With its ever-growing audience and notoriety, New Orleans’ beloved Jazz Fest has gone through a great deal of musical expansion, for better or for worse. The selection of artists performing under the Jazz Tent each year shows that the festival, on top of valuing the forms of jazz deeply rooted in the city’s traditions, has kept up with the different forms its music has evolved into as it historically rose to become a national and global cultural phenomenon. The coming of alto saxophonist and cool jazz pioneer Lee Konitz on May 4 only furthers this acknowledgment of modern jazz history.
Defying all stereotypes of jazzmen’s longevity, Konitz remains an active musician today. “I’m going to be 90 years old in October, and I got more gigs than ever,” he says. “People enjoying the music is a big kick for me.”
When Konitz was 22 years old he sat in on a recording session that was to bring tremendous changes to the direction of the music—Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. In an era when alto saxophonists caught the Charlie Parker frenzy, Konitz managed to develop a voice on the instrument that was truly his, navigating gently from one idea to the next with a tremendous sense for melodic phrasing and a delicate tone.
Today, the saxophonist still works at developing his language by improvising on standard songs he spontaneously calls on stage, free to wander in any direction that he feels. “It’s different every time, so I’m not just learning a routine and playing it. That’s important—I never feel like I’m doing a gig, I like that.”
From his beginnings with pianist Lennie Tristano and saxophonist Warne Marsh, Konitz has traveled through the ages of jazz recording, putting out new music relentlessly for 50 years and collaborating with artists such as Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus and many more.
Despite his nearly unmatched experience as an improviser, the artist still seeks new ways to make his music fresh. On his latest Impulse! release, Frescalalto—where he is joined by fellow jazz legend Kenny Barron, who will bring his piano trio to the Jazz Tent on May 6—he recorded his first vocals, something he says he’s been waiting to do for 85 years.
To maintain this sense of growth, a quality most respected among jazz musicians, Konitz continues to practice his craft every day. “There will never be an end to that,” he says. “I hope I can continue when I get up to heaven.”
Lee Konitz will be joined by pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Jeremy Stratton and drummer George Schuller.