Lee Konitz performs in 1992
Photo: Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Remembering Jazz Saxophone Legend Lee Konitz, "Cool Jazz" Pioneer And Miles Davis Collaborator
The jazz world lost one of its most revered artists this week (April 15) with the passing of Lee Konitz, the legendary, award-winning composer and saxophonist best known for his pioneering work in the "cool jazz" style as well as his contributions to Miles Davis' Birth Of The Cool sessions between 1949 and 1950.
Konitz, who died in Manhattan at 92 due to complications from COVID-19, held a prolific seven-decade career, which included runs and collaborations with several icons in the jazz world, including Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Stan Kenton's Orchestra, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell and several others.
Born in 1927 in Chicago, Konitz began his jazz journey at a young age. Inspired by early jazz and big band greats like Benny Goodman, he began on clarinet, at age 11, which he traded for a tenor sax and then moved to the alto sax. By 1945, he went pro and began to work with fellow jazz musicians, and future regular collaborators, like Jerry Wald, Tristano, Claude Thornhill and his orchestra, Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan.
Between 1949 and 1950, Konitz joined icon Miles Davis and several other musicians in a series of recording sessions, which would later comprise the latter's 1957 compilation Birth Of The Cool, a landmark album in the jazz canon. The album, along with Konitz's unique style, would go on to help establish and define the "cool jazz" sound, a more subdued, lighter take on the genre that broke away from the faster, complex bebop style then dominating the era.
Lee Konitz (center), alongside Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, at the Birth Of The Cool recording sessions in 1949
While Konitz was "influential in the development of the so-called cool school," The New York Times writes, he also varied his style, "from an early unaccompanied saxophone solo album, to post-bop, free improvisations and a string of innovative duets," Billboard notes. Altogether, he recorded and featured on several dozens of albums as a leader or co-leader and sideman, including works with jazz icons as well as non-jazz artists like Elvis Costello; Konitz played on the latter's 2003 album, North.
Like the true jazz serviceman he was, Konitz continued to perform live into his 90s before his passing, The New York Times notes.
Lee Konitz is survived by his five children, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.