This footage of Lennie Tristano was filmed in Copenhagen in 1965.
Leonard Tristano was born in Chicago into an Italian immigrant family from Aversa on March 19, 1919. He was blind from infancy and studied piano and music theory from pre-teen years, graduating from his home town's American Conservatory of Music in 1943.
Tristano's interest in jazz inspired a move to New York City in 1946. His advanced grasp of harmony pushed his music beyond even the complexities of the contemporary bebop movement, although he was always explicit about acknowledging his enormous debt to Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. (Other key ingredients in his style were Nat King Cole and Art Tatum, influences most audible in his early drummer-less trio recordings.) Though he and his followers remained at something of a slant to mainstream bebop, he did on occasion play and record with bebop's preeminent figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and Tristano was a pallbearer at Parker's funeral. Often the "Tristano school" has been contrasted with bebop, however, by being labelled "cool jazz", though this risks lumping his music in with unrelated styles like the West Coast cool jazz of the 1950s.
Among Lennie's most important earlier recordings was a 1949 sextet session with his students, saxophone players Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. After recording a number of conventionally structured compositions, Tristano had the group record "Intuition" and "Digression." Both pieces were completely improvised, with no prearranged melody, harmony or rhythm. These two songs are often cited as the first recorded examples of free jazz or free improvisation.
Tristano released two important albums on Atlantic Records, which remain his best-known work. His self titled album from 1955, is famous for including innovative experiments with overdubbing "Requiem" and "Turkish Mambo," and altered tape-speed on "Line Up" and "East 32nd." The second side is a straightforward club gig in the company of Lee Konitz. The "Requiem" album on the other hand is a tribute to the late Charlie Parker, is notable for its deep blues feeling – a style not usually associated with Tristano. However, perhaps the most significant work lies in the composition "Line Up," a spiralling linear improvisation based on the changes to "All of Me."
His distrust of jazz record labels and increasingly infrequent public performances meant that his recordings are comparatively scarce, and many of them are concert recordings of very variable fidelity. By the mid-1950s, Tristano focused his energies more and more on music education. He can be regarded as one of the first jazz teachers to teach jazz in a structured way, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing to his death in 1978. Lennie approached each student individually and hence lessons were structured to meet the needs of each individual; however, each student was challenged in ways that would allow the student to find and express their own musical feelings, or style.
He would often have his students learn to sing and play the improvised solos by some of best-known names in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Solos were often learned by first playing them along with the original recording, from a phonograph record or magnetic audio tape, at half the normal speed, hence the pitch would drop by one octave. Eventually the student would learn the solo at normal speed. Tristano stressed that the student was not learning to imitate the artist, but rather should use the experience to gain insight into the musical feeling conveyed by the artist.
One of the key teaching tools that he used was the metronome. In practicing fundamentals such as scales, the student would set the metronome at or near to its slowest setting and play the scales and arpeggios in a legato fashion covering the full range of their instrument with very even dynamics. Developing a strong awareness of the beat was a key element of his teaching philosophy.