deLEEcatessin Konitz

The author and Lee Konitz at Barney Greengrass in NYC on June 5, 2019. Photo: Michael Robinson.

It was a June Sunday morning and I had awakened in the guest room of Lee Konitz’s Manhattan apartment on West 86th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues.The night before we had gone to the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village after dining at La Mirabelle a few doors down from Lee’s place, where a starry-eyed waitress had spontaneously serenaded us with a full chorus of Autumn Leaves in French upon learning we were musicians. At the jazz club, where we were comped, Lee being greeted like a saint, a pleasantly energetic Harold Mabern joined us for some lively conversation. I had seen Harold perform with Pharoah Sanders recently back in Los Angeles. Lee, Pharoah and Art Tatum all share the same October 13 birthday.

At Barney Greengrass, right around the corner, Lee and I had our first brunch together, our previous shared meals over the years having been mostly dinners with a few lunches. Lee favored delicatessens because they reminded him of his childhood in Chicago.

While living in Kapalua, Maui some years earlier, where I played a white Yamaha Baby Grand part-time in a fancy clothing boutique, I met a woman who said she was an owner of Barney Greengrass, relating how Irving Berlin had a quart of fresh borscht delivered every day at his Beekman Place home to which the legendary songwriter would add some raw opium.

I was struck by the ferocity and passion with which Lee ibibed his kasha varnishkes, really like a teenager if 91, while I went overboard with pastrami on rye with mustard.

Lee had become incredibly oversensitive to his surroundings, and complained about an adjacent patron who was innocently and quietly sitting while checking his phone rather than eating. Noticing Lee’s discomfort, our waiter, who was disarmingly hip and appreciative of who Lee Konitz was, replied in a friendly jest that he would “call security.” Fortunately getting the hint, however unfair and unwarranted, the younger man shot up and left with some indignation, Lee simply not liking the vibe he was getting in such close proximity.

Lee’s son, Josh, an electrician, joined us at the table, having arrived from Long Island to visit his Dad, and I inquired about the street in Levittown where the family of three girls and two boys had been raised by a jazz musician and his wife. There was a woods nearby where Josh and his friends would play for hours, including much digging and making forts. He recalled how Lee had once shown up and just stared with perplexity at what they were doing without saying anything. Attempting to learn something about Lee’s first wife and Josh’s mother, they preferred not to discuss it for whatever reason.

Thinking back about our dinner and brunch, Konitz was adapting his persona in the manner of an introspective jazz ballad versus the controlled frenzy of an uptempo cooker. At the elegant French restaurant on Saturday night, he was the picture of refined elegance, including charming our waitresses with wit and charisma. Conversely, at the deli the next morning, it was all holds barred while never impolite (except perhaps towards the fellow he wanted gone!) or unseemly, more so uninhibited energy.

Prior to the weekend reunion with Lee, earlier in the week, I had visited the suburban street where the Konitz family had dwelled, which was easy to do because I was staying in an adjacent town with my mother, and it was difficult to reconcile the mundanity of the setting with the exalted elevation of the music Lee was performing and recording at the time, engaging the imaginations of friends and colleagues such as Charlie Parker, Leonard Bernstein and Miles Davis.

Another local street I visited on this trip was where the reputed real life godfather of the sixties had resided. When I arrived, a new house was being built, so I missed seeing the actual home he lived in. The lone construction worker there allowed me to enter the grounds with panoramic bay views.

Saying goodbye to Lee and Josh outside the deli, I gave Lee a spontaneous hug, not knowing if I’d even see him again because I was living in California. Lee wanted to know when I’d be back, disappointed that I was leaving for home the next day, but I really couldn’t say when that would be, something I now regret because I likely would have been invited to stay at Lee’s place for a week or two over the summer, including the opportunity of playing duets together.

As it turns out, Lee invited me to his 92nd birthday party the following October, and that would be the last time we got together.

We did have a great subsequent phone conversation, this being the last time I spoke to him, with Lee prophetically urging me to begin playing jazz in addition to my composing. Miraculously, his suggestion came to be, and even though he’s gone, he’s still with me all the time because in addition to being close to his music, we became close friends. His vibe is part of me.

– March 2022, Los Angeles

© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 169 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 20 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.