Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lacy, Steve (Steven Norman Lackritz)

Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s curiosity and ability took him from Dixieland through bebop into the avant-garde and beyond. From Bunk Johnson to Cecil Taylor, from Oran “Hot Lips” Page to Thelonious Monk, Lacy played with them all, and incorporated their influences into his inclusive yet focussed approach to music.

“You know, for me, music is the leader,” Lacy told National Public Radio in 2002. “I follow it. It’s not that I tell it what to do, I don’t tell the music what to do, the music tells me what to do. So I listen to it and I try and do what’s necessary to keep it alive.”

Lacy was born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City on July 23, 1934, and grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His parents, Harry and Sophia, were Jewish immigrants from Russia, who met while working in New York's garment industry. Lacy was the youngest of three and his brother, Martin, played accordion. His sister, Blossom, played piano. Lacy himself started on piano around the age of 8, and later switched to clarinet.

As an adolescent, Steve attended Hebrew school and discovered jazz. At 12 or 13, he took his birthday money and purchased a few 78s by “Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra,” in order to find out why they were famous. At 16, initially inspired by Sidney Bechet and that artist’s take on “The Mooche,” he switched from clarinet to soprano saxophone.

In 1953, he left New York for Boston, where he spent six months as a student at the Schillinger House of Music, which later became the Berklee College of Music. In 1954, he also studied briefly at the Manhattan School of Music.

From 1952 to 1956, concurrent with studies in the classroom, Lacy also learned on the bandstand. He primarily played Dixieland jazz with the likes of Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Zutty Singleton, Pee Wee Russell, Oran “Hot Lips” Page and Rex Stewart. Stewart, unable to pronounce the soprano saxophonist’s family name, Lackritz, called him “Lacy,” and the name stuck.

It was also during this time that Lacy began his association with the pianist Cecil Taylor. In 1953, while performing at a Dixieland club, Taylor approached the young saxophonist and, according to Lacy, told him, “You’re young! Why are you playing that music from the past? Music is a language and you have to invent your own.” Lacy performed and studied with Taylor through 1959, and appeared with the pianist’s quartet at the Newport Festival in 1957.

Lacy is also featured on Taylor’s 1956 album Jazz Advance. On one cut from this album, “Song,” Lacy is cool and melodic, while Taylor careens percussively around the piano's keyboard. The saxophonist’s tone is focused and piercing; his lines are full and sure, but never overbearing.

While with Taylor, Lacy began two other important relationships. The first was with pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Gil Evans, with whom Lacy worked until Evans’ death in 1988. Lacy recorded with Evans for the first time in 1957, on Gil Evans Plus Ten, and for the last time on the 1987 duo recording Paris Blues, Evans’ final session. “Reincarnation Of A Lovebird” from this session finds Lacy in a plaintive mood, playing passionately. His improvisations swirl above Evans’s simple electric piano work, and wind around the song’s harmony.

The second was with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Lacy had played Monk's “Bemsha Swing” with Taylor on Jazz Advance, and was further impressed after taking in a performance by Monk in 1955, prompting a lifelong interest in the pianist’s music. In 1960, Lacy spent four months with Monk’s regular quartet at the Jazz Gallery in New York, and was with them at the Apollo Theater, Philadelphia Festival, and Rikers Island Festival that year. The band at this time included tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist John Ore and drummer Roy Haynes. He was also a member of Monk’s big band at Philharmonic Hall in New York in 1963, documented on the pianist’s Big Band and Quartet In Concert, issued the following year.

“Working with [Monk] was like about five schools rolled up into one,” Lacy said later. “In a way, the materialistic part was the least of it, and the spiritual part was the most important. The ideological, philosophical, and political thing – all that stuff was much more interesting even than the material, which I could learn myself just copying records.”

Following his departure from Monk’s group, Lacy and the trombonist Roswell Rudd co-led a quartet devoted solely to Monk’s compositions. This group, active from 1961 to 1964, can be heard on the School Days album, recorded live at a New York coffee house in March, 1963. Further dedication to Monk’s music can be found on Lacy’s We See album, recorded live in concert in Switzerland in 1992, and released in 2003. On that album, Lacy leads a sextet featuring the vibraphonist Sonhando Estwick through eleven of Monk’s tunes, including the singular “Evidence.”

Lacy’s soprano stamp can also be found on others’ interpretations of the music of Thelonious Monk. Lacy is featured alongside trumpeter Johnny Coles and trombonist Curtis Fuller on Gil Evans’s take on “Straight, No Chaser” from 1959.

When he wasn’t working with Evans, Taylor or Monk, Lacy also began to record as a leader, initially for Prestige. His first album for the label, 1958’s Soprano Sax, featured bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles, both of whom he had worked with in Taylor’s group, plus the pianist Wynton Kelly. 1959’s Reflections, also a quartet date, retained Neidlinger but included drummer Elvin Jones, who energizes the ensemble on Monk’s “Four In One,” and pianist Mal Waldron in lieu of Charles and Kelly.

Waldron in particular proved a valuable foil for Lacy, and the pair would perform and record as a duo on many occasions. In 1990, for instance, they recorded Hot House, a duo album featuring cuts like Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting.”

1962’s Evidence, Lacy’s final date as a leader for Prestige, featured the bassist Carl Brown and a pair of Ornette Coleman sidemen: trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins.

“On the one hand there were all the academic players, the hard-boppers, the ‘Blue Note’ people, the ‘Prestige’ people, and they were doing stuff which had slight progressive tendencies in it,” Lacy said in 1974. “But when Ornette hit the scene, that was the end of the theories. He destroyed the theories. I remember at that time he said, very carefully, ‘Well, you just have a certain amount of space and you put what you want in it.’ And that was a revelation.”

Despite his run of high-profile gigs, by 1965 Lacy was hardly working in New York, and decided to try his luck in Europe. In the summer of that year, Lacy left the U.S. for a month’s work at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen, where he was joined by Cherry and the pianist Kenny Drew. Following the Montmartre gig, Lacy traveled the continent, recording as a leader in Rome with drummer Aldo Romano and bassist Kent Carter and with a group in Holland that included pianist Carla Bley and trumpeter Michael Mantler, as well as Romano and Carter.

In 1966, while in Rome, Lacy met the Swiss singer and cellist Irene Aebi, whom he would marry in 1970. Also in 1966, with Aebi and a quartet comprised of drummer Louis Moholo, bassist Johnny Dyani and trumpeter Enrico Rava, Lacy spent an ill-fated eight months in Buenos Aires, playing to unappreciative audiences and living in poverty. While there, the quartet recorded The Forest and The Zoo, and played opposite famed tango musician Astor Piazzolla.

“[Piazzolla] said that we played with a knife between our teeth, very aggressive,” said Lacy. “After he heard us, he took refuge at home and listened to Vivaldi all night. He said that in an article.”

Following his stay in Argentina, Lacy returned to New York to work with Bley and Mantler, but soon left again with Europe, with Aebi. The couple moved to Paris in 1970, where they remained until 2002.

Lacy became a kind of itinerant jazz ambassador across Europe, working in Rome with the group Musica Elettronica Viva, in Germany with pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, in Holland with pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, and in London with saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey.

Back in Paris, he formed a quintet which included Aebi on vocals and cello, Kent Carter on bass and Steve Potts on alto and soprano saxophones. Later, he led a sextet with Aebi, Potts, pianist Bobby Few, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch.

]In 1971, inspired by Anthony Braxton, Lacy recorded Lapis, the first of more than 20 solo saxophone albums. In 1972, he began performing solo, with a concert in Avignon, documented on 1974’s Solo.

Lacy was also fond of joining poetry with his music, and his favorite collaborator in this realm was the English painter and poet Brion Gysin. In 1981, the sextet recorded Songs, a full album dedicated to the meeting of Gysin’s words and Lacy’s music. Lacy had also worked with dancers, actors, live painting, and the French sculptor Alain Kirili.

“The unity between all the arts, as well as the infinite possibilities of collaboration between different artists in different disciplines, and of different persuasions, has long been apparent to many of us,” Lacy wrote at the time. “However, the actual work in common, and the combining of the elements involved, remains a very delicate affair.”

In 1982, a U.K. music magazine, The Wire, took its name from a Lacy composition, and declared itself as devoted to the saxophonist’s “musical farsightedness.”

In 1983, after more than thirty years as an active jazz saxophonist, Lacy began to receive awards and accolades. That year, Lacy received a Guggenheim Fellowship; in 1992, he was awarded a MacArthur grant; and in 1996, he accepted a year-long DAAD residency in Berlin.

In 2002, Lacy and Aebi moved to Brookline, Massachusetts when Lacy accepted a teaching position at the New England Conservatory of Music. After only a year at NEC, Lacy was diagnosed with liver cancer, and died on June 4, 2004. He was 69.

Select Discography

As A Leader:

1958 – Soprano Sax – Prestige

1959 – Reflections – Prestige

1961 – The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy – Candid

1962 – Evidence – Prestige/New Jazz

1967 – The Forest and The Zoo – ESP

1971 – Lapis – Saravah

1974 – Solo – Emanem

1976 – Saxophone Special – Emanem

1977 – The Wire – Denon Jazz

1980 – The Way – Hat Hut

1982 – Ballets – Hat Hut

1986 – Hocus-Pocus – Les Disques du Crepuscule

1988 – The Window – Soul Note

1991 – Itinerary – Hat Hut

1992 – Live at Sweet Basil – RCA Novus

1996 – Bye-Ya – Free Lance

1998 – Sands – Tzadik

2003 – The Beat Suite – Universal/Sunnyside

With Cecil Taylor:

1956 – Jazz Advance – Transition

1958 – At Newport – Verve

With Thelonious Monk:

1964 – Big Band and Quartet in Concert – Columbia

With Gil Evans:

1957 – Gil Evans Plus Ten – Prestige

1964 – The Individualism of Gil Evans – Verve

1979 – Parabola – Horo

As a Co-Leader with Gil Evans:

1988 – Paris Blues - Owl

As a Co-Leader with Roswell Rudd:

1974 – School Days – Emanem

1999 – Monk’s Dream – Verve Universal


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Contributor: Brad Farberman