Lennie Tristano - Biography
By Nick Castro
Lennie Tristano was an innovator of jazz piano, born of Italian immigrants, who was born blind in Chicago, IL, in 1919. When he became a juvenile he began his studies of piano seriously with his mother, who was an opera singer and pianist, and later he attended school at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Tristano would have a successful career in jazz but it seemed his main passion was in teaching and was in this endeavor that he would also have a huge influence on jazz players for years to come.
By 1943 Tristano graduated from school and began both teaching and playing piano professionally. Most of his shows at that time were played around the Chicago area and through these the word began to spread throughout the jazz community there. Local musician Lee Konitz, began to study with Lennie Tristano. Later Konitz would make his first recording, Lee Konitz with Tristano, March, Bauer (1949 - Prestige), with the aid of Tristano. Tristano had very unusual concepts of sounds and harmony and, though Konitz was already playing in orchestra's professionally, Tristano imparted his theories of improvisation on the young Konitz.
Tristano made his recordings while still in Chicago. 1945 would see his first when he released "Yesterdays (Glad Am I)" for the Jazz Guild label. He also spent time playing with and recording with the Emmett Carls Sextet and it was with this combo that recorded, again for the Jazz Guild label, "Tea for Two". The next year Tristano would begin to record as the Lennie Tristano Trio, along with pioneering jazz guitarist Billy Bauer and bassist Clyde Lombardi. This combo released the tracks "Out on a Limb", for various labels including Mercury and EmArcy, along with the sides "I Can't Get Started", "I Surrender, Dear" and "Interlude"
When Tristano was 26 years old he moved to New York to be near the heart of the jazz scene. Immediately people began to take notice of Tristano's unique talents and he quickly became the talk of the town. He was soon performing with many of jazz's most important players such as bebop greats Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. In total, Tristano recorded 24 tracks with Parker including the now classic "Hot House", "52nd Street Theme", "Groovin' High", "Donna Lee" and "Tea for Two". Metronome magazine writer Barry Ulanov also took notice of Tristano and would write about him often and even help Tristano be voted musician of the year for the magazine in 1947. Tristano was bringing his new outlook of improvisation to bebop and began to seamlessly connect classical music with jazz. Charlie Mingus, who spent some time studying with Tristano, recorded sides during this period that are, compositionally, very similar to Tristano's.
In 1949 Tristano would record an album, which is still seen as groundbreaking and, by many, as the first steps toward free jazz. This album was called Crosscurrents (1949 - Capitol) and was recorded with a sextet that included players Konitz, saxophonist Wayne Marsh, guitarist Bauer, bassist Arnold Fishkin and drummer Denzil Best. Composer and arranger George Russell also assisted on the album. The two standout tracks, which people often reference in conjunction with free jazz history, are the songs "Digression" and "Intuition", which may be the earliest recorded examples of complete improvisation. "Digression" is a whole tone exploration in slow meter and "Intuition" sees guitarist Bauer playing chords which are not unlike those later used by avant garde guitar players. On the track "Sax of a Kind" one can hear Konitz and Marsh weaving in and out of one another in a wild interaction with each other. His recordings for Capitol proved to be his most advanced of his career, according to many of his fans. He began to utilize long and complicated melodies, which at times sounded like improvisations in and of themselves, as well as extensive counterpoint and well regulated swing rhythms. Tristano had a way of deconstructing music and then reconstructing in his own language, often using complex rhythm changes in his playing.
It was in 1951 when Tristano would open his first music school in New York, which concentrated on jazz. This was one of the first schools of its kind at the time. Tristano would, over the years, have many students who were either already, or would soon be, famous. Some of Tristano's students include Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Joe Satriani, who studied with Tristano just before Tristano's death, Keith Emerson and many others.
Tristano released an album called Descent Into the Maelstrom (1978 - Inner City), which was a collection of recordings spanning 1952 - 1965. On it Tristano can be heard playing chunky dissonant chord voicing which would later be associated with players like Cecil Taylor. It is also one of the first truly atonal recordings in jazz as well as some of the first jazz sessions to incorporate extensive overdubbing to create complex and think harmonies. The accompanists on this recording include bassists Peter Ind and Sonny Dallas as well as drummers Roy Haynes and Nick Stabulas. Tristano also recorded two albums for Atlantic which are considered very important in the jazz pantheon, Lennie Tristano (1955 - Atlantic), which was one of the first jazz releases to use oerdubbing, and The New Tristano (1962 - Atlantic), which is a beautiful collection of solo piano works.
In the 60's Tristano began to really lay low from the recording scene and concentrated on teaching instead. It can be argued that Tristano's influence is more heavily felt through his students, numbering so many, than through his scarce recordings.
Tristano was also famous for having a strong disliking to jazz record companies and so he formed his own label. This was a bold and innovative move at the time for any musician to do on their own. He began Jazz Records, which is still in existence today and ran by his daughter, the drummer Carol Tristano.
Lennie Tristano died in 1978. A book was written about him in 2005 by bassist Ind. The book is called Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and His Legacy.