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Lee Konitz, groundbreaking jazz saxophonist for 7 decades, dies of coronavirus at 92

Lee Konitz in 2002. (Tibor Olah/AP)

This story is part of “Faces of the dead,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

Lee Konitz, an alto saxophonist who was an innovative figure in jazz for more than 70 years and the last surviving member of the groundbreaking “Birth of the Cool” group whose late-1940s recordings influenced a generation of musicians, died April 15 at a hospital in New York City. He was 92.

His family announced his death on Facebook, saying the cause was complications from the novel coronavirus.

Mr. Konitz came of musical age during the bebop movement, which revolutionized jazz in the 1940s with its fast-paced rhythmic drive and harmonic innovations, pioneered by the trailblazing saxophonist Charlie Parker.

At first, Mr. Konitz mastered Parker’s restless, high-speed cascades of sound — then deliberately went in a different musical direction. Guided by his studies with Lennie Tristano, a blind pianist who sought to blend elements of classical music with jazz, Mr. Konitz developed a style in which his improvised solos seemed to float like clouds, structured not as bursts of sound but as well-wrought musical sculptures, built over shifting harmonies.

“I was avoiding some of the similar routes that other guys were taking by being influenced by so strong a force as Charlie Parker,” he told Downbeat magazine in the 1950s. He also avoided the hard drugs that ended the lives of Parker and other jazz musicians of his generation.

Instead, Mr. Konitz took inspiration from an earlier generation of jazz musicians, most notably Lester Young, a tenor saxophonist with Count Basie’s band in the 1930s, who brought a light, lyrical touch to his instrument and became a musical model for Mr. Konitz.

He worked in the big band of Claude Thornhill in 1947, then made some early improvised “free jazz” recordings with Tristano before being called for the “Birth of the Cool” sessions in 1949.

Along with trumpeter Miles Davis, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and arranger Gil Evans, Mr. Konitz was one of the key contributors to “Birth of the Cool,” which was not issued in complete form until 1957 but was soon considered a musical landmark.

Mr. Konitz’s lyrical solos on several tunes on “Birth of the Cool,” including “Moon Dreams,” “Israel” and “Move,” helped define a restrained, “cool” style of jazz exemplified by Davis, Mulligan, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond and pianist Bill Evans.

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In the words of the authoritative “New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,” Mr. Konitz was “the foremost saxophonist in the cool style of jazz, and one of the few alto saxophonists of his generation to create a viable jazz style outside the dominating influence of Charlie Parker.”

Mr. Konitz wrote a number of tunes, often punning on his name — “Subconscious-Lee,” “Lone-Lee,” “Leewise” — but he was perhaps better known for adapting standard tunes to his meticulous, searching style of improvisation. He was a deep admirer of the music of Frank Sinatra and returned over and over to such familiar works as “All the Things You Are” and “Body and Soul,” finding fresh prisms to make musical light in each encounter.

“I like to play very familiar tunes and then try to stretch them as far as they’ll go,” he told Marian McPartland in 1992 on her NPR show “Piano Jazz.”

He had a distinctive tone on alto saxophone that was immediately identifiable: arid and attenuated, with almost no vibrato.

“He has always been free of cliches,” New Yorker magazine jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote. “He surprises you no matter how many times you hear him play ‘All the Things You Are’ and ‘You Go to My Head’ and ‘These Foolish Things.’ His attack is a shrewd mixture of short phrases, often compounded of repeated notes, and long horizontal utterances capped by his barely perceptible vibrato. His solos are full of secrets.”

After working with Tristano, Davis and saxophonist Warne Marsh in his early days, Mr. Konitz fell out of favor in the 1960s, even as the experimental jazz movement that he helped launch began to gain a foothold. He moved to California for a few years, supporting himself as a painter and gardener before making a triumphal return to the jazz world with an improvised solo tune, “Blues for Bird,” at a 1965 Carnegie Hall tribute to Parker.

He found greater acceptance in Europe, where he lived part-time since the 1980s, before gaining acclaim as a jazz elder whose authority and musical ability remained undiminished, even in his late 80s.

He was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 and appeared on hundreds of recordings. Instead of leading an established group, he often performed in duos or small ensembles with other forward-looking musicians, including bassist Charlie Haden, guitarists John Scofield and Bill Frisell, and pianists Paul Bley, Kenny Barron and Brad Mehldau.

“It’s very mystical, in a way,” he told McPartland in 1992. “To improvise, you are supposed to be able to stand there or sit there and compose in front of everybody. That’s what makes this music special.

“When it works, there are a group of people out there that love this process. That’s the only way I can think that I’ve been able to continue going on because I’m not a virtuoso in the usual sense of the word.”

Leon Konitz was born Oct. 13, 1927, in Chicago. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a dry-cleaning business.

At 11, young Lee, as he became known, began playing clarinet and studying with a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He switched to saxophone, first tenor and later alto, as he became increasingly drawn to jazz.

He left high school to join a dance band, then moved in 1947 to New York, where he became one of the best-known acolytes of Tristano. One of the things he learned from Tristano was to sing along with recordings.

“I studied with him for two years, beginning when I was 18, and it was a truly life-changing experience,” saxophonist and writer Bill Kirchner wrote in an email. “Lee handed me a copy of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers’ album and said, ‘Take this home and learn one of these songs exactly as Sinatra sings it — with all of his phrasing, inflections, and time feel. And be able to sing and play along with him.’ ”

Mr. Konitz was married three times and had five children from his first marriage; a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

As his playing style grew more abstract with time, he sometimes abandoned harmonic structures entirely or only hinted at a song’s written melody. Yet his music retained an essential singing quality — and in his later years, he even put down his horn on occasion to sing a few notes.

“I love to hear beautiful melodies played or sung,” he told NPR in 2010. “That’s the feeling I have for the horn. This is what I got coined with, the ‘cool’ sound. Some people say, you know, when are you gonna swing? It’s not a competition to me. I just like to sing my little song and hopefully get a reaction from the people I’m playing with and the people that are listening.”

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