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Lennie Tristano: Influential, Yet Invisible

Pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-1978)

He played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He taught Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. He was the true father of “free jazz.” So WRTI’s Maureen Malloy had to wonder, “Why don’t people know about Lennie Tristano?”

Maureen Malloy: Pianist Lennie Tristano hit the New York jazz scene in 1946, and while he landed gigs, his approach to jazz was considered unusual. You could hear the bebop and swing influences in his playing, but he concentrated more on harmony, and strangely, for that time, improvisation.

Jazz writer Bruce Klauber:

Bruce Klauber: He differed from the beboppers. We have a thing in jazz called licks, or riffs, or things that we repeat—we rely upon. Lennie Tristano played no licks. What you heard was a total purity of improvisation.

MM: In 1949, Tristano worked with a sextet that featured guitarist Lee Konitz and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, and they made two recordings that were both fully improvised—“Intuition” and Digression,” and most people have never heard of them. He was well ahead of his time.

Ten years later, improvisation exploded, but Lennie didn’t try to make a comeback or claim his innovation when it was trending.

Pianist and Tristano enthusiast Andy Kahn:

Andy Kahn: He was so cloistered in his insulated environment of what some people call “The School of Tristano” with his students He was an amazing teacher!

MM: Tristano created such an outstanding jazz curriculum for this students that it started popping up in the top music schools, and eventually went worldwide. While his music never hit the mainstream, his method certainly did, and, to this day, there are still a some in-the-know Tristano followers.

AK: He was an icon to a very select group of people.

Andy Kahn and saxophonist Larry McKenna perform a Lennie Tristano Tribute Concert at Chris’ Jazz Café on Friday, April 21st with sets at 8 pm and 10 pm.