Never See It Coming

Lennie Tristano and American artby Ben Ratliff

Album cover of Lennie Tristano's Atlantic 1224, 1960 (Atlantic Records).

  • 27 June 2019

In 1988, Bruce Nauman was asked by Joan Simon, for an Art in America interview, what he thought about when he made an artwork. His answer is worth quoting in full.

I think about Lennie Tristano a lot. Do you know who he was? Lennie Tristano was a blind pianist, one of the original—or maybe second generation—bebop guys. He’s on a lot of the best early bebop records. When Lennie played well, he hit you hard and he kept going until he finished. Then he just quit. You didn’t get any introduction, you didn’t get any tail—you just got full intensity for two minutes or 20 minutes or whatever. It would be like taking the middle out of Coltrane—just the hardest, toughest part of it. That was all you got.

From the beginning, I was trying to see if I could make art that did that. Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not.

Tristano, the jazz pianist and teacher, would have turned 100 last March. Nauman’s hesitation about calling him ‘original’ and offering up ‘second generation’ is on the money: Tristano developed his dialect within bebop a few years after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie established the language, and his music was never taken up as centrally as theirs; his somewhat rigid sound and attitudes lodged him in jazz history, right or wrong, as a curiosity or a crank. And so it is significant that at least three prominent visual artists born after 1930—Nauman, Robert Ryman and Frank Stella—have mentioned him as a kind of influence.

May I ask a crazy question? What exactly gave rise to the common notion that mid-­century American jazz and visual art were deeply linked—that all those artists were fully paid-up jazz aficionados? After all, in bebop there was a lot of humor, winking, joy. In abstract expressionism, particularly from its white and/or male artists, far less.

One answer might be the appeal of intellectually synesthetic arguments, like the ones in Wassily Kandinsky’s 1910 essay ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art,’ which speaks of ‘melodic’ and ‘symphonic’ attributes in painting. Then, for sure, there’s an analogous rebellion or subversion between the two disciplines. The full plunge into gestural art and the sinking of figure into ground might correspond with what happened to recognizable melody in jazz by the late ’40s: melody was often disguised, or it bobbed and weaved against rhythm sections.

Charlie Parker & the Metronome All Stars, New York, 1949. (Clockwise from left: Billy Bauer, Eddie Safranski, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano). Photo: © Herman Leonard Photography LLC

‘Everybody followed the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie,’ wrote Jed Perl in ‘New Art City’, referring to New York artists in the early ’50s. But who’s everybody? And what does ‘followed’ really mean? What if the links between jazz and the visual arts, such as they are, were basically social, a story of intersecting or parallel drinking scenes? Isn’t that important too? Is that a less interesting story?

In the late 1950s Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Jack Tworkov, David Smith, Larry Rivers, Clement Greenberg and Herman Cherry, among other painters and sculptors and critics, are said to have hung out at the Five Spot, the jazz club on Cooper Square. (Cherry may have been the instigator; the bar was across the street from his studio.) If many of them saw Thelonious Monk’s quartet with John Coltrane, which played six nights a week for six months in the second half of 1957, then we should know something about Monk and Coltrane’s influence on American painting. But do we? Likewise, Ornette Coleman settled in at the same place for three months at the end of 1959. What was Coleman’s influence on American painting? The great painter Bob Thompson knew Coleman; he made a painting in 1961 called ‘Ornette’. Even so, it could be argued that Thompson owed far more to the painters in his circle, fellow figurative expressionists like Jan Müller and Emilio Cruz, than he did to Coleman. To what extent—beyond titles—could the painters use the music in their own work? Might it have been just as important that they simply liked to be together in spaces also occupied by jazz musicians?

What about Jackson Pollock? The scholar Helen Harrison went through his record collection: Pollock, it seems, was mostly into ’30s and ’40s swing. Artie Shaw was about as modern as it got. No problem with that, but let’s call it what it is. Pollock’s friend B.H. Friedman, Harrison wrote, ‘tried in vain to interest Pollock in bebop.’ So did Pollock’s bop-savvy girlfriend, Ruth Kligman. ‘I thought he was a real square,’ she told Harrison. (I don’t know about the record collections of the other painters who hung at the Five Spot. The painter Norman Lewis was no square when it came to jazz, but until recently, his role in the Ab Ex revolution has been sorely neglected, in part because he was among its few black members.)

If you believe that all Ab Ex painters were committed to bebop, then it may be natural to believe that all artists born after 1930 were committed to what followed. Ryman, Larry Rivers and Jack Whitten were saxophonists; but isn’t it better to consider the question case by case? My father, Marcus Ratliff, is an American painter from the generation born after 1930. He hung out with Jim Dine and Tom Wesselmann and Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms and studied at Cooper Union in the late ’50s. He had no idea who was playing at the Five Spot, across the street from his classrooms. He never went. As he tells it, he and his friends were so into their own work they didn’t have time to notice.

Motion is the primary property of all music; no motion, no music. Painting often imitates motion.

Motion is the primary property of all music; no motion, no music. Painting often imitates motion. The more motion in music, the more there is to imitate. Improvisation exists outside of music and, of course, existed before jazz. (Kandinsky’s increasingly abstract Improvisation painting series, begun in 1909, owes, presumably, nothing to jazz.) But the improvisational aesthetic and dance rhythms in jazz caught on early with painters. Earl Hines inspired Stuart Davis and Romare Bearden; Albert Murray, Robert O’Meally and others have emphasized the importance of rhythmic breaks and ‘disjunctures’ in Bearden’s painted images—places of play and surprise, places where the music pulls you in.

And so—to return to Bruce Nauman’s thought about Lennie Tristano—it’s interesting to see a jazz musician prized for, in a sense, pushing you out, or blindsiding you.

I can’t quite pick up a direct, material correlative between Nauman’s phantasmagoric conceptual art and Tristano’s jazz, but there needn’t be one. Nauman, who may have been introduced to Tristano’s work by his friend Robert Ryman, is talking about something underneath the music—a purity of intent, basically, within a specific way Tristano sometimes played. (Nauman seems to be interested in the subconscious; he may know that Tristano was fascinated by Freud and Wilhelm Reich.) The bit about Tristano leaving out ‘introduction’ and the ‘tail’ seems to describe a jazz musician withholding a story. Opposition to ‘story,’ or narrative logic, entered the rhetoric of mid-century artists and writers outside of jazz, including Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, Merce Cunningham and William Burroughs. That opposition seems predicated on the anxiety that narrative conventions lead toward untruths and cliché. But jazz, even Tristano’s jazz, has never particularly had the anti-story anxiety, probably because African-American culture has for so long depended on storytelling for survival. Nauman’s way of relating to Tristano may, in fact, be misplaced, or primarily a reflection of his own desire. Still, it’s interesting that he related to Tristano at all.

Stella said many years later, to the radio interviewer Sara Fishko. ‘I can still see him above the bar with his moccasins and white athletic socks, pushing on the pedals and playing away.’

Tristano and his group did record the first examples of free collective improvisation, in 1949—in other words, jazz with no preset chordal sequence. These sound a bit like laboratory experiments. He did much better work wildfiring over the harmonic movement of standards like ‘Out of Nowhere’ and ‘All the Things You Are,’ and exploring his own original melodies based on those chord changes. That was the bebop way, and if Tristano felt a loyalty to any style of jazz, it was bebop.

But he was pedantic, a bit imperious, and the logistics of his blindness seemed to have ruled out the hectic work habits of friends like Charlie Parker. Tristano generally disdained nightclub life, making most of his living from 20-minute lessons he gave to private students in his studio on East 32nd Street. Often he would encourage his students to separate their hands; he’d have them spend months at a time playing melodies with the left hand alone, then the right hand alone. Sometimes Tristano would improvise over up-tempo 4/4 swing with his right hand alone, in super-­extended lines of single notes. Eighth notes were his basic stock, but he switched up into tumbling waves of sixteenths and slipped into three-beat feel; he’d push on and on past the expected stopping places, and you could hear every note articulated, nailed down with force. (Meanwhile, his bassist and drummer would keep the steadiest possible pulse, often more metronomic than the general high standard of jazz rhythm sections in those days.) A good film exists online of Tristano’s quintet, with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, playing at the Half Note, on Hudson Street, in 1964. There, in versions of Konitz’s ‘Subconscious-Lee’ and Marsh’s ‘Background Music,’ you can hear it and see it—Tristano on the stage just above the bar, keeping his upper body straight and still, his mouth working fast as if he were singing the rhythms of his line. This is both the ‘hardest, toughest’ sound that Nauman meant, and also the most shareable part of Tristano’s genius.

In his observations, Nauman could be describing one particular ‘Line Up,’ the first track from the album Tristano, released in 1956. As it is generally understood, Tristano recorded his bassist and drummer playing the changes of ‘All of Me,’ then later recorded himself soloing over a slowed-down version of that recording, and finally released a version of that recording, sped up to normal speed. It sounds preternatural and a little rabbity, and it amps up the latent aggression in his playing a bit. Tristano comes in after four bars, concocts longer and longer strings of improvised single-notes, and continues for three and a half minutes. (Not 20, as Nauman suggested—three and a half is enough for him to make his case.)

Frank Stella moved to New York in the summer of 1958. He went to hear Tristano in August, at the beginning of the pianist’s 13-week residency at the Half Note. Tristano hadn’t performed in public in four years. He had made the club owners buy a new piano, a Bechstein, before he agreed to play there, and picked it out himself. ‘I was just bowled over, as they say,’ Stella said many years later, to the radio interviewer Sara Fishko. ‘I can still see him above the bar with his moccasins and white athletic socks, pushing on the pedals and playing away.’

That fall, Stella made a black painting named ‘Turkish Mambo’, named after a Tristano recording made by multitracking solo piano lines in different time signatures. Stella e-mailed me recently to say that he left the painting in a garbage can on the corner of Canal and West Broadway that September. (But he reused the title many years later for a black-and-white lithograph.) In 1962, he made a painting called ‘Line Up’: concentric squares in shades of black, white and gray, a maze coiling toward the center.

‘Through the use of a kind of flat, regulated pattern... I could make a painting situation that read, or seemed, flatter. I felt that flatness was a kind of an absolute necessity for modernist painting at the time. I felt that black paintings were really right.’—Frank Stella

Stella was after the lean, the flat, the efficient. ‘Through the use of a kind of flat, regulated pattern,’ he said in the ’70s, ‘I could make a painting situation that read, or seemed, flatter. I felt that flatness was a kind of an absolute necessity for modernist painting at the time. I felt that black paintings were really right.’ This kind of commentary, about formal necessities for a certain art at a certain time, sounds a bit like Clement Greenberg. But it also sounds like Tristano, who also spoke in manifestos and liked to talk about requirements and necessities for linear progress in jazz. In his lessons, and in a few dogmatic essays he wrote for Metronome magazine in the late ’40s, he prized the importance of the ‘line’ in jazz, meaning the single-note melodic line; he prized the melodic, or ‘horizontal’ imagination in improvising, and he felt that this was the great promise of bebop. (He also felt that bebop was ‘cool, light and soft,’ and therefore a place for true intellectual advancement, none of which implies the baseball bat.)

‘It’s the quickness and sureness that pulled me to Lennie,’ Stella remembers now. It makes a kind of sense that he thought of Tristano during his minimalist black-painting period: Tristano was, as much as exists in jazz, a purist—at least in the sense that he wanted purity of gesture, execution, intent and, to some degree, form. He was interested in responsible modernism through form. He was also interested in feeling—but as a disciplined requirement, as if it were an aspect of form. He distinguished feeling ‘emotion’ and used the idea of ‘emotion’ as a cudgel against music he didn’t like much, including what came before him (swing) and what would soon render him old-fashioned (John Coltrane).

What about Robert Ryman, who had the strongest link to Tristano of all three? Ryman, who died last February, took saxophone lessons with Tristano from 1952 to 1954. His relationship to Tristano and jazz has been seriously explored: John F. Szwed wrote an essay about it for a book about Ryman’s work published by the Dia Art Foundation in 2017, and Vittorio Colaizzi explored it in depth for a chapter of his Ryman monograph, published the same year by Phaidon. The results are muted. The relationship is indirect. Ryman, like Nauman, wasn’t into narrative. He was into the purity and truth of the first take—the ‘one-time thing,’ or the ‘direct feeling,’ as he put it. That definitely has something to do with jazz, if not Tristano per se. Ryman named one of his paintings from 1962 ‘Love Lines’, after a track on Tristano’s album ‘The New Tristano’; he named another ‘Untitled (Background Music)’, possibly referring to Marsh’s tune.

But do Ryman’s white paintings evoke Tristano’s music? They’re not exactly about the line, or about shapes at all; they’re sometimes about wriggling layers of heavy paint strokes. They’re focused but not portentous. They represent a much softer blow to the head: maybe a swimming-pool noodle, maybe a bolster pillow. You can be influenced by what you want to see or hear; you can also be influenced by a dead end. After ending his lessons with Tristano, Ryman gave up the tenor saxophone in 1954, and did so pretty completely. The scholar Lucy R. Lippard, his wife during the 1960s, has written that she never saw him pick up the horn. That, in its own way, is as deep a sign of Tristano’s influence as any.