Lee Konitz, jazz saxophonist with 75-year career, dies of coronavirus aged 92

Lee Konitz, performing at Cheltenham jazz festival in 2015, has died after contracting coronavirus.

Lee Konitz, performing at Cheltenham jazz festival in 2015, has died after contracting coronavirus.
Photograph: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images

Jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, whose 75-year career stretched back to the big band era, has died aged 92 after contracting Covid-19.

He died in a New York hospital, and his son confirmed the cause of death was pneumonia brought on by the virus.

Konitz, who was born in Chicago in 1927 to Jewish immigrant parents, first learned the clarinet aged 11 and switched to alto saxophone a year later. He is most famous for his work with Miles Davis on the 1949 and 1950 sessions for the album Birth of the Cool, but his career began a generation earlier: his earliest gigs were as part of jazz orchestras led by Teddy Powell. He was then mentored by the esteemed blind pianist Lennie Tristano, befriended his fellow saxophonist Charlie Parker, and worked under bandleaders such as Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill.

Konitz’s solo career began in 1949 with the album Subconscious-Lee, released in 1955. He helped to advance the “cool jazz” sound of the 50s, and then the freer and more improvisatory style that became dominant in the 1960s. Although he wrote some of his own material, more often he improvised or interpreted jazz standards and other players’ compositions. “I’m constantly amazed still at the miracle of improvising,” he said in 2000. “That’s what’s so intriguing for a whole lifetime, because in really trying to improvise I have the benefit of those surprises.”

Konitz played alongside Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Elvin Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and more, and later worked on numerous collaborations with Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau, as well as making more adventurous and avant-garde work.

He had heart issues later in life and told an interviewer he almost died, but had two successful operations and recovered. He continued playing into his 90s, including a European tour in 2018 and a private performance on his 92nd birthday.

He is survived by two sons, Josh and Paul, and three daughters, Rebecca, Stephanie and Karen.

Konitz is the second prominent Miles Davis collaborator to have died from coronavirus – Wallace Roney, who won a Grammy for interpretations of Davis’s work, died earlier this month aged 59.

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