Lee Konitz, Jazz Saxophone Great and Miles Davis Collaborator, Dies From COVID-19 Complications

2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival - Day 4
Photo by Douglas Mason/WireImage

Lee Konitz performs during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2017 at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 4, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Lee Konitz, the celebrated jazz saxophonist and last surviving performer in Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” sessions, died Wednesday (April 15) due to complications with COVID-19. He was 92.

Born 1927 in Chicago, Konitz studied clarinet early on, then switched to alto, an instrument he mastered like no other.

Konitz enjoyed stints with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, worked with pianist Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton, Warne Marsh, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. And he played with Davis’ nonet on their “Birth of the Cool” Capitol recordings, a landmark in post-bebop jazz.

The “cool-toned” artist, reads his Blue Note biog, “always had a strong musical curiosity that has led him to consistently take chances and stretch himself, usually quite successfully.”

During his seven-decade career, he recorded for such labels as Atlantic, Prestige, Polydor and Verve. According to his official biography, Konitz was one of the last active musicians to have played all three ever Birdland clubs in New York City.

The jazz great almost turned his back on music in the early 1960s, but returned with a hunger to push the boundaries. His recordings were as prolific as they were varied, ranging in styles from an early unaccompanied saxophone solo album, to post-bop, free improvisations and a string of innovative duets. In 1989, his solo album Lee Konitz In Rio went to No. 22 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.

Among the many trophies he received for his talents, Lee snagged the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2009, was named "Alto Saxophonist of the Year" by Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll in 2010 and in 2013 he was awarded the "German Jazz Prize". Konitz was the subject of a biography, written by Andy Hamilton and published in 2007.

Konitz’ son Josh Konitz confirmed to NPR that the cause of death was pneumonia related to COVID-19.

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