Lee Konitz (born October 13, 1927) is an American composer and alto saxophonist.
He has performed successfully in a wide range of jazz styles, including bebop, cool jazz, and avant-garde jazz. Konitz's association with the cool jazz movement of the 1940s and 1950s includes participation in Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool sessions and his work with pianist Lennie Tristano. He was notable during this era as one of relatively few alto saxophonists to retain a distinctive style when Charlie Parker exerted a massive influence.
Like other students of Tristano, Konitz was noted for improvising long, melodic lines with the rhythmic interest coming from odd accents, or odd note groupings suggestive of the imposition of one time signature over another. Other saxophonists were strongly influenced by Konitz, notably Paul Desmond and Art Pepper.
Konitz was born on October 13, 1927, in Chicago to Jewish parents of Austrian and Russian descent. At the age of eleven, Konitz received his first clarinet. However, he later dropped the instrument in favor of the tenor saxophone. He eventually moved from tenor to alto. His greatest influences at the time were the swing big bands he and his brother listened to on the radio, specifically Benny Goodman. Hearing Goodman on the radio was what prodded him to ask for a clarinet. He improvised on the saxophone before learning to play standards.
Konitz began his professional career in 1945 with the Teddy Powell band as a replacement for Charlie Ventura. A month later, the band broke up. Between 1945 and 1947, he worked intermittently with Jerry Wald. In 1946, he met pianist Lennie Tristano, and the two worked together in a small cocktail bar. His next substantial work was with Claude Thornhill in 1947 with Gil Evans arranging and Gerry Mulligan as a composer.
He participated with Miles Davis in a group that had a brief booking in September 1948 and another the following year, but he recorded in 1949 and 1950 the sides collected on the Birth of the Cool album. The presence of Konitz and other white musicians in the group angered some black jazz players because many were unemployed at the time, but Davis rebuffed their criticisms.
Konitz has stated he considered the group to belong to Gerry Mulligan. His debut as leader also came in 1949 with sides collected on the album Subconscious-Lee. (Prestige, 1955). He turned down an opportunity to work with Goodman in 1949, a decision he regretted. Parker lent him support on the day Konitz's child was born in Seattle, Washington, while he was stuck in New York City. The two were good friends, not the rivals some jazz critics made them out to be.
In the early 1950s, Konitz recorded and toured with Stan Kenton's orchestra, but he continued to record as a leader. In 1961, he recorded Motion with Elvin Jones on drums and Sonny Dallas on bass. This spontaneous session consisted entirely of standards. The loose trio format aptly featured Konitz's unorthodox phrasing and chromaticism.
In 1967, Konitz recorded The Lee Konitz Duets in configurations that were often unusual for the period (saxophone and trombone, two saxophones). The recordings drew on nearly the entire history of jazz from Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with valve trombonist Marshall Brown to two free improvisation duos: one with a Duke Ellington associate, violinist Ray Nance, and one with guitarist Jim Hall.
Konitz contributed to the film score for Desperate Characters (1971). In 1981, he performed at the Woodstock Jazz Festival, which was held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Creative Music Studio.
Konitz has worked with Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Attila Zoller, Gerry Mulligan, and Elvin Jones. He recorded trio dates with Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden, released by Blue Note, as well as a live album recorded in 2009 at Birdland and released by ECM in 2011 with drummer Paul Motian. Konitz has become more experimental as he has grown older and has released a number of free jazz and avant-garde jazz albums, playing alongside many younger musicians. His album with Grace Kelly was given 4 1/2 stars by Michael Jackson in Down Beat magazine.
He has had problems with his heart for which he has received surgery in the past. He was scheduled to appear at Melbourne's Recital Centre in 2011 for the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, but he canceled due to illness.
In August 2012 Konitz played to sell-out crowds at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village as part of Enfants Terribles, a collaboration with Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron. Days after his 87th birthday in 2014, he played three nights at Cafe Stritch in San Jose, California, with the Jeff Denson Trio, improvising on the old standards he favors.
- SOLOS: The Jazz Sessions (2004)
- Weightless – a recording session with Jakob Bro (2009)
- Public television series in the late 1950s with Warne Marsh, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Mundell Lowe and others.