Close Menu

Lee Konitz playing saxophone in front of student instrumentalists.Lee Konitz

Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, long regarded as one of the major figures in the history of jazz, was awarded the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award - our nation's highest award in jazz.

Konitz helped launch the "Cool Jazz" movement by being a porimary player on the landmark jazz album, Birth of the Cool, which he recorded with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan, et al., in 1949 and 1950. The album represented a major development in post-bebop jazz and was significant to the history of cool jazz, which is a style of jazz music that rose to prominence after World War II, when predominantly white musicians from California mixed with mostly black bebop musicians from New York to form a smooth, composed sound that include improvisation.

Konitz has been playing jazz music for more than 60 years, during which he has produced more than 50 albums. In his youth, Konitz studied alto saxophone with several teachers in Chicago. As a teen in the early 1940s, his jazz style began to mature as he studied under noted pianist Lennie Tristano. Their recordings together include the 1949 releases Intuition and Digression, which represented the first free improvised recorded music.

After working with Miles Davis on Birth of the Cool, Konitz went on to play with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker's prominent band and then in Stan Kenton's big band. Charlie Parker lent Konitz support on the day Konitz's child was being born in Seattle, Washington and with him stuck in New York City. The two were actually good friends, and not the rivals some jazz critics once made them out to be.

Since then, he has mainly led his own small groups and toured abroad. In the 1960s, he took a break from the music business but continued to cultivate his unique sound; during that time he worked with musicians including Paul Bley, Martial Solal, Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau. He also worked as a private teacher, conducting lessons by tape with students worldwide. In the mid-1970s, he toured Europe with Warne Marsh, and in the 1980s he formed his own nine-man group and performed regularly.

In 1992, Konitz won the prestigious Danish JAZZPAR Prize. Over the past decade, his recordings have included Lee Konitz & The Axis String Quartet: Plays French Impressionist Music of the 21st Century (Palmetto, 2000) and One Day with Lee (2004), for which he joined with the Mark Masters Ensemble. Other releases include Inventions, featuring the Spring String Quartet (Omnitone, 2006); New Nonet (Omnitone, 2006); and Portology, featuring Orquestra Jass de Matosinhos (Omnitone, 2007). His newest CD, released earlier this year, is Parallels (Chesky Records).