Trailblazing jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz dies at 92

The groundbreaking jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, perhaps best known for his work on the pivotal Miles Davis album “Birth Of The Cool”, has died following coronavirus complications. He was 92. Konitz, a prolific artist celebrated for his improvisation savvy over a seven-decade career, died after a battle with COVID-19, according to his Facebook page.

Born Leon Konitz in Chicago on October 13, 1927, the musician was the youngest of three in a Jewish immigrant family. He started playing the clarinet as a child before switching to saxophone, the instrument he used to cultivate a singular, uninflected style that set him apart from the era’s dominant Charlie Parker, whom Konitz considered a friend. Konitz enjoyed stints with the Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton’s Orchestras, worked with pianist Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton, Warne Marsh, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.

»The blues never connected with me,« he told The Wall Street Journal in 2013. »I knew and loved Charlie Parker and copied his bebop solos like everyone else«. »But I didn’t want to sound like him. So I used almost no vibrato and played mostly in the higher register. That’s the heart of my sound.« Konitz was the last surviving musician who played in Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” sessions, which he later described as far more arranged than the improvisational style with which he would make his name. Far more influential to Konitz’s trailblazing path were his studies with the pianist Lennie Tristano, which he said made him »take music more seriously.« »I was just a kid with some kind of natural facility,« he told NPR in 1980. »And he indicated to me the direction the music was really in.«

»More heartbreaking news for the Jazz community,« said Blue Note Records following news of Konitz’s death. »The “cool-toned” artist«, reads his Blue Note biog, »always had a strong musical curiosity that has led him to consistently take chances and stretch himself, usually quite successfully.« Konitz continued to play and tour into his 90s. He made a modest living as a jazz great, never hiring agents or publicists but never compromising his direction, either. During his seven-decade career, he recorded for such labels as Atlantic, Prestige, Polydor and Verve. His recordings were as prolific as they were varied, ranging in styles from an early unaccompanied saxophone solo album, to post-bop, free improvisations and a string of innovative duets.

»I’ve always been about the music, not the show biz,« he told The Wall Street Journal. »I’ve also been fortunate to spend my entire life creating music. Now, that’s cool.«

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