Lennie Tristano was born in Chicago on this day in 1919. At birth, influenza ruined his vision.By his 10th birthday he was blind. Formally trained at a music conservatory, he played piano and, as a 12-year-old clarinetist, led atraditional band. By the time he moved to New York in1946, Tristano had begun deepening the harmonic possibilities in modern jazz and by the end of the decade was a guru to forward looking musicians including saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh guitarist Billy Bauer, and a few adventurous veterans like tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman. His piano playing and harmonic innovations were examples to Bill Evans, Clare Fischer and many other pianists, composers and arrangers of the post-bebop generation.
Tristano’s teaching had a significant impact on jazz but, despite his influence, his public performances were few. That helps account for the importance of his June, 1966, engagement at the Half Note in New York and for the importance of showing you film made during his quintet’s run there that summer. The CBS television program Look Up And Live sent the theologian William Hamilton and a crew to the Half Note to make a segment of the program; more about Hamilton after we see the video.
The picture quality may have been fine originally, but it appears to have been through several generations of dubs. No matter; the sound is reasonably good. Through the murk you get a tour of the beloved Half Note in the days when folks dressed to go out in the evening. Those strips of cloth you will see on the mens’ shirtfronts were called neckties.
The bartender we glimpse now and then is Mike Canterino. He and his brother Sonny manned the bar. Their father may have had a formal name but his family and the customers called him Pop. You will get a glimpse of Pop and Sonny greeting Hamilton as he comes in. Pop and Mamma took care of the kitchen. The word pasta never crossed Pop’s lips; it was spaghetti. The uncomplicated menu gave jazz club food a good name, a major accomplishment. Mike’s wife Judi and Sonny’s wife Tita helped out. Judi became a singer after James Moody recruited her one night to sing the Blossom Dearie bridge on “Moody’s Mood For Love.” Al the waiter completed the staff.
In its original incarnation, the Half Note was among the warehouses and garages of lower Manhattan. In the seventies, the club moved uptown, lost its soul and died. Years ago on Rifftides, we embedded a 10-minute segment from the Look Up And Live show. Now, we can bring you the entire half hour, thanks to YouTube. The band is Tristano, Konitz, Marsh, Sonny Dallas on bass and Nick Stabulas on drums. They play Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee,” Tristano’s “317 East 32nd Street” and Marsh’s “Background Music.” As “Background Music” begins, Dr. Hamilton speaks his essay, or sermon, but be sure to stay around for the strength and intensity of Tristano’s solo on that final piece.
William Hamilton, the host of the Half Note Tristano film, was a doctor of theology who in the 1960s became a leader in the radical Christian faction questioning the existence of God. He appeared in several Look Up And Live segments. For more about Hamilton and the Death Of God movement, go here.
For a lovely remembrance of the Half Note by Dave Frishberg, who often played there, go here. Dave paints splendid pictures of Al the waiter and of Mr. George, a dedicated customer for whom Al Cohn named a tune.