Steve Lacy - Biography

Steve Lacy was one of the most important soprano saxophonists in the history of jazz, alongside his main inspiration, Sidney Bechet, and John Coltrane, who asked him for tips about the horn. He’s one of the few musicians in jazz to dedicate himself completely to the straight horn. An innovative and uncompromising player with his own unmistakable sound and a dauntingly large discography, Lacy was also a daring composer and a visionary bandleader.

Cultured and widely-read, a passionate and perceptive student of the visual arts, the saxophonist was also one of the foremost interpreters and students of the music of Thelonious Monk.

Steve Lacy was born as Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City on July 23, 1934, the youngest of three children. He reluctantly started piano lessons at the age of eight. Four or five years later, with a little money to spend from his birthday, he bought some Brunswick 78s by Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra. He was hooked from his first listen. He soon switched from piano to clarinet and at the age of 16, inspired by Bechet’s recording of Ellington’s “The Mooche,” he took up the soprano saxophone. A notoriously tricky instrument, the soprano is less forgiving with respect to intonation than a clarinet, and virtually no one else was playing it at the time. As Lacy later told Mel Martin in Saxophone Journal, “You must subdue the beast so you can get it to swing quite a bit. Swing is not immediate. You must first get it to walk, and then run.” 

The youngster nonetheless made rapid progress on the soprano. Although still underage, he was soon sitting in with Dixieland bands at clubs. After high school, he took classes at the Manhattan School of Music and spent time studying at Schillinger House in Boston (later known as the Berklee School of Music). He also played and studied with bandleader and reedman Cecil Scott, who he later said “really helped me get started ...” He was working in New York clubs with established musicians like Pee Wee Russell, Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells and Jimmy Rushing, when Ellington’s cornetist, Rex Stewart, gave him his new name, Lacy, because he had trouble pronouncing “Lackritz.” He made his first recordings in 1954 with a Dixieland sextet led by trumpeter Dick Sutton.

Lacy met Cecil Taylor in the early fifties. The avant-garde pianist saw him on stage and asked him why he was playing that old time music. Beginning with their common interest in Ellington, Taylor was influential in exposing Lacy to a wide variety of music and other arts. Lacy soon joined Taylor’s group, which rehearsed more often than it played paying gigs. The Taylor quartet’s greatest public exposure came with their appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, when their three song set was released on The Gigi Gryce-Donald Byrd Jazz Lab & Cecil Taylor At Newport (Verve). 

Discovering the music of Thelonious Monk around the same time, Lacy was immediately entranced. He set about listening intensively to Monk’s records and started to learn how to play some of the pianist’s inimitable compositions, a process that would end up taking a lifetime. One Monk song, “Work,” appears on Lacy’s debut as a leader, Soprano Sax (1957 Prestige). By the time of his follow-up, Reflections (1958 Prestige/New Jazz), he was ready to attempt an entire program of Monk tunes with a quartet of pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Elvin Jones. This was the beginning of a special musical relationship that Lacy and Waldron enjoyed and they became frequent duo partners, often playing Monk.

In addition to Taylor and Monk, pianist and arranger Gil Evans played a significant role in Lacy’s development. Evans had heard Lacy playing Dixieland on the Arthur Godfrey show in the early Fifties. He liked what he heard so much that he contacted Lacy years later to play on his first album as leader, Gil Evans And Ten (1957 Prestige). This was the first of many collaborations over the decades. One of Lacy’s “most gratifying and enlightening” musical experiences was a two-week stint at Birdland in 1959 with a 14-piece Evans group. In an early interview, the saxophonist called it the “start of my investigations into the possibilities of blending my sound with others.” 

In the summer of 1960, Lacy was invited to join the Monk group for an extended engagement at the Jazz Gallery. Lacy later commented to interviewer Jason Weiss that “working with him was like about five schools rolled up into one.” In 1961, Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd, whom he’d met in Dixieland bands, formed a quartet with drummer Dennis Charles and various bass players. The repertoire of the group soon became devoted entirely to Monk’s music. Until four studio pieces were released on Early And Late (2007 Cuneiform), the only documentation of this important band was a 1963 private tape issued in the seventies as School Days on the British Emanem label (reissued in 2002 by hatOLOGY).

 As work slowed down for Lacy in New York, he decided to join forces with trumpeter Don Cherry and pianist Kenny Drew to perform for a month in Copenhagen in the spring of 1965. Lacy decided to stay in Europe for a while, traveling to France and Italy in search of gigs. He also worked with Carla Bley during this period and near the end of 1965 recorded his own tunes for the first time in a trio with bassist Kent Carter and drummer Aldo Romano. It was in Rome that he met his soon-to-be second wife and collaborator, Swiss cellist and vocalist, Irène Aebi. With a quartet of trumpeter Enrico Rava, bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, Lacy, accompanied by Aebi, made a disastrous tour of Argentina that started in the spring of 1966 but was prolonged until the fall due to lack of both gigs and the money to get home. A Buenos Aires concert from the end of the sojourn was issued as The Forest and the Zoo (1967 ESP). Lacy ended up in New York for most of 1967, recording with Evans and Bley before returning to Rome in 1968. In Italy, he worked with his own bands and with the electronic improvisers of Musica Elettronica Viva, a collective of Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitlebaum. Lacy would continue to experiment with the electronic manipulation of sound for years to come. By 1970, Lacy and Aebi relocated to Paris, which would remain their base for decades to come.

The seventies was a period of concentration and focus for Lacy as an improviser and bandleader, and his composing began to mature, often as settings for Aebi’s declaimed vocals. Among the writers whose work he adapted for Aebi were Anna Akhmatova, Mary Frazee, Anne Waldman, and Judith Malina. Lacy’s magnum opus, “The Way,” is based on six poems from the Tao Te Ching. The suite was realized in many different formats over the years, including versions for solo saxophone and orchestra. As far as Lacy was concerned, “The period of free jazz ended around 1967. We are now in the post-free...period,” he declared in a 1971 interview, adding that it’s “…up to the musician to bring about the changes, to arrange for something to happen; what you get by limiting yourself is the real freedom.” Lacy’s main vehicle for “making something happen” was his long-running quintet, with core members Aebi, saxophonist Steve Potts, bassist Kent Carter (replaced by Jean-Jacques Avenel) and drummer Oliver Johnson (later John Betsch). Pianist Bobby Few expanded the group to a sextet when he joined in the early eighties.

Starting in the seventies, Lacy forged ongoing musical alliances with European improvisers like pianist Misha Mengelberg, percussionist Han Bennink and Andrea Centazzo, guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker. He was also a significant contributor to various editions of pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra. Although there was substantial recording activity for both his own bands and these ad hoc groupings, there wasn’t much financial security, but thanks to significant government support in Europe, he also played at art openings and with dancers. Inspired by the example of Anthony Braxton’s pioneering solo saxophone concerts, Lacy began playing solo as well, performing his own compositions and tunes by Monk. Later in life, he added Ellington tunes to his solo repertoire.

In 1981, Lacy appeared in the landmark “Interpretations of Monk” concerts with all-star bands including Rudd, trumpeter Don Cherry and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. The four sets were finally issued on CD over ten years later (1994 Koch Jazz). With Songs (1981 hatART), he began an extended collaboration with artist and writer Brion Gysin. Lacy began to work on large-scale multi-media productions, including the ballets Sands (with texts by Samuel Beckett) and Stuff (with lyrics adapted by Gysin from William Burroughs). The evening-long Futurities (1984) featured poems by Creeley, music played by a Lacy band expanded to nine pieces, a pair of dancers, and stage décor by painter Kenneth Noland. The 1985 recording Change of Season (Soul Note), with a quintet of Mengelberg, Bennink, trombonist George Lewis and bassist Arjen Gorter playing tunes by Herbie Nichols, was one of the more acclaimed releases of the decade. Starting in 1987, Lacy had a major label contract with BMG/Novus, which resulted in five albums including The Door (1988) and Live at Sweet Basil (1991).

Major projects of the nineties included Itinerary (1990-hatART), a big band date; Clangs (1992), for double sextet; Vespers (1994), an octet piece based on poems by Blaga Dimitrova; and The Cry (1999), an ambitious narrative song cycle based on the work of Bangladeshi poet Taslima Nasrin, described by its composer as “the story of all women.” In 1994, Lacy, with contributions from the sextet, recorded 2 CD of examples to accompany his book Findings: My Experience with the Soprano Saxophone. The decade also saw a sextet date devoted to Monk tunes, We See (1992 hatART), and duets with Potts, Evan Parker, Waldron, pianist Eric Watson, guitarist Barry Wedgle and percussionist Masahiko Togashi. There was sporadic work with the sextet until Lacy finally split up the band in 1997.

Lacy reunited with Roswell Rudd for 1999 tours of the US and Europe, recording Monk’s Dream (1999 Verve) while in Paris. In 2000, he was the guest soloist on the all-Monk album Monk’s Moods (Water Baby) by Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra. The Beat Suite (2002 Sunnyside), a suite of settings of work by various Beat poets that Lacy had been working on for years, was finally recorded with a quintet of Aebi, Avenel, Betsch, and trombonist George Lewis. In 2002, Lacy was offered a teaching position at the New England Conservatory of Music. Ready to return to America after over three decades as an expatriate, he gladly accepted. After a year of teaching, with time for traveling and concertizing, Lacy was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer of 2003. Performing and continuing to teach almost until the end, he succumbed to the disease on June 4, 2004, in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Lacy’s important contributions were recognized by awards such a Guggenheim in 1983, a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1992, and a year-long residency in Berlin in 1996. He was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 1989 and became a Commander of the Order in 2002. The well-respected Lacy also received accolades from his collaborators. American poet Robert Creeley wrote that "There’s no way simply to make clear how particular Steve Lacy was to poets or how much he can now teach them by fact of his own practice and example. No one was ever more generous or perceptive." Perhaps pianist and NEC faculty member Danilo Perez said it best when he noted that “Steve Lacy showed us that being a jazz musician is the work of a lifetime.”

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