Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his Legacy

Peter Ind - Equinox, 2005
ISBN 1-84553-045-4. Hardback. 214 pp. b&w illustrations. £16.99

Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his Legacy
Ind's eye-witness view life in midtown Manhattan at the height of the bebop era is captivating. The sea voyage from England took five and a half days. American dollars were four to the pound. Stores such as Macy's and Gimbels had air conditioning, then unknown in Britain. On 52nd Street, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Bud Powell and Fats Navarro could be heard. Errol Garner was at the Three Deuces, Coleman Hawkins at the Famous Door and Lennie Tristano's sextet appeared at the Orchid Room. Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey were popular. Ind went to the December 1949 opening of Birdland, where he heard Charlie Parker playing with strings.

In 1950, on another of his trips, and having already taken lessons with Lennie Tristano, Ind was invited to play the first set with the pianist's sextet at Birdland. New York was so alluring that in 1951 Ind, taking three double basses, went to live there. Soon he was playing alongside Elvin Jones, Duke Jordan and Lennie Tristano, and rehearsing with Gerry Mulligan and Neal Hefti.

Lessons with Tristano are described. The blind pianist had an exceptional ear, a powerful memory and interpersonal directness. His students were required to memorise famous jazz solos, sing them, then write them down. Extensive work on scales and arpeggios was required. There was an emphasis on learning melodies. Tristano comes across as a dominant figure, though paradoxically 'needing' his students, in a psychological sense.

Along with many others in the New York community of the time, Tristano was influenced by the psychologist Wilhelm Reich. Ind spends several pages describing Tristano's respect for Reich's writing, and how Ind would read aloud to Tristano from Reich's books. In 1947, following a series of articles in The New Republic and Harpers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began an investigation into Reich's claims, winning an injunction against the promotion of his orgone therapy as a medical treatment. Charged with contempt of court for violating the injunction, Reich conducted his own defence. This involved sending the judge all his books to read! In 1956 Reich was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, and died while serving his sentence. Frustratingly, Ind spends several pages on Reich, but only gives us part of the fascinating and instructive story. I have since discovered (not from Ind's book) that Kate Bush's song Cloudbusting is based on a book by Reich's son, Peter.

Ind never met Reich. He met and played with Bird, but Ind, as an immigrant, 'felt wary of becoming too involved with anyone associated with narcotics, knowing that I risked deportation should I find myself so accused.' The bassist also accompanied Billie Holiday, but tells us nothing about the experience. He worked with Buddy Rich. Apart from remarking that Rich was 'the proverbial pain in the arse,' nothing is revealed. In all instances Ind seems to have been present on the sidelines observing, but engaged only as a performer. He was not involved, or not prepared to tell us more.

The chapters dealing with the meaning of jazz and the appreciation of jazz improvisation are weaker, giving the opinions of Peter Ind rather than those of Lennie Tristano. The book then declines into less organised more repetitive discourse, being at times a rant. Simple but tedious George Russell-like expositions of improvisation theory as related to scales are followed by sections having no relevance to Lennie Tristano. Here are all-too-brief glimpses of Kenny Barron, Dudu Pukwana, Rufus Reid, Carmen Lundy and even Jamey Aebersold, with plenty of self-indulgent sideswipes at the modern world, at Free Jazz, Damien Hirst, Smooth Jazz, critics who rewrite jazz history and, of course, the need for a reappraisal of Lennie Tristano.

Ind says that he could never have written a standard biography, instead wanting the reader to find 'the melody in this improvised piece of writing'. Well, improvisation contains false starts, no second thoughts, no reshaping - and that's why most books aren't improvised, but are written with finesse and polish. The reader doesn't necessarily want to have to 'find the melody'. I don't wish to deter you from buying this valuable eye-witness account, but rigorous editing could have fashioned a more satisfying publication.

This review first appeared in Jazz Review magazine.

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