Conscious-Lee Cool

Lee Konitz was in the room at the Birth of the Cool

If one of the guys from Chuck Berry’s band was playing “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode,” you’d be there. Well, the jazz equivalent is happening on Saturday night: Lee Konitz — who stood alongside Miles Davis for the recording of Birth of the Cool 60 years ago — will be playing big-band recreations of some Cool tracks at the Fox alongside the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble.

Being cool? The man helped invent the idea. Konitz — one of the great alto saxophone players in jazz history — may be 82 now, but back when he was 22, he joined Miles, Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans on the album that answered bebop, the dominant jazz style of the late ’40s, with a more relaxed approach that made every note count.

And he’s going to play three tunes from Birth of the Cool with the Whitworth jazz players: “Move,” “Boplicity” and “Venus de Milo.”

“We will be playing exact transcripts, enlarged for the big band,” Konitz says, speaking by phone from his New York apartment. “It’s great music. In the big-band arrangement, my solos are incidental, and then the kids will play — so it sort of reverses the emphasis of the music. It’s interesting to me because incidentally, I’m the only guy who’s still around from those sessions.”

(Actually, Gunther Schuller — who has Spokane connections with the Symphony and the Northwest Bach Festival — played French horn on the last of the recording sessions for Birth of the Cool. Reminded of that, Konitz says, “Yeah, I’m playing with Gunther’s son George tonight.” It’s a coincidence that demonstrates how small yet enduring the jazz community is.)

Konitz will also help the jazz tradition continue by teaching “the kids” how to play in a Fridayafternoon jazz clinic on the Whitworth campus.

His basic advice? “Learn to play the melody before you start embroidering it,” he says. “Do some good groundwork before you start to improvise.”

In seven decades, Konitz has witnessed the ebb and flow of many jazz styles — bebop and cool, soul jazz and free jazz, fusion and the emergence of the Young Lions. Back when he was a kid himself, back in the ’40s, jazz was truly popular music. Now it’s marginalized. “That’s sad but very true,” he says. But he’s still optimistic: “There are still a lot of learned young practitioners who have studied this music and have tried to expand it. I hear talented people wherever I go — even 12-year-olds.”

He’s an octogenarian who retains a sense of style, and the music of Lee Konitz (as in the title of his first hit album) just might affect you Subconscious-Lee.

Lee Konitz leads a jazz clinic on Friday, Nov. 6, at 5:15 pm in Whitworth’s Music Building, 300 W. Hawthorne Rd. Free. Call 777-3280. Konitz performs with the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 8 pm at the Fox. Tickets: $17. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.