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Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience

Bill Dal Cerro By

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The following is an excerpt from the "Lennie Tristano: The Passionate Intellectual" chapter of Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience by Bill Dal Cerro and David Anthony Witter (Bella Musica Publishing, 2015).

World War II and the atomic bomb changed not only the political landscape, but art, architecture and music as well. In architecture, "Googie" or "Ray-Gun Gothic" combined many of the traditional elements introduced by Frank Lloyd Wright almost forty years earlier—the use of large windows and glass, natural elements such as rocks and greenery—with new symbolism of the atomic age. These included the use of bright, pastel colors, stars, amoebae, saucer shapes, and atomic models and images. The result was a spate of coffee shops, drive-ins, motels, restaurants, and other public buildings that are largely gone but still admired by a small but loyal and educated following.

There is a similar comparison in jazz, yet on a much more profound and intellectual level. Bebop was already taking form before the end of World War II, and cool jazz was born as a direct reaction to the fury of bebop. But one artist took some of the elements of bebop, cool jazz, and even traditional jazz and added more unique innovations like time sequences in 7/8 or 5/4 time, Latin and Middle Eastern rhythms, and studio techniques like overdubbing. That artist was Lennie Tristano.

Tristano was, and continues to be, a cult figure, known and admired primarily by jazz scholars and musicians. According to his son, guitarist Bud Tristano (named after pianist Bud Powell), much is still misunderstood about the life and music of the pianist.

"There are two major misconceptions about my papa: that his music was cold and intellectual, and that he often intimidated drummers," says Tristano. "The first one is silly. He wasn't a robot; he played his music with passion. And the second one is kind of an urban legend. There was an occasion early in his career when a drummer couldn't make a recording session, so a drummer unfamiliar with his music took his place and played minimally for that reason, by his own choice. It was a new style. I could see how some musicians, drummers or otherwise, had a hard time following him, but he didn't deliberately go out there and try to stump people."

Lennie Tristano was born in Chicago into an Italian immigrant family. Initially, many thought that the family hailed from Basilicata, but, in recent years, Bud Tristano and other family members have been trying to pinpoint the exact birthplace of their ancestors.

"Some relatives are trying to verify this but the Tristanos were apparently small-town farmers in Italy," Tristano says. "We're pretty sure they were from Basilicata but we've also discovered a small town near Naples named Aversa which has both a jazz club and a street named after my father. My sister went there and many of the local people kept telling her, 'No, there were many Tristanos from this town.' So now we have to check this out."

Blind by the age of 9, Tristano turned his attention to music at a young age. This was due mostly to the influence of his mother, a pianist and opera singer. Tristano's earliest childhood memories of going to a special school for handicapped kids in Chicago haunted him. Says Bud: "He disliked that school...It wasn't like today, where you have specialists in different fields....Kids who had handicaps, whatever the handicap was, were thrown together in one big school. It was chaotic, more of an institution than a school. Papa hated it."

After spending ten years studying at a school for the blind in Chicago, Tristano attended The American Conservatory of Music in downtown Chicago from 1940-1943. During this time, he gave brief lessons to future jazz greats William Russo and Lee Konitz, who both grew up in Tristano's Edgewater neighborhood and even attended the same high school (Senn). Konitz would later be a part of Tristano's groundbreaking, pre-cool jazz quartet and make over one hundred recordings with a majority of the great jazz artists of his time. Russo became the chief arranger for the Stan Kenton Band and wrote a symphony for Leonard Bernstein.

During his early twenties, Tristano developed an intense and disciplined practice approach that would rival that of the greatest classical performers. This practice incorporated a strict, mathematical approach. In the liner notes for The New Tristano, critic Barry Ulanov writes: "The mathematics of this procedure can be deducted. If someone has practically infinite patience he can sit down and copy the notes Lennie plays. Or, with somewhat less perseverance, he can sit down with Lennie and discover what sort of exercises go into the preparation of such performances. There are, for example, the exercises of the left hand, one finger at a time, in which the single hand is divided up into lines. He will practice improvising with say, two fingers assigned to the bass line and three the melody, then three on the bass and two on the melody, and so on and so on until the finger drops from exhaustion."

Tristano had a deep respect for the early pioneers of his art, in this case, piano jazz in the form of Jelly Roll Morton. Morton's possible influence on Tristano can be heard in the selection, "Requiem." Taken from his debut album, it was a song that Tristano recorded in his private studio upon learning of the death of Charlie Parker, who was also an admirer of Tristano's music. Tristano begins the selection with a hint of classical influence but changes into a slow, steady, left-hand rhythm. Part jazz, part boogie woogie, it almost sounds like the beat of a slow, second line, New Orleans funeral march, the kind of rhythm that Morton introduced to the world of piano after World War I. The right hand plays a basic, blues-based, single-key improvisation. But it is also Mortonesque in that it combines basic blues with daunting runs, jazz lines, and brief melodic flourishes that suggest a hint of Latino and a hint of bop. Unlike the bop artists of Tristano's time, who would expand and continue the run for measure upon measure (bebop), "Requiem" sees Tristano return to the top of the bar, staying within the twelve bar format much in the way that Morton did.

This technique gained Tristano fast acclaim and many local gigs. Yet, while Chicago was a still a hot bed of jazz, Tristano realized that the "action" was in New York. It was here that his greatest influences, Charlie Parker and pianists Art Tatum and Bud Powell, were playing at clubs like the Blue Note and Birdland until dawn, six nights a week. While living in New York, Tristano occasionally joined Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in live performances. Never one to follow fads, Tristano's musical ideas began to differ with those of the mainstream bebop artists. Like the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the music of Parker and Gillespie was full of uncontrolled energy and raw emotion. By contrast, Tristano's new form of jazz had a taut, unemotional, and coolly intellectual tone, very symbolic of the early 1950s Cold War era.

Instead of the pulsating, driving beat of drummers like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, Tristano's rhythms had the precision of a metronome. The saxophone of former pupil Lee Konitz also displayed the same perceived lack of emotion. In his book Jazz History, A Second Edition, author Frank Tirro writes: "Konitz's alto sound was virtually free of vibrato except in carefully controlled situations and was so devoid of overtones that it closely approximated the timbre of an electronically generated sine-wave tone."

While Tristano's music was often "cool" in its tone, it should by no means be compared to the "cool" jazz of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, or Chet Baker. While most people associate high notes, fast notes, pounding drums, and bass with speed and emotion, Tristano poured his emotion into redefining these very rhythms.

This is best demonstrated on the cut, "Turkish Mambo." Like much of Morton's work, it is solo piano with varying rhythms. But with "Mambo," Tristano turns Morton and the jazz world on its ear. Using overdubs—one of the first jazz musicians to employ this technology—Tristano overlaps himself playing in three time sequences of 7/8 to 7/4, 5/8 to 5/4 and 3/8 to 3/4.

The result is a cascade of intensity, comparable to several manic mice running through a gasoline-soaked maze in which each step they take ignites the very area upon which they are running. This type of rhythmic alteration typifies Tristano's most notable works, Lennie Tristano, (1955) and The New Tristano (1962). Of these albums, Barry Ulanov writes: " In most of these tracks he works with multiple time sequences, setting 5/4 or 3/8 or some other time against a steady 4/4. But the 4/4 is not so much a fixed measure of our quarter notes to the bar as a continuity of beats—1,1,1,1, without any bar-line restrictions. On top of that Lennie constructs a fresh contour of triplets. He alters the basic structure by adding a fourth note to the triplet, borrowing one note from the second triplet to make four notes to the first one, or picking up a whole triplet from the next bar to add to the one on the third, etc. The result is an astonishing contour...."

This innovative form and anti-rhythmic structure did little to help Tristano sell records or incorporate him into the mainstream world of jazz. Tristano earned the majority of his income from teaching, so he was not economically tied to either the recording or club industry. While many musicians sometimes fraternized with their peers to get playing or recording gigs, Tristano very seldom did so. Quite the opposite: Like Morton, he was not afraid to directly criticize his fellow musicians, often calling them out by name. In 1950 he told Downbeat: "If you give watered-down bop to the public, they'd rather hear that than the real thing. Has George Shearing helped jazz by making his bop a sandwich inside a familiar melody? Obviously not, because there are fewer places where jazz can be heard today than were there before George and his quintet started out."

His attitude also offended many critics and fans. In The New York Times' Essential Library of Jazz, author Ben Ratliff writes: "He was an early example of the stiffly opinionated jazz musician, the artist as ideologue, which we've seen much more often since."

It is ironic to note that Ratliff refers to Tristano as being "early." Jelly Roll Morton criticized the work of everyone from Ellington to Armstrong throughout the 1920s and 30s. Unlike Tristano, however, Morton did so while extolling his own self-described genius. As one who preferred not to defend himself in public, the more humble Tristano was vulnerable to misconceptions.
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