Lennie Tristano

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Lennie Tristano, ca.1947.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .
Bill Harris , Denzil Best , Flip Phillips , Billy Bauer , Lennie Tristano, Chubby Jackson , circa September 1947.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

Leonard Joseph "Lennie" Tristano (born March 19, 1919 in Chicago , Illinois , † November 18, 1978 in New York ) was an American jazz musician , pianist and multi-instrumentalist, arranger , composer and music teacher. It is assigned to the styles bebop , cool jazz and modal jazz up to the anticipation of the classic free jazz of the 1960s.


Tristano was the second of four children of Italian immigrants. He had already started playing the piano at the age of four, initially taught by his mother, who was an opera singer and pianist part-time. As a result of the rampant Spanish flu , his eyesight was severely weakened and by the age of ten he was completely blind . From 1928 to 1938 he attended a school for the blind in Chicago, where he also learned music theory, cello, clarinet and tenor saxophone, and then, until graduating in 1943, the American Conservatory of Music , with a predominantly classical education - he devoted himself primarily to Bach . He also played jazz in Chicago and began teaching after graduating. His first students in Chicago included Lee Konitz and the composer Bill Russo .

In 1946 he moved to New York and founded his own combos (trio to sextet), including guitarist Billy Bauer and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh (who studied with him from 1948). Another important player was alto saxophonist Lee Konitz from the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, who also played with Gil Evans and Miles Davis at the time . He also played with musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie . He gained so much attention that he was named Musician of the Year by the Metronome in 1947 (metronome journalist Barry Ulanov was one of its most ardent advocates). During this time, Tristano and his group were, alongside Evans and Davis with Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis, one of the main creators of bebop-branching cool jazz . His distinctive pieces include the improvisations Digression and Intuition recorded in May 1949 on the album Crosscurrents with Konitz, Marsh, Bauer, Arnold Fishkin (b), Harold Granowsky and Denzil Best (both dr); Producer Pete Rugolo did not recognize the importance of two further pieces with free improvisations recorded in the same recording session (the recordings were not archived).

Tristano's style is particularly interesting because of the way he plays and interweaves up to three independent time signatures. In 1951 he founded a jazz school in New York, the first of its kind. a. his students Bauer, Konitz, Marsh and the pianist Sal Mosca taught. In 1955 he wrote the legendary titles Requiem , Line Up and Turkish Mambo as well as live recordings with Lee Konitz, which then appeared on his debut album Lennie Tristano on Atlantic .

Sessions and recordings became rare from 1956 onwards. Tristano concentrated on teaching and only appeared occasionally in the "Half Note". On Descent into the Maelstrom he continues his experiments with overdubbing techniques. In 1965 Tristano toured Europe once, in 1968 he had his last public appearance in the USA. He continued teaching until his death in 1978.

Two of Lennie Tristano's children from his second marriage to Carol Miller, drummer Carol Tristano and guitarist Bud Tristano, maintain his musical legacy.

Tristano school of early modern jazz

Tristano initially taught at home and later opened a school at 317 East 32nd Street, New York. In 1956 he closed the school and taught from Long Island.

His methods mainly included dealing with the baroque, in particular with Johann Sebastian Bach . Louis Armstrong , Earl Hines , Roy Eldridge , Lester Young , Charlie Christian , Charlie Parker and Bud Powell are considered role models in jazz . The solos of this (basically very limited) selection of musicians were transcribed from recordings and sung, then played out later. In general, it is important that the basics are covered thoroughly first: Before the students dealt with the instrument, they not only had to be able to sing everything, but also master difficult basic rhythmic and polyrhythmic exercises. They then learned the pieces in all keys, both major and minor, and delved into the harmonies and structures of each chord. Ultimately, however, Tristano describes the melody as the most important element of music and improvisation.

Another musical feature of his teaching largely governed the role of the rhythm section in the band; The drummer and bassist basically only acted as "timekeepers", they provided a stable foundation that allowed the soloists to make daring shifts and harmonic excursions. Often the Tristano bands were perceived by audiences and critics as too little interactive and dynamic due to this custom. Because of this style of playing, which is felt to be controlled, hypothermic and intellectual, the term cool jazz came about .

Sessions were held regularly in the Tristano School. Tristano gave numerous concerts with his best students; studio recordings were also made. The practiced compositions, often complicated melody lines based on well-known standards, were performed and recorded, and inventions by Bach (in the duo Marsh / Konitz) were also part of the program. For many of his students, including Lee Konitz , Billy Bauer , Peter Ind , Lloyd Lifton and Warne Marsh , Lennie Tristano was not just a mentor, but a kind of father figure and “all-round role model”. Some students studied with him for decades, in particular Warne Marsh could not - if at all - break away from his teacher for a long time. Other Tristano students were Bill Russo , Connie Crothers , Lenny Popkin , Sal Mosca , Sheila Jordan , Bill Evans , Fran Canisius , Betty Scott , Souren Baronian , Jeff Morton , Willie Dennis , Don Ferrara , Dave Liebman , Alan Broadbent and rock guitarist Joe Satriani .

Another typical feature of Lennie Tristano and his followers was the awareness of musical backgrounds and marginal areas of music. The circle dealt with psychoanalysis , e.g. B. with scientists like Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich . There was a discussion about the inflow of sensations into music. Tristano was against all commerce, railed against organizers and café owners who exploited the artists and forced them to either adapt musically or to "starve" ("... either conform, comercially, or starve."). In his opinion, no art form should be hindered from its free development by the demands of society.


Perhaps Lennie Tristano saw his method as a "white" approach to jazz. European composers ( Johann Sebastian Bach and Béla Bartók ) were particularly fascinated by him. His preferred repertoire contained hardly any blues, but many pieces by white musicians such as George Gershwin , Jerome Kern and Cole Porter . Tristano's student Warne Marsh often spoke out on the discrimination against white musicians in jazz, which he constantly had to experience. At that time, many believed that whites were unable to understand and play jazz. It was relatively seldom that Tristano supporters and Afro-American musicians played together. Some African Americans, e.g. B. Charlie Parker and Max Roach , however, expressed their admiration for Tristano's style and appeared occasionally at sessions in his school.

Tristano exerted a great influence on Charles Mingus , who played with many Tristano students (such as Teo Macero , John LaPorta ) in his jazz workshops (from 1953) and learned a lot from him in his rehearsal and improvisation practice. Mingus himself studied with Tristano in the early 1950s.

His early recordings I Can't Get Started With You (1946) were included on The Wire's “100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening)” list.


  • Intuition (1946–52; box 4 CD + booklet 40 p. (En), compil. 2003 Proper / mcps)
  • Live at Birdland 1949 (Jazz Records 1979, 1990)
  • Live in New York (1949; with Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Bauer u.a., Compil. 2004 by Jazz Door)
  • Crosscurrents Capitol 1949 (released as album only in 1972)
  • Descent into the Maelstrom , Inner City 1952
  • Lennie Tristano ( Atlantic , 1956)
  • The New Tristano ( Atlantic , 1961)
  • Concert in Copenhagen (recorded 1965, Jazz Records 1997)



  • Peter Ind: Jazz Visions - Lennie Tristano and His Legacy . Equinox, London 2005.
  • Eunmi Shim: Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music . University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2007, ISBN 0-472-11346-1 .

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