solos[82] by some of best-known names in jazz, including Parker and Lester Young.[14] Some students first sang solos from a recording slowed to half the normal speed; eventually they learned to sing and play them at normal speed.[83] Tristano stressed that the student was not learning to imitate the artist,[84] but rather should use the experience to gain insight into the musical feeling conveyed by the artist.[14] Such activities stressed the idea of feeling being fundamental to musical expression, and the value of ear training.[14] All of this preceded having the opportunity to improvise during lessons.[85]

One of the teaching tools often used by Tristano was the metronome.[86] The student set the metronome at or near its slowest setting initially, and gradually increased its speed, allowing a sense of time to develop, along with confidence in placing each note.[86] Developing a strong awareness of the beat was a key element of his teaching philosophy.

His lessons were typically 15–20 minutes in length.[87] He did not teach the reading of music, the characteristics of different styles of jazz, and did not publish any teaching materials.[88] For pianists, the chords that they were asked to play covered large intervals, which had the effect over time of extending their reach.[89] Tristano himself "had seemingly small but extremely flexible hands, which could expand to a phenomenal degree."[89]

Influences and playing style[edit]

Tristano's advanced grasp of harmony pushed his music beyond even the complexities of the contemporary bebop movement.[90] Parker and Lester Young were important influences on his own development.[91] Other key ingredients in his style were Nat King Cole and Art Tatum, influences most audible in his early drummerless trio recordings. Early in his career, he practiced solo Tatum pieces;[92] he gradually moved away from this influence in search of his own style.[93] Bud Powell also affected Tristano's playing and teaching, as he admired the younger pianist's articulation and expression.[94]

Tristano and his followers remained at something of a slant to mainstream bebop. On occasion he played and recorded with bebop's preeminent figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Parker,[13] and he was a pallbearer at Parker's funeral.[95] The playing of Tristano and those taught by him has often been contrasted with bebop, by being labelled "cool jazz",[96] though this is a vague categorization that fails to capture the range of his playing.[66]

From his early recordings, Tristano sought to develop the use of harmonies that were unusual at that period.[97] By the late 1940s he was experimenting with different rhythmic patterns.[97] For example, he would use "a seven eighth-note phrase, repeated a number of times, so that it would spill over the bar lines, without him losing his place in the harmonic flow of the piece"; bassists and drummers often struggled to support this playing, as they tended to stiffen their timing so as not to lose their place.[97] His main interest remained improvisation and the expression of feeling through it, rather than with personal style itself.[98]

Biographer Eunmi Shim summarized the changes in Tristano's playing during his career:

The trio recordings of 1946 show a novel approach in the linear interaction between piano and guitar, resulting in counterpoint, polyrhythm, and superimposed harmonies. The sextet recordings of 1949 are notable for coherent ensemble playing and soloing, and the free group improvisations based on spontaneous group interactions and the contrapuntal principle. In the 1950s Tristano employed an advanced concept in jazz improvisation called side-slipping, or outside playing, which creates a form of temporary bitonality when chromatic harmony is superimposed over the standard harmonic progressions. Tristano intensified his use of counterpoint, polyrhythm, and chromaticism in the 1960s[.][14]

Grove Music commented that "Tristano's music stands apart from the main tradition of modern jazz [...] Rather than the irregular accents of bop, Tristano preferred an even rhythmic background against which to concentrate on line and focus his complex changes of time signature. Typically, his solos consisted of extraordinarily long, angular strings of almost even quavers provided with subtle rhythmic deviations and abrasive polytonal effects. He was particularly adept in his use of different levels of double time and was a master of the block-chord style".[13]


Critics disagree on Tristano's importance in jazz history. Max Harrison indicated that the pianist "had scant influence beyond his immediate circle";[99] Robert Palmer suggested that he "provided a crucial link between the modern jazz of the 1940s and freer forms of the late 50s and after"; and Thomas Albright believed that "the territory which his improvisations helped to open [...] nurtured some of the most significant developments in contemporary jazz", and cited him as an influence on the pianists Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and Mal Waldron.[100]

In Ind's opinion, Tristano's legacy "is what he added technically to the jazz vocabulary and his vision of jazz as a serious musical craft".[101] Ind also suggested that Tristano's reputation became less than was deserved – "He stuck with his convictions and would not commercialize. His dedication, plus the lack of general appreciation by many jazz critics, led inevitably to his being sidelined."[102] Grove Music's summary is that "Because of his knowledge of several instruments and broadminded approach, Tristano attracted players of different instruments and schools, [...] Tristano's influence is felt most strongly in the work of his best pupils – many of whom also became outstanding teachers – and in his example of high-mindedness and perfectionism, characteristics which presupposed for jazz the highest standards of music as art."[13]

Shim suggests that Tristano's "historical significance and contributions to jazz have not been fully acknowledged; his stylistic individuality that transgressed conventional style categories has posed a problem in the tendency toward categorization and canonization in jazz historiography."[13] She too identified his teaching as part of his legacy: parts of his approach to teaching jazz have become standard practice; and "the sheer number of students he taught, which may easily exceed a thousand", tied to some of them going on to employ what they learned in their own playing and pedagogy, illustrate his influence.[88]

After his death, the Lennie Tristano Jazz Foundation was formed, to promote performances by some of his former students and to re-launch Jazz Records.[103]

Personality and views on music[edit]

In Ind's view, Tristano "was always so gentle, so charming and so quietly spoken that his directness could be unnerving."[104] This directness was noted by others, including Chubby Jackson, who commented that "I think he owns as little tact as any human I've ever met in my life", and that Tristano would not worry about "upsetting somebody or insulting them or making them feel inadequate."[105] Some of his students described Tristano as domineering, but others indicated that this impression came from his demanding discipline in training and attitude to music.[106]

Writer Barry Ulanov commented in 1946 that, for Tristano, "in the realms of literature and philosophy, as in music, he was not content merely to feel something, [...] he had to explore ideas, to experience them, to think them through carefully, thoroughly, logically until he could fully grasp them and then hold on to them."[107]

Tristano criticized the free jazz that began in the 1960s for its lack of musical logic as well as its expression of negative emotions.[108] "If you feel angry with somebody you hit him on the nose – not try to play angry music", he commented; "Express all that is positive. Beauty is a positive thing."[109] He expanded on this by distinguishing emotion from feeling, and suggested that playing a particular emotion was egotistical and lacking in feeling.[110]

Tristano also complained about the commercialization of jazz and what he perceived to be the requirement to abandon the artistic part of playing in order to earn a living from performing.[111] Later commentators have suggested that these complaints ignored the freedom that he was given by Atlantic and blamed others for what in many cases were the outcomes of his own career decisions.[112]

Personal life[edit]

Tristano's youngest brother was Michael,[2] who played the tenor saxophone and became a psychotherapist.[113]

Tristano's first wife was Judy Moore, a musician who sang to his piano accompaniment in Chicago in the mid-1940s.[8][36] They married in 1945,[114] and had a son, Steve, who was born in 1952.[115] The couple separated in 1956, as a result of the pianist having affairs with some of his students, and formally divorced six years later.[115] Apart from one visit in the late 1950s, Tristano did not meet his son again after the separation.[115]

Tristano married again in the early 1960s.[116] His second wife was Carol Miller, one of his students.[116] They had a son, Bud, and two daughters, Tania and Carol.[116] The couple divorced in 1964, and Tristano later lost a custody battle with his ex-wife over the children.[116]

Tristano was survived by his son and two daughters.[117] His record label, Jazz Records, is run by his daughter, Carol Tristano.


As leader[edit]


As sideman[edit]

With Dizzy Gillespie


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  74. ^ Tamarkin, Jeff (November 21, 2012). "Coltrane, Mingus, Tristano Recordings Honored by Grammy Hall of Fame: Louis Jordan, James Brown, Ray Charles also Awarded". JazzTimes. 
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  117. ^ Wilson, John S. (November 20, 1978) "Lennie Tristano, at 59 Pianist Was Innovator in the 'Cool Jazz' Era". The New York Times. p. D12.
  118. ^ Tristano, Lennie, Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, retrieved September 9, 2014 (subscription required). 
  • Shim, Eunmi (2007). Lennie Tristano – His Life in Music. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-11346-0. 

External links[edit]