The Long Shadow of Lennie Tristano, or 'Why can't you just be a good jazz major and play a Bird lick?'
(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
Like a lot of us, I came up through the music education system.
Jazz in intermediate school, middle school, jazz in high school, now jazz in college. Literally tens of thousands of hours put into learning the music and the instrument. Guys referred me to Basie, Ellington, Miles, Trane, Horace, every kind of Sonny--a listening list so long, if I actually came through on my promises to check it out I'd be done with it probably right about now.
So it's a little bit of a mystery to me why it took so long for me to discover the Tristano school, and why nobody guided me to it.
To be clear, I'm not about to go to that time-hallowed cry of the twenty-something college blogger--this is somehow representative of the white voice being historically suppressed in jazz. That's not true at all in terms of what I receive in my education. I got taught about Sammy Nestico, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan, and even a little bit about Brad Mehldau, so that hypothesis is out. And I don't really think more needs to be said about the relationship of the Tristano school to the overall atmosphere of race relations in their heyday than hasn't already been enumerated in books like
"An Unsung Cat".
So if it's not that, then what? Why are so few guys familiar with Warne, or Lee, or Lennie?
I had the weird experience of mentioning Warne to one of the most educated students I know (smart, lovely guy, great player) and getting a blank-slate stare. Now, this did give me the pleasure of spamming him with every Warne recording on Youtube and watching his brain explode, but it got me thinking. Specifically, it got me to realize that for whatever reason, the Tristano school isn't considered 'necessary' or 'required' by the pedagogy at large. (I say at large because I know somewhere there's some ardent Lee-ite in a university position who makes his students learn Palo Alto in all 12 keys, and they hate it).
Which is fascinating to me, because it ties in with the ongoing discussion in the pedagogy about balancing art and personal development with a curriculum that you can grade. And for the most part, that comes out of developing a strong basis in bebop (because it opens so many doors to so many musics and helps with the whole 'developing proficiency' side of the conservatory) and then testing the student on it the way you would test them on a subject like science.
Unlike some of the cats I go to school with, I don't have a major problem with that. It suits me well, to be honest, and I've got most of a BS in Biology to prove it. Where I think the potential issue is happens when the student graduates and they don't know anything beyond what they were taught and what they like to listen to anyway--so the poor guy goes on playing 'jazz-with-Da-vid Ba-ker' for the rest of his life (and he also might not emotionally know the historical context of that lick, but that's probably another post). The end result is, of course, a legion of young cats who can play real fast but have a hard time getting their own sound to come out.
And that's what the Tristano School--not the ideological concept, but the brick building Lennie taught out of--was all about! Listen to the major pianists of the school; Ronnie Ball sounds nothing like Sal Mosca, who both sound NOTHING like Connie Crothers--and none of them sound exactly like Lennie. When you read all the collected materials detailing what learning from Lennie was like, it becomes clear that it was very much emotionally and instinctively driven (learning to sing solos that you weren't required to put on the instrument, focusing on how the instrument made you feel, an intense ear training regimen). Lennie wanted you to sound like YOURSELF, not like him and not like the people you were learning with, and he did that by developing your facility and your musical instincts to a ludicrous degree. That's why there's not a collection of licks you can point to; the goal was to become so familiar with the vocabulary you could invent phrases that sounded like they'd been there all along and no longer have to refer to the things you knew.
Not like I'm saying that the school was some Mount Olympus of improvisers, totally unsurpassable and unable to be improved on. There's a lot of issues in developing such an emotional connection to a mere process. A lot of guys from the Tristano school never got out from under Lennie's shadow;
Warne Marsh was aiming to reform the Konitz-Tristano-Marsh axis well up until Lennie died in the 70's.
It's also not very open to growth. I get the feeling that the reason that Lee was/is the guy who continues to innovate and remain vital is because he left the School relatively early, got out to check out what other people were doing, and incorporated that into his playing. I also get the feeling, though, that Lennie's way of teaching virtually guarantees each student will have a relatively strong musical identity (though maybe at the cost of personal identity, something more separate from the peers with whom you were taught).
So if this is such a great way to develop an original sound, why doesn't everyone teach this way?
There simply isn't enough time.
A lot of the people who came back to Lennie stayed for longer than the 4 years a music school gives you, and they often came to Lennie earlier than a music school could take you (when'd Lee start studying, age 15?). To boot, the student has to be extremely dedicated to the method; take a look at the tedious ear training exercises and polyrhythm exercises associated with the school, then imagine how much more fun blowing over an F blues would be. Now you understand the struggle.
In addition, how would you grade an 'original sound'? I guarantee you an undergrad jazz major at a conservative school would have a hard road uphill if they decided to adopt Connie Crothers as their primary sound model. It's also pretty difficult to teach a style you know nothing about, let alone IN a style you know nothing about. I don't know how many professors at the university level there are who know more about Tristano than 'blind white pianist, too many notes, loves Bach', let alone the intimacies/benefits of the teaching style. I'd also note that a special teacher like Lennie doesn't happen in everyone's life. Not everyone has the capacity to engage in this type of radical teaching as the leader of the class.
So in regards to the subtitle--why don't I play a ton of Bird licks? Well, it kinda comes down to a quote which, ironically enough, I can't quite ascribe:
"A great way to sound original is to have obscure influences."