So who was the real Cool man in West Side Story?

The composer Michael Robinson has a striking revelation:

Watching the exhilarating documentary, The Making of West Side Story, featuring the composer himself rehearsing and recording this penultimate twentieth century masterpiece, I am reminded of some startling information the legendary alto saxophonist, Lee Konitz, once casually shared with me while conversing during one of the many nature walks we took together. Somehow the subject of Leonard Bernstein came up, and Lee related how the two had lived in the same Manhattan building for a period of time, that Bernstein was an excellent pianist, and … Leonard told him that the song “Cool” from West Side story was directly inspired by his music!

Sure enough, if one examines the song, the inverted cross-pentangle, Kandinsky-like melodic shapes and syncopations of Lee’s inspired and swinging improvisations navigating harmonic contours are apparent, especially in the instrumental elaborations of the score, which are, arguably, the most musically thrilling portions of West Side Story. But even the monumental opening moments of Bernstein’s masterwork – almost as famous as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – are infused with jazz, but not the jazz of Charlie Parker or Dave Brubeck. Rather, the jazz of Lee Konitz, who was inspired by Lennie Tristano, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Lester Young. This grandly complex musical influence suffuses the atmospheric crosscurrents of West Side Story….

Read on here.

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  • “Inverted cross-pentangle, Kandinsky-like melodic shapes and syncopations”.
    A description that comes to us directly from music “TOON TOWN”.

  • That was Lenny’s problem as a conductor-composer: he was too steeped in the tunes and harmonies of other composers that he could never wipe from his head.

    Bernstein was a great assimilator, and his most memorable music were pastiches of other musics.

    • I think that is true of all conductor-composers. Conductors are required to know so much of other composer’s music that it can be nearly impossible to quell their voices to the point needed to allow one’s own to manifest. John Williams was kind enough to examine one of my scores while we talked about process. He told me that when preparing to write that he did not listen to music at all. It is easy to understand why.

  • Fascinating insight. Thanks to Mr Robinson for that. By the way, I strongly doubt “the same Manhattan building” should be the one on sale. Not sure a straight-ahead jazzman at that time could afford living on Park Avenue…

  • The other side of the story is that Bernstein composed a grand, Pucciniesque finale to WSS but his wife, Felicia Montealegre, told him it was inappropriate. That ending has disappeared despite the best efforts of many to find it.

  • Other outside influences on WSS: “Somewhere” inspired by Beethoven’s “Emperor,” 2nd movement, and “America” reversing the lively 1, 2, 3, 1-2-3-1-2-3 rhythm of the Furiant found in Dvorak’s music (e.g. Symphony #6, 3rd movement). …Great composers steal, as the saying goes.

    • I’d noticed the Somewhere/Emperor similarity before but never heard anyone else mention it. So it’s not just me — thanks!

  • ” …this penultimate twentieth century masterpiece…”

    I wonder if the writer knows what “penultimate” really means and if he does, what does he have in mind as the one after this one?

  • And the other way around…a jazz hero possibly borrowing from Bernstein…the opening moment of John Coltrane’s _A Love Supreme_ is said to reflect a motif from Bernstein’s _On The Town_. Both these resemble the opening of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, but it is thought more likely that Coltrane borrowed from Bernstein than Sibelius. See Alex Ross, _The Rest is Noise_ blog, Oct 31, 2007.

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