Lee Konitz: the view from '55

In Jazz Journal May 1955, Keith Goodwin tipped three new men that alto saxophonists would look to for guidance - Lee Konitz (currently in the UK aged 87), Paul Desmond and Lennie Niehaus

With the sudden, tragic passing of the great Charlie Parker, the jazz world has suffered a great loss. "Bird" had more influence over the jazz world than any other man. He might almost have been called the "inventor" of bop, or the "father" of modern jazz.

But his untimely death has left a problem, for Parker was the idol of the coloured alto-saxophone players in his country. They took their lead from him, and some even tried to copy his tone and sequence of ideas to gain recognition.

But now that Parker is no more, who will the alto men look to for inspiration and guidance?

Clever as he may be, it is hardly likely that any of them will follow Gigi Gryce, for although he is an interesting soloist and a good all-round musician, he is certainly not in the Parker class.


To my way of thinking, there are now but three men capable of showing the way for the others - Lee Konitz (pictured above), Paul Desmond and Lennie Niehaus. All three have a similar style and intonation, and play in the "cool" manner. But solowise, they are complete individualists.

Konitz has been at the top of the ladder for a long time now, a close rival of Parker despite their contrasting styles. It was Konitz who introduced the thin, yet nevertheless warm-toned alto. He was first heard by the majority of the British jazz public with the Lennie Tristano Sextet.

His lyrical, flowing lines were soon accepted and he became a permanent part of the jazz scene. With his own quintet, he made a series of records that showed off his playing to its fullest extent. His decision to join the Stan Kenton Orchestra two years ago was nothing short of startling. Nobody expected Konitz to switch to big band jazz after he had been so successful with smaller units.

Yet it was here that Konitz refuted so many of his critics when he proved beyond doubt that his music came from the heart as well as the head. His work with Stan was brilliant. He improved tremendously to become the leading soloist of a star-studded group of musicians.


Paul Desmond came upon the scene with the arrival of Dave Brubeck. His alto became an integral part of Brubeck's original Jazz Workshop Octet When the group broke up, Desmond remained with Dave, and readily seized the opportunity of being heard more as an individualist than as a sidesman. Soon critics who found fault in his fluent, melodic phrasing, were forced to admit that he was swinging alongside the rest, and in many cases, blowing much better.

His tone has a nice, soft edge, not unlike Konitz, and he blows long, sweeping lines equally well around a slow ballad or an up-tempo jump number. Like Brubeck, he studied with Darius Milhaud, thus presenting a plausible explanation as to why there is such a remarkable affinity of ideas between the two.

Desmond still plays in the "cool" style, and it goes without saying that today, he is recognised as one of the leading authorities on modern jazz and alto saxophone playing in general.

And so to the most recent name to appear on the jazz scene - Lennie Niehaus (pictured left). I can only pass judgment on Lennie on the strength of his first record release in this country. But even now, I am prepared to say that Niehaus, in my own opinion, is probably the most logical successor to Parker, and one of the greatest exponents of the alto saxophone the jazz world ever has known.

Niehaus has a tone not unlike Konitz or Desmond, flowing and melodic, but perhaps not quite as thin. He improvises thoughtfully and carefully, adapting himself to the music he is playing - the mark of a true perfectionist.

He is, without question, a remarkable man and an exceptionally talented musician. At the early age of 11, he studied violin with his father, a professional violinist. In the following two years, he studied oboe and bassoon, before turning his attention to the alto saxophone at the age of 13. This instrument was not held in great repute in classical circles, and, needless to say, Lennie's decision came as a great shock to his family. Now, at 25, he emerges not only as a great alto soloist, but also as an arranger and composer of note.


The holder of a Batchelor of Arts Degree, Lennie is also the composer of a violin sonata, a woodwind trio and several clarinet quartets.

All this goes to prove that apart from being a great soloist, Lennie is an equally great technician. He knows exactly what he is doing, he knows his music and just what he wants to achieve - and above all, he gets there.

But Lennie's music just doesn't come from the head alone. He has a strong sense of rhythm, and swings easily and quietly. His music does come from the heart, and in it all, beneath those long, flowing passages and that beautifully warm tone, one can always detect the inventive genius of the great Parker.

But of these three, who is now to become the elected leader of alto saxophone jazz ? I feel confident that it will be one of these three men, and I think that it will bring about a big turning point in modern jazz - a turn towards the West Coast idiom, which has already had a great influence on the jazz world as a whole.

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