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Making It Up As He Goes Along

Jazzman Bert Konowitz, who retired from TC last winter after 50 years of part-time teaching, has fashioned a career and a life from the power of improvisation

By Joe Levine

Some years ago, when Bert Konowitz (Ed.D., ’69) was teaching at Manhattanville College, he invited John Cage, the dean of American avant garde composers, to perform at the college’s improvisation festival. Cage not only came, but also offered advice that Konowitz, an award-winning jazz pianist, composer and teacher, draws on to this day.

“I told him that sometimes I feel blocked, and he said, ‘Think of two things that will never come together – say, a refrigerator and a vase of flowers – and think about how in some way you’ll relate them to each other,’” recalls Konowitz, who retired from TC’s faculty this past winter after 50 years of part-time teaching. Lean, with wire-rimmed glasses and long, shaggy reddish hair, he still conveys, in his early 80s, a gently bohemian air. “He said, ‘The energy you use will be the psychic, creative energy for a new direction.’ And he was right. It always works.”

SPIRIT Improv: Tribute to Bert Konowitz


Konowitz still channels Cage’s advice every time he winds up a performance with Spirit, the improvisational ensemble he founded at TC to enable students to play on stage with their instructors (“we wanted to let them know we’re teachers who can also do”) as well as established big-name musicians. (Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor have performed with the group, and Leonard Bernstein’s son, Alexander, is its Board President.) For a final encore, Konowitz always asks the audience to give the band four notes -- “The tougher the better,” he says. “And we’ll make something up, right on the spot.”  He grins. “Improvisers are arrogant – we think nothing can stop us.”   

Konowitz also directly invokes his hero each summer at the close of the week-long music improvisation camp he runs for New York City high school students. (The camp has operated at TC for the past decade, but will move to the Lehman College campus this year.)

“On the last day, the exercise I assign is to create an event around a title – this year it was ‘John Cage and Lady Gaga Are Smiling.’ And the kids did fantastic things.”

But Konowitz’s embrace of Cage’s advice reflects something much bigger about his outlook – an approach that treats musicianship in general, and improvisation in particular, as an empowering force – and teaching as a calling that, ultimately, is all about giving others access to that power within themselves.

“Bert believes everyone can improvise – he likes to prod people out of their comfort zones -- and thanks in considerable part to him, that belief has become more widespread and has made its way into music education,” says Konowitz’s long-time associate and friend, Hal Abeles, Professor of Music Education. Abeles, a classically trained bassoonist, says his own first experience with improvisation came when Konowitz invited him to play with Spirit. “Improvising creates a lot of anxiety for classical musicians, but Bert’s really good at arm-twisting and getting people to participate.”

He also believes that improvisation can be taught and has an approach for teaching it. 

“In the class I took with him at TC, he asked, ‘How many of you have ever tried to play by ear and let your fingers go where they want to go?’” recalls Patsy Koppeis (MA ‘76), a classically trained violinist who did her undergraduate work at the New England Conservatory and subsequently served as Orchestral Director at Syosset High School. “Then he’d have us improvise, and he’d say, ‘Try this, try this – turn your mistake into an upper neighbor tone.’ He’s wonderful, and once you’ve met him, he’ll inspire you forever.”

Certainly Konowitz has drawn on an improviser’s bravado in morphing from a self-described “fat little kid with a clarinet” – the son of a hat manufacturer in Brooklyn -- to a serious force in the musical world. He has performed with Brubeck, Taylor and other jazz legends. He composed a symphonic piece, “Salute to Ms. Liberty,” that was performed at Avery Fisher Hall to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and an opera, “Kaspryzk's Gift: The Power of One,” which tells the true story of a Polish man who hid two Jewish children in a small town outside of Krakow during the Holocaust. (The piece’s premier, at Syosset High School, was attended by the story’s hero, one of the two children whom he had protected, and the Polish ambassador to the United States.)
 
Konowitz has forged an impressive teaching career resume as well: He has created a high school curriculum, “Music in Modern American Society,” at the behest of New York State’s Department of Education; written textbooks and teaching guides that have been published around the world; taught at universities in Asia and Europe; and directed music programs and served as artist in residence at school systems around the New York area.

Yet it is Teachers College that Konowitz calls “the constant in my life – the leitmotif, the melody that goes endlessly through the background.” The College has been the scene – and to an extent, the facilitator – of what is perhaps Konowitz’s most important achievement: his role in establishing the teaching of jazz itself as both a serious performance medium and a serious academic subject.

“Fifty years ago, when Bert first came here, his classes gave students a perspective that was not accessible elsewhere,” Abeles says. “His teaching was predicated upon the notion that school music should include the popular music that the students themselves were listening to. And he taught improvisation skills for non-jazz musicians, which was truly radical. At the University of Indiana, for example, we had a big jazz program, but it was for jazz musicians – it sat off to the side of the music education program, even though it was in the same building. But when I arrived at TC, Bert had had been teaching jazz in the music ed program for the past 20 years. Today, the profession has moved to where he was then.”

Konowitz discovered jazz as a kid growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, when his father began bringing home records given to him by his customers – 78 rpm recordings of jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum. He started playing by ear, performing at family gatherings and parties. By the time he was a teenager, he was good enough to attend the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia).

“My whole musical world exploded – it was the most exciting, eventful time of my life,” Konowitz recalls. “There were so many talented kids, and I met people who had paintings and books at home. My parents didn’t have that. It really opened up my world.”

Before he turned 15, Konowitz was spending summers in the Catskills by himself, playing “in a lot of little joints,” and then eventually as the pianist for a big band at Brown’s Hotel.

“It was World War II, and they couldn’t find piano players,” he recalls. “I never called home, and I was fine. I worked with Jerry Lewis and a lot of very good and important people. It was very good and very terrifying. Most of the acts that came in were hot, people just beginning to appear on TV. They’d throw you the music with no rehearsals, and you just had to learn it and play.”

In the afternoons, musicians from all the other hotels would come around to jam – include big-name players such as the sax player Al Young and the hard-bop trumpeter Red Rodney.

Konowitz also met his future wife, Joan. “She was the secretary in the office in one of the hotels. I saw her playing pinball and I liked the swivel of her hips. We celebrated our 58th wedding anniversary this year, surrounded by their three adult children and six grandchildren.”

Konowitz went on to major in music at Queens College – a school he chose because “my mother said, your cousin Shirley, the speech therapist, went there,” but which turned out to be an emerging music mecca, with a group of faculty headed by Karol Rathaus, the Hollywood film composer who became a leading force in American music education. He played some clubs and also weddings and bar mitzvahs at the Plaza, the Waldorf and all the other big Manhattan hotels (“That’s why I’m always on time”). Even a stint in the Army during the Korean War couldn’t derail his plans for a serious performing career: at training camp, he started a band with Clyde McPhatter, the iconic R&B singer (“Money Honey, “Such a Night, “Whatcha Gonna Do”) who fronted for The Drifters.

“I don’t know he got permission to do that,” recalls Arthur Blumenfeld, who served in the same company and played guitar in the band. Blumenfeld, who was from the Bronx, met Konowitz on draft day and later married Joan Konowitz’s best friend from third grade. He and Konowitz remain close to this day. “But it sure made life easier. It seemed as though every time we were supposed to be hauling through the mud, we needed to rehearse.”

But then the war ended, and Konowitz , with a wife and the first of three children to support, needed a steady paycheck – and jobs were scarce.

“Basically, I couldn’t get arrested,” he says, ruefully.

He finally landed a job as a high school choral director in New Hyde Park on Long Island, and to his great surprise discovered that he not only liked teaching, but also was good at it. “I guess being up in front of people in a classroom taps into that same love of performing,” he says. “But it’s especially gratifying working with young people from poorer backgrounds, because they really care about being there. And when you’re clicking, there’s that sense that they’re hanging on your every word. That’s a wonderful feeling.”

He had visions even then of teaching jazz at the college level, but quickly ran head-on into an academic world that rejected the medium.

“I wrote to the chairman of the music department at NYU asking about a job, and he wrote back saying, ‘It is hardly likely there will ever be an opening in your area of specialization at NYU.’ He was the president of the Music Educators National Conference, so it was a pretty severe blow for a young Turk thinking he could conquer the world.”

He had better luck at TC, where he enrolled in 1961 in the Music and Music Education doctoral program. There, by sheer good luck, the renowned music educator Robert Pace taught what was perhaps the only graduate level course in the nation that included jazz. One day, he overheard Konowitz in one of the piano practice rooms, where the latter hid out to play jazz, and invited him to write music for a new series of pieces he was working on. The two became friends, working together up at Pace’s house in Mt. Kisco on Sunday mornings, and not long afterward Pace offered Konowitz an instructor’s job teaching a weekend course on jazz improvisation.

“I nearly went into cardiac arrest,” Konowitz recalls. “I practiced for six months, in a constant state of anxiety. Basically, I had the opening words down – ‘welcome to Jazz at Noon’ – and then after that I wasn’t sure what to do.”

He must have been doing something right, because after the first year, the department chair, the choral conductor Harry Wilson, called Konowitz into his office.

“They were paying me per student, and I was getting a lot of students,” Konowitz says. “Wilson said, ‘Young man, you’ll be making more than me at this rate, so I’m putting you on salary.”

Over the years at TC, Konowitz met the jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor, nearly pinch-hitting for him when Taylor looked like he might be a no-show as the guest speaker in Bob Pace’s class.

“He rolled in at the last minute, with that wonderful smile, which was a good thing, because I was dying of fright, and afterward he and I stood out on the corner of 120th and Broadway and talked about the music world. We subsequently became great friends, and he made many appearances here.” TC awarded Taylor its Medal for Distinguished Achievement in 2003.

It was at TC that Konowitz became office-mates with faculty member Dino Anagnost, the longtime conductor of Lincoln Center’s Little Orchestra Society, who commissioned him to write the piece for the anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

Through TC’s development office, Konowitz partnered with the I Have a Dream Foundation, creating an improvisation program for kids that employs the same concepts and strategies as his summer camp. (A study of the program’s impact on kids’ in-school performance found that participants emerge with a stronger academic self-concept, particularly in math, and higher self-esteem.)

And through his TC performance series for children, Konowitz formed a lasting  friendship with alumna Rita Gold and her husband, Herb, who funded the creation of the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center at TC. Subsequently he wrote music for a collection of Rita Gold’s children’s songs.

Yet even though he was ultimately offered the opportunity to join TC as a full-time faculty member, Konowitz always preferred to keep public school teaching as his main gig. That work made him even more valuable at TC -- “When I arrived here from Indiana as department chair, I was pretty much on my own, and it was Bert who introduced me to school administrators all over the city,” Hal Abeles says – but it also gave him a ready supply of musicians and venues for the many special projects he has piloted over the years, enabling him to pull names out of his vast mental rolodex and plug the right talent for a voice part or a guitar solo or anything else that might be required.

That modus operandi was perhaps most on display with the “Kaspryzk,” the opera that Konowitz wrote and mounted at Syosset High School. Patsy Koppeis, Konowitz’s former student, served as music director. Musicians from all walks of his life sat in. But the heart and soul of the performance were the school’s student singers and instrumentalists. 

“Much of his music for the piece was atonal, so part of my job was to make them feel it in their bodies,” Koppeis says. “But even more, the challenge was to make them realize that the performance was not about the chorus or the orchestra, but instead about a much bigger whole. It was really hard, but Bert always reached for it -- he believes nothing is beyond kids unless we tell them that it is. That’s the kind of person he is. He finds something meaningful, and he throws his whole being into it. He hears the applause and he works backward from that.” 

The end result, Koppeis says, was something profoundly magical, an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Kaspryzk, who was this very simple man, this farmer who had never traveled out of his country before and was now being reunited with these two people he hadn’t seen in more than fifty years, sat behind me the whole time and kissed my hand. He wouldn’t let go. And afterward, at the reception in the lobby, all the kids just wanted to be with him.

“After doing that performance, I felt that I didn’t need to do anything else in my life,” she says. “It was so intense and so important. Everyone in the school knew it and sensed it.”

In 1998, TC presented Konowitz with its Distinguished Alumni Award.

“I have the framed certificate in my office at home,” Konowitz says. “I look at it every day, and it’s always a wonder to me that it really happened. That a guy who used to hide out in the piano rooms to play jazz got an award like that.”

Konowitz and TC exchanged mutual farewells this February, when the college held an evening of music and tribute for him. He continues to teach at Lehman CUNY; to serve as District Artist-in-Residence in the Greenwich, Connecticut and New Rochelle Public Schools, and at SUNY Pace; to compose for music publications; and to perform with Spirit and in other venues. He still listens to John Cage every morning in his car.

“I used to think the only way I’d ever leave TC would be when the EMS truck pulled up outside,” he says. “But I’ve got things I want to do. I’m not retiring. Music remains the engine that powers my life.” 

As to whether there might be an encore after the Big Curtain Call, whenever that might come, Konowitz reserves judgment. But you get the sense he’ll respond if need be. Give him four notes, and he’ll make it up. On the spot.



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