Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Lennie Tristano

Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano (1919-1978)

Let’s get this out of the way up front, because the pretext for today’s post on Lennie Tristano was yesterday’s Music History Monday which, for the large part, was about sightless musicians. Writes Tristano biographer Eunmi Shim (Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music; The University of Michigan Press, 2007):

“Born with weak sight, Tristano’s vision grew worse and by the time he was nine or ten years old he became completely blind. According to Bob Blackburn [writing in the Toronto Telegram, July 22, 1964], it was ‘the result of glaucoma probably stemming from his mother being stricken in pregnancy by the post-World War I flu epidemic.’ Judy Tristano, Lennie Tristano’s first wife, recalled that Tristano’s parents tried unsuccessfully to cure his blindness: ‘they had tried everything to cure his glaucoma. Legitimate doctors, quacks, going to church and everybody praying en masse, praying for his sight. But of course, nothing worked. They couldn’t cure glaucoma or treat it.’”

As an adult, when the subject of his eyesight came up, Tristano’s standard response was, “I’m blind as a motherf***er.”

Brief Biography

Leonard Joseph Tristano was born in Chicago on March 19, 1919, and died in New York City on November 18, 1978. Tristano’s father, Michael Tristano, was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States as a child. His mother Rose (née Malano) was also born in Chicago to Italian immigrant parents. Lennie was the second of four Tristano brothers.

His eyesight gone, Tristano attended the Illinois School for the Blind (today the “Illinois School for the Visually Impaired”) for ten years, from 1928 until 1938. It was there that Tristano studied piano, saxophone, clarinet, and cello; he led his own band, and participated in team sports.

After graduating, it was back home to Chicago, where Tristano received a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from the American Conservatory of Music in 1941 and then did graduate work in music composition for two additional years. As a student, Tristano composed works for piano, orchestra, and string quartet. (According to the famed jazz critic Baruch “Barry” Ulanov, Tristano did all the course work necessary for a master’s degree in composition but failed to take the qualifying exams, which would have cost him an additional $500. Tristano was already making a living as a jazz pianist and believed at that point that completing the M.A. was meaningless.)…

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