Lee Konitz

When I was playing with Joseph Holbrooke the trio was asked to play with Lee Konitz on a tour in the North. By this time, March 1966, our work was completely free, with little sense of jazz or any other external reference. But as we knew that Lee was interested in free playing and was doing something like that at the time, so we agreed to do it. The first date was in Sheffield, where we were based, and was to take place in the Student’s Union on March 15 at the university, where I had studied philosophy two years earlier. It was organised by former student friends of mine: Andy Shone, to whom I even gave bass lessons for a while; and a very good guitarist, Ed Speight, who’d I played with at university and with whom I was playing when I first encountered Derek and Tony. We met Lee from the train at Sheffield Midland station. I was impressed that he was carrying a fairly large tape recorder and was wearing headphones and was listening to Webern. Bear in mind that this was almost fifteen years before the advent of the Walkman!

We went back to Tony’s house on Abbeydale Road and had some  tea and chatted. Then we went to the university. We didn’t rehearse but when we were backstage and Lee noticed me tuning my bass on harmonics, working round from the A, he said that we would start with a long A… And so we did.

We played in a fairly abstract sort of way for a while, and after some time Lee muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “Star Eyes.” Fortunately, I remembered that it was in E flat, so  I broke into time, playing a kind of post-LaFaro loping 2-in-a-bar and we played this song. After a while he muttered from the corner of his mouth “four”, so I moved into a walking 4-in-a-bar line as he moved more into the kind of solo that he was known for. This set the pattern for most of the gig. I remember this clearly, but there may even be a recording because Evan  Parker once said that he’d actually heard this… but I haven’t.

As the tour progressed Lee started to play more and more of his more ‘normal’ standard repertoire, closer to his post-bebop approach. Given what we were doing at the time, it is interesting to hear Derek and Tony playing in this way, Derek especially… and as for me, I seldom played walking lines anymore. When our trio had played harmonic jazz in the early days, Derek was fond of Jim Hall but could also play like Wes Montgomery or Barney Kessel. However, he’d left that far behind by 1966. There’s a Lee Konitz discography that gives a list of all the recordings he made, and there’s one entry which refers to a recording from the tour – a live gig in a Manchester club, four days after Sheffield. The entry read: “Derek Bailey, guitar; Tony Oxley, drums; unknown bass player.” That was me. I was quite proud to be “unknown bs…”

The discography has since been updated to the following entry:

3-19-66 Lee Konitz Quartet

Lee Konitz (as), Derek Bailey (g), Gavin Bryars (b), Tony Oxley (dr): Club 43, Manchester,

England

01. Carvin’ The Bird (Charles Parker) 02. I Remember You 03. Out of Nowhere

Private Tape

It was quite a long time afterwards that I became aware of the existence a recording – rumour had it that Tony had a copy, but Tony and I didn’t see each other at all between 1966 and 1998. It was only a couple of years ago when I was rambling through the internet that I found a forum that seemed to be almost entirely focused on this recording. So I wrote to them and they were astounded that the bass player they had been listening to was actually in the forum with them! I wrote about what we did and how it worked, and I gave a full account of everything and they were very happy. But of course, in order for them to have this forum, they had to have the recording too, and I was eventually given a link to a download.

And then I was able to hear myself, some 52 years later, playing a kind of music that I had long since abandoned. But I knew it was me, and it was lovely too to hear my beautiful bass from that time, an old English Bernard Simon Fendt bass from around 1820, which I bought in 1965 and that had belonged to a fine classical player, Sam Sterling. I eventually sold it in the early 1990s, when Mike Hart made me the new instrument that I’ve played ever since (I’m also playing my old bass on the Incus rehearsal CD, as well as on the clips from Greasborough Working Men’s Club and with the Leicester Bley Band – see elsewhere on this web site). On the Konitz recordings, I don’t take any solos but just play a very good driving pulse, with inventive and springy lines. I wasn’t too bad…

Much later, in 1982, I was in touch with Lee again when I was in New York for a few weeks, sketching and rehearsing drafts for my first opera Medea, with Robert Wilson – in advance of the planned premiere at La Fenice, Venice, in September – and we would spend each day running through material at City College in Harlem. For the first week I lived in the Chelsea Hotel but then moved into an apartment around West 75th street, which turned out to be not far from where Lee lived, and I renewed my acquaintance with him. In my original concept for Medea, I had thought that one of the saxophonists in the orchestra could an improviser, to be used especially in the jazz-related scene at the beginning of Act 3, with Medea and Aegeus. I asked Lee if he would like to do this and he was very interested. At that time, there was a plan to take the production to other places after Venice, including Brooklyn Academy, and Lee would have played when it came to New York.

In the evenings and at weekends, I would look for interesting performances in the city and I heard the Lee Konitz Nonet at the Village Vanguard where they played, among other things, original arrangements from the 1949 Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” group and it was stunning to hear this music so directly, not filtered through scratchy recordings

In the event the opera was cancelled in Venice and was re-worked later.

However, Lee and I did play together again, this time in Leicester where I was teaching. Conrad Cork, the saxophonist I played with in Leicester, gives his account of this in Andy Hamilton’s book (Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art). In effect Lee had been invited by Derek Bailey to play as part of his Company Week in 1987 and, as Lee had a free night, Derek contacted me to see if I could fix something in Leicester. Lee would have expected a standard rhythm section of course, much as we had been in 1966, but while I did work with a trio, called Nardis (after the Miles Davis tune), it consisted of saxophone, bass and drums… But Lee agreed and came up to Leicester, where he did a masterclass for my students and then we played at a small venue in the middle of town called The Cooler. We spent hardly any time rehearsing, just agreeing on some songs. We played the first piece, Stella by Starlight, with just bass and drums (and he kept trying to get John Runcie, the drummer to play more softly, or to use brushes). Lee then asked Conrad, on alto sax,  to join for the next song Over the Rainbow, while he switched to soprano and it was quite lovely. The gig got better and better and was a huge success. The place was packed – even the new principal of the polytechnic (later vice chancellor of the university) was there – and for the first time, probably, The Cooler made a profit, helped maybe by the fact that the trio was not paid anything…

Conrad refers in his account to “the tape we made” so there is probably more archive footage about somewhere. I’d certainly be curious to hear it…

Gavin Bryars