Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lyons, Jimmy

Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons took Charlie Parker's innovations and ran with them into free jazz, where he developed his own energetic and lyrical style. Lyons’ music is characterized by lightning-quick pacing, jagged, blues-influenced lines, and a slightly dry and detached tone. A longtime collaborator of pianist Cecil Taylor, a self-effacing quality seems to permeate even his most emotionally textured performances.

Lyons was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on December 1, 1931, of mixed Irish, Native American, and African-American ancestry. He grew up in Mount Vernon, New York and in the Bronx, where Buster Bailey, the clarinetist for Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, gave him his first lessons on the alto sax at age fourteen. Lyons also took some lessons from Rudy Rutherford, the clarinetist for Count Basie.

As a teenager, Lyons' playing earned praise from bebop pioneer Thelonious Monk for its tone and strength, but the pianist rebuked him for not knowing the underlying chords to the tunes he was playing. His early influences on the saxophone included Parker and Ernie Henry, who Lyons heard perform in Greenwich Village.

After graduation from high school, Lyons was drafted and sent to the Korean War for 21 months, during which time his saxophone was damaged. It was not until his discharge from the Army in October of 1953 that he bought a new saxophone. For a year, he studied English at New York University on the GI Bill. In 1955 he moved to 474 East 150th Street in the Bronx, and worked for the Postal Service making $1.82 an hour for the rest of the decade.

In the late fifties, Lyons played with saxophonists Tina Brooks and Lou Donaldson at the Mayfair Lounge, later known as the Top Club, on 125th Street in Harlem and at the Café Wha in Greenwich Village. In 1960, he quit his job at the postal service to concentrate on music.

At this time, spurred on by the notoriety achieved by saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, there was a surprising amount of demand for avant-garde sounds: it seemed briefly as if every record label wanted a cutting-edge saxophonist of their own. Roland Kirk recorded for Mercury, Benny Golson for Argo, Eric Dolphy for Prestige, Ken McIntyre for United Artists, John Handy for Roulette, Wayne Shorter for Vee Jay, and Bill Barron for Savoy. But Lyons, devoted to his music and hesitant to make business decisions, sat on the sidelines.

In October of 1961 he joined pianist Cecil Taylor for a gig at the Five Spot café, which began their enduring collaboration. The pair toured Europe with drummer Sunny Murray in the fall of 1962, during which they recorded tracks in Copenhagen with saxophonist Albert Ayler, which were later released as part of the Holy Ghost box set in 2004, and without Ayler as a trio, released as Live at Café Montmartre.

From 1963 to 1965, when Taylor was not performing in public, Lyons appeared occasionally with the Jazz Composers Guild Orchestra and gave lessons to saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. He appeared in 1966 on Cecil Taylor’s Blue Note album Unit Structures, a suite of knotty, long-form free-jazz pieces, such as "Steps" and "Tales(8 Whisps)," along with Eddie Gale, Ken McIntyre, Henry Grimes, Alan Silva, and Andrew Cyrille. He also appears on Taylor's Conquistador!, another unremitting and intense suite recorded that same year, with Bill Dixon, Grimes, Silva, and Cyrille.

While he was a devotee of Charlie Parker, Lyons tried to differentiate his playing from the approach taken by other Parker acolytes, such as Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean. In an 1970 interview in Jazz & Pop Magazine, Lyons said “Bebop was very romantic in a sense. It talked about heroic actions—things to do politically as well as musically, rather than doing it now. Of course Bird got to some things, and a lot of the cats who are playing today aren’t as modern as he was. When I say ‘modern,’ I mean using techniques that are indigenous to the modern school, like wide skips or things of that nature. But basically bebop was about the idea of doing what had to be done, rather than actually doing it. Now we’re doing it.”

Lyons made his first recording as a leader, Other Afternoons, in 1969. From 1970 to 1971 he taught music at Narcotic Addiction Control, a drug treatment center in New York City. From 1971 to 1973 he served as the artist in residence at Antioch College, and in 1975 he directed the Black Music Ensemble at Bennington College.

He appears on one track, “Push Pull,” from the 1976 Wildflowers anthology of Sam Rivers’ loft scene, and recorded again with Taylor in 1978 on Cecil Taylor Unit, which includes "Idut."

Lyons then led more sessions as a leader, all without a piano. These include: Push Pull from 1978, Riffs and Jump Up in 1980, Wee Sneezawee in 1983. On “Shakin’ Back,” from Wee Sneezawee, Lyons plays high into the overtone series in a style reminiscent of bebop, but with seemingly intertwined voices which create a sense of counterpoint within his solo.

Another highlight of Lyons' late career is Burnt Offerings, a duet album recorded with drummer Andrew Cyrille in 1983. Made up of only three tracks the shortest of which, "Exotique," is ten minutes long, the album showcases the two musicians' ability to forego conventional meter and form to support each other's improvisations, and Lyons demonstrates the signature style reviewer Chris Kelsey calls "hyperdriven aural scribbling, that Lyons did faster and more forcefully than any other altoist."

Lyons’ known body of recorded work nearly doubled in 2003 with the appearance of Ayler Records’ The Box Set, which includes live recordings of his quartet over a fifteen-year period, with Karen Borca on bassoon, William Parker on bass, and Paul Murphy on drums. With Borca on bassoon serving in a similar capacity to Dewey Redman in Ornette Coleman’s group, the invigorating "freebop" captured on these recordings allowed Lyons to make endlessly imaginative improvisations based on catchy melodies.

A solo saxophone recording on Disc 3 of The Box Set is poignant and affecting. “Clutter” includes a theme with paraphrases of “Bemsha Swing” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.” “Mary Mary Intro” is essentially a minor-mode gloss on the blues, and “Configuration C” contains ideas which are connected in series but never return to a theme.

Lyons died May 19, 1986 at the age of 54, of lung cancer, after a course of radiation therapy. Despite this, he remained dedicated to music, and at the time of his death he was planning a tour with bassist Peter Kowald and saxophonist John Tchicai.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

The Box Set, Ayler, 1972-1985

Something in Return, Black Saint, 1981

Burnt Offering, Black Saint, 1982

Wee Sneezawee, Black Saint, 1983

Give It Up, Black Saint, 1985

with Cecil Taylor:

Trance, Black Lion, 1962

Unit Structures, Blue Note, 1966

Conquistador!, Blue Note, 1966

The Cecil Taylor Unit, New World, 1978

with Jeanne Lee and Andrew Cyrille:

Nuba, Black Saint, 1979

Contributor: Sean Singer