LENNIE TRISTANO, COPENHAGEN, 1965



01 Darn That Dream
02 Lullaby Of The Leaves
03 Expressions
04 You Don't Know What Love Is
05 Tivoli Gardens Swing
06 Ghost Of A Chance
07 It's You Or No One
08 Imagination
09 Tangerine

Tristano as a Teacher

(An excerpt from Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music by Eunmi Shim.)


Teaching was one of Tristano's main activities throughout his life. He is often cited as one of the first to teach jazz improvisation, his teaching career spanned more than thirty years, and he invested much value and effort in that role. Significantly, teaching was how he made his living, enabling him to pursue his own musical interest without having to comply with the demands of the music industry, and thus providing him an alternative and uncompromising way of living as a jazz musician.

Another function of his teaching was to foster generations of musicians. Some of them became his band mates, most notably Konitz and Marsh from the first generation; these two played an integral part in forging the style of the 1949 Capitol recordings, which became the emblematic sound of the "Tristano school."

By the early 1960s Tristano had a large number of students, "four or five hundred a year," according to him, and in 1973 he had more students than he could handle and kept a waiting list. In 1976 he refused to reveal the number of students, because he was afraid of having to pay income tax. These facts indicate that teaching provided him a major source of income.

Throughout his career Tristano became increasingly more occupied with teaching than with public performances or issuing records, which reflected his gradual withdrawal from the public scene. He stated in1962, "I feel as seriously about teaching as I do about playing: it must be done with everything you have." In 1965 he indicated that his main activity was teaching, and then in 1977 he cited teaching as a moral duty, describing himself as more of a teacher than an artist.

Teaching was also something that he enjoyed greatly, as he expressed in 1969: "It's beautiful to assist people in developing the ability to create…”

In Tristano's later years teaching was an important source of personal contact, perhaps fulfilling his emotional need to connect with students. Several students from the 1970s, most of whom were in their middle to late teens or early twenties at the time, indicated that Tristano was a paternal figure and that he reveled in associating with them on very informal terms, enabling them to establish instantaneous rapport with him. He was appreciative of such relationships with students probably because of the separation from his own children.

The Evolution and Principal Concepts of His Teaching

Tristano's teaching career dates back to the early 1940s with the Axel Christensen School of Popular Music in Chicago. In 1962 he explained that it all began "because no one else there was trying to teach anything special besides reading and embouchure building. Somusicians came to me… I didn't really know how to teach at the time, but students who wanted to learn taught me how to teach." Tristano taught privately in Chicago as well, then in New York after his move in 1946.

Underlying his teaching was the belief that "[t]he jazz musician's function" is "to feel." He also stated, "You have to be influenced by all great musicians, no matter what instrument they play, because the essence of jazz is feeling, it's not really the notes, it's the feeling behind." Accordingly, he taught students to connect the aural training based on feeling with an ability to play the instrument, so that they could play what they were hearing, and hear what they were playing. Often mentioned as an ultimate goal by many jazz musicians, this process involves transferring their aural conception onto the instrument immediately; it requires gaining full control of the instrument, so that it would not restrain musicians from what they want to express. For example, Tristano recommended singing improvised solos along with records, which helped students internalize the feeling involved in them and assimilate the musical language and expression. He also devised exercises to combine students' ability to hear their melodies with proficiency on the instrument, ensuring an immediate transmission from the musical conception to its physical realization.

Emphasizing hearing and feeling, he strived to eliminate a conscious thinking process while improvising. According to Victor Lesser, "Lennie's thing had a lot to do with playing very intuitively and basically just developing your ears to the point where you could hear a lot of great lines in your head and developing your chops to the point where whatever music was in your head would just flow out of your instrument."

Tristano endeavored to present different elements of music in an integrated way, as exemplified by his emphasis on fundamentals and competence in basic musicianship, which remained an essential principle throughout his teaching career.

He stated in 1962, "I'm not interested in teaching parts, only the whole. The whole is greater than the parts…Bird was certainly greater than all his licks. That's why the imitators are not great. They're only doing the parts." It was in this context that Tristano deplored the change in the tendency of students, stating, "I don't have a Warne Marsh now": "Nowadays musicians are interested in chops, technique, and vocabulary. But I don't teach that way. Now I have short-lived students… [T]hey are short-lived because they want particular things. They don't want the whole… I teach from the conceptual point of view — according to the individual, of course."

The primary means of teaching fundamentals comprised ear training, scales, rhythm, singing improvised solos with records, and keyboard harmony. Students worked on several exercises concurrently, which helped them gain a full control of parameters involved in improvisation through an organic development, and most of the exercises were required of all students regardless of their instrument, including drummers and singers.

Tristano also stressed the importance of discipline, consistency,and concentration. Marsh likened his study to classical musical training, remarking, "It's worthless to just give them ideas without giving them training": "[T]he student teaches himself, that's the point,the teacher is the guide. So the classic studies in music, the rudimentsof harmony, of meter and of rhythm can be taught pretty much as they are in classical music… And I feel that I've had one of the best educations available through Lennie — and essentially all I do is turn around and pass that on to my students."

Known as a demanding teacher, Tristano required that students learn the material completely before progressing further. Some described him as a taskmaster who insisted on perfection. Sal Mosca recalled, "He pinned you down more": "If he gave you some scales to work on — like the major scales — he wouldn't do anything until you learned them. Or if he gave you some chords to work on… he would hear them in all the keys, and he wouldn't move until you played them. He was thorough, but not to the point where he was a strict disciplinarian… Yet the discipline was there as an integral part of it." For Timmy Cappello, Tristano's emphasis on discipline was a source of motivation: "[H]e was the only person that really cut right to it with me… He said, 'I think that you could be agreat player. But you're not spending nearly enough time doing it… You just have to play a minimum of four hours a day. And you really should be playing more than that. And you might just as well give it up if you're not going to do that.'" Cappello continued: "And it really did change my life around in a couple of ways. I got kicked out of the apartment after that, but I really was devoted to it for those years that I studied with him."

There was also a moralistic element in Tristano's teaching. Many students believed that he embodied the principles of his teaching through his devotion to his music, emboldened by his strong conviction and powerful personality. For example, especially during the later period of his teaching career, he discouraged students from becoming working musicians. In addition to his concern that "there just isn't much work," as he stated in 1969, Tristano stressed that commercial factors should not interfere with creative expression. Bill Chattin was one student who especially appreciated the advice: "He said, 'If you really want to get into your music, get a job. Because there's no gigs out there, the jazz scene is not happening. If you really want to do it in a deep way, you… make your money doing something else."

Over the course of thirty-some years Tristano's teaching evolved from a theoretical and compositional approach toward a generalized and intuitive one. During the earlier period of his teaching he taught elements of improvisation using modernistic concepts he learned from classical music, such as polytonality, polyrhythm, and structural effectiveness. According to Marsh, Tristano's "explanations were pure European theory." In his later teaching career Tristano presented the material in a more general fashion. Marsh explained: "A student who has any listening experience first gets an education in Louis, Pres and Bird — before any theory. From there, Lennie applies the basic ingredients — harmony, ear training, rhythm, the understanding of what goes into improvising without actually telling the student what to play. Lennie did make that mistake in the early years." Marsh then described the change in Tristano's teaching: "But now he leaves the conception itself to the individual player. In short, he teaches the essentials. As fo rexercises, for example, he used to make them up directly from the jazz material; now he has the students make up their own exercises under his supervision so that they learn to cover the whole horn."

During the early years Tristano also gave assignments that required musical notation, even though he did not employ written music to teach. Later, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, he used number notation to denote pitch contents of various musical figures and chord structures. The number notation probably facilitated the process of transposition of the figures into different keys by bringing out intervallic relationships.

Tristano's long teaching career also involved a change of an emotional nature. Many students noted that in the 1970s he "mellowed out" or became "more accepting" of his students, in that he more readily expressed students' merits. Some older students said that he became lenient and lowered his standards, considering that he tended to be rather harsh and reserved in the earlier period. In the 1970s he also encouraged students to explore free playing, which was not a regular part of the lessons in the earlier period.

Nature of the Lesson

Tristano liked to have interviews first with prospective students,in which he explained his approach to teaching and informed them that studying with him would require a great deal of work. To some this was a revealing experience of demystifying jazz improvisation, engaging them deeply in their studies.

Lennie Azzarello recalled: "After he started telling me about the way you practice technique, the way you develop your left hand, the voicings in the left hand, the way you learn to sing, the way you learn how to improvise by learning the language of the greats, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Charlie Christian, it made so much sense to me." Azzarello continued: "I really felt at that point that it was something you could actually touch… I always wondered if it were just like a chosen few that had somehow received the gift. But with Lennie it was one of those things where he broke it down in a very logical order and in a progressive way… I worked like crazy. I was very much into him."

Jon Faston, who was seventeen at the time, also became enthusiastic: "He really made a big impact from the very beginning. He told me on that first meeting… that he wasinterested in teaching me to be able to play really whatever I was hearing and feeling at that split-second moment, a concept of… total freedom of improvisation… I could barely believe that it was possible to really think about that kind of level of improvisation." Easton further recalled: "He made it clear he was only interested in working with me, if I was interested in really aiming in that direction that he was charging out… finding your own creativity and self-expression and cultivation of it… It was a very intense experience that year… I was very deep into it, studying with Lennie."

Students recalled that the lessons covered several elements ofmusic, reflecting Tristano's statement in 1951 that he would teach "five or six things at a time: harmony, ear training, composition, technique,etc." Tristano presented his teaching approach to Easton, a piano student, emphasizing the importance of integrating the elements for the purpose of spontaneous improvisation:

• Ear training: Learning to hear and identify everything from an interval through the triads, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th chords in all theopen and closed inversions.

• Keyboard harmony: Being able to play all the above in every major and minor key.

• Harmony: Being able to put all this material together so it makes musical logical sense.

• Singing with records: Learning to sing with the solos of all the great jazz improvisers. This develops ability to improvise becauseknowing all the great improvisers helps you develop your ownimagination.

• Rhythm: Learning to feel and understand all the subdivisions plus 2 against 3, 3 against 4, 5 against 4, etc.

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