The Lennie Tristano Appreciation Society

I might as well confess to being involved in a few secret societies in my lifetime, although I can’t reveal names on other members.

The first one (The Roaring 21 Club) was responsible for me getting marked as a “problem” when I entered the 7th grade, meaning my classes were filled with the dumbest and most violent people of my age group. All because I was inspired by West Side Story to create a gang in the 6th grade. (See, The Snowball Fight.)

It wasn’t until almost twenty years later, around 1979-80, that I found myself unexpectedly thrust into another secret society, the Lennie Tristano Appreciation Society, a very select society that threw two wild ceremonies, one of which was at my Upper West Side apartment, an event that attracted a diverse crowd of industry insiders, emerging rap stars from the South Bronx, and minor downtown celebrities.

I had launched a serious plan to create the foremost national counterculture magazine, as Rolling Stone was considered lame and politically-compromised. Mary Titus made some cartoons for a flyer distributed at the No Nukes Concert in Battery Park.

Despite the obscure jazz name, we were mostly Clash groupies at the time, and sat in the front row of the balcony for that band’s first New York performance at the Palladium.  The Cramps were the opening act, and a member of our society was their manager at the time. I remember right before the show started, he went backstage to give a pep talk to the Cramps, as this was their big breakthrough moment. We also were fans of James Chance, the Talking Heads and the B-52’s.

The magazine I wanted to create with these compatriots was going to be called USA. (I should have registered that trademark.) It never happened and we initially all took our talents to Horizon magazine as freelancers for a while, and could have transformed that publication back to its glory days had the owner just turned it over to our complete control.

In all honesty, I didn’t even know who Lennie Tristano was when the society was founded, and had to immediately study up. I was the least musically educated, but the first to embrace hip hop.

I’d later develop a theory of the counterculture as being birthed in Congo Square and rooted in improvisation.

Miles Davis was my favorite jazz artist, but Lennie Tristano was one of the most original composers in jazz, and improv was his specialty. He was a white guy who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the black titans of his era. And that’s just the sort of vibe we wanted for our society since we were four white guys who were into garage rock, hip hop, funk, and just about every other style of music.

We saw the Mothership land at the Apollo, sat in the front row for Patti Smith at the Palladium and watched in awe as Lou Reed verbally assaulted Clive Davis at the Bottom Line, with Clive sitting a few seats away.

Attending the annual Peter Schumann spectacle in Vermont every August was a big ceremony for us. Schumann created the Burning Man formula, although he never gets credit for it.

In 2012, the society had its first meeting in over 20 years, and it felt great. Rumors of a reunion in 2023 are swirling.