Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Thompson, Lucky (Eli)

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Lucky Thompson had a rare ability to combine swing sensibilities with the melodic concepts of bebop. A pioneer of modern jazz, he taught at Dartmouth and Yale before tumbling into hardship and obscurity. The emotional breadth, however, of his timbre endures: Lucky plays up-tempo blues and the sweetest ballads with the same unbridled passion and finesse.

Eli Thompson was born on June 16, 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina. At the age of five, his mother died and he spent the remainder of his childhood in Detroit, Michigan. He spent a great deal of his time as a young boy helping to raise his younger siblings. Thompson acquired his nickname as a result of a jersey his father once gave him that had the word “lucky” on it.

The young Lucky displayed a great love for music, but the family was unable to afford an instrument for the boy. Determined to learn the rudiments of music, Lucky used money he earned running errands to buy a saxophone instruction book, which he practiced from on an imitation wooden instrument. Over time, he taught himself to read music and basic finger patterns in this way.

At the age of fifteen, Thompson finally obtained a saxophone. As the story goes, a delivery company mistakenly dropped it off at his home along with some furniture. Once he finally had a real instrument, Lucky began to practice in upwards of eight hours a day.

Within a month of getting his saxophone, he began to perform locally with several ensembles including the King’s Aces Big Band, which also included future vibraphonist Milt Jackson. After choosing music as his vocation, Thompson decided to leave Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in order to perform with former Jimmie Lunceford alto saxophonist Ted Buckner at Club 666 in Detroit.

Thompson got his first taste of the touring lifestyle with trumpeter Erskine Hawkins’ group The ‘Bama State Collegians. Lucky left Detroit for good in August of 1943 with vibraphonist < a href="/encyclopedia/hampton-lionel"> Lionel Hampton’s ensemble, and he spent four months with the bandleader before making way to New York City. Shortly after, he replaced tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at the Three Deuces club. During his first night at the club, the audience included such luminaries as tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and pianist a href="/music/2008/2/10/art-tatum-i-got-rhythm"> Art Tatum.

Thompson also performed with bassist Slam Stewart before briefly going back on the road with Hampton. Lucky then secured a position in singer Billy Eckstine’s big band, which at the time was a cradle for some of the era's most harmonically adventurous young musicians. In Eckstine's band, Thompson played alongside drummer Art Blakey, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. During this time, he also began to perform with saxophonist Don Redman and bandleader Lucky Millinder.

In March 1944, Thompson made his recording debut with trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page. From November 1944 until October 1945, Lucky performed with bandleader Count Basie before moving to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand studio musician.

For the next two years, Thompson participated on more than one hundred recordings both as a leader and as a sideman with bandleader Boyd Raeburn, guitarist and vocalist Slim Gaillard, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Mundy and pianist Dodo Marmarosa.

While in Los Angeles, Thompson performed with Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club, replacing an absent Charlie Parker. On March 28, 1946, Lucky performed on a landmark session for Dial Records with Gillespie and Parker. The same year, he was a member of the Stars of Swing, a group led by bassist Charles Mingus and tenor saxophonist Buddy Collette. Thompson ultimately decided to return to New York in 1948.

The same year, Thompson made his European debut at the Nice Jazz Festival in France. Beginning in 1951, Lucky led his own ensemble at New York's Savoy Ballroom, a residency that he kept on and off until 1953. On August 14, 1953, he recorded his first album as a leader, Lucky Thompson & His Lucky Seven, alongside trumpeter Harold “Money” Johnson, alto saxophonist Jimmy Powell, baritone saxophonist Clarence Williams, pianist Earl Knight, bassist Beverly Peer and drummer Percy Brice.

On April 29, 1954, Thompson recorded with trumpeter Miles Davis’s sextet which yielded the album Walkin’. Also in the sextet were trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke. On August 11,1955, Lucky performed with drummer Jo Jones on a studio jam session organized by the Vanguard label.

On January 23, 1956, Thompson recorded with Milt Jackson on his album Jazz Skyline. Recorded for Savoy label, the album also featured contributions from Kenny Clarke, pianist Hank Jones and bassist Wendell Marshall. The ensemble’s collective talents can best be heard on the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song “Lover.”

After a brief introduction on drums by Jones, Thompson and Jackson enter the arrangement playing the melody. Both men navigate its tricky rhythmic terrain, which alternates from 3/4 to 4/4 meter. Lucky’s solo showcases his ability to construct swing lines which contain the complexities of bebop harmony, fusing the two styles into an original approach. His solo is also keenly aware of the melody, by adding motifs found in the melody to help serve the melodic statement of the solo.

On March 29, 1956, Thompson recorded the album Brown Rose in Paris. Soon after, Lucky joined bandleader Stan Kenton's group, which was touring France at the time.

By one account, Thompson's performance and recording opportunities in the United States dried up after he was blacklisted by Joe Glaser, the legendarily combative manager of Louis Armstrong. As the story goes, Glaser took revenge after Lucky and Armstrong were onced booked on the same flight, and Lucky refused to allow Armstrong to leave the aircraft first.

Following a session with Jackson in January of 1957, Thompson lived in France until 1962. During this time, Lucky began to study the soprano saxophone and worked steadily throughout Europe. In the spring of 1961, Thompson recorded the album Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know? in France for the Candid label, along with Kenny Clarke, bassist Peter Trunk and Martial Solal on piano.

Thompson’s talents are on fine display on the song “Warm Inside.” After a lively introduction from Solal, Thompson begins the melod, to which he adds subtle inflections. Lucky tries to evoke the reflective nature of the song by incorporating long, sustained notes. He then contrasts these sustained lines with faster passages, creating a second melodic layer over the entire song.

In 1962, Thompson returned to New York and signed with Prestige Records. Lucky recorded his first album for Prestige on March 8, 1963, which yielded the album Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More. He followed this album up with the 1964 album New York City 1964-1965, which was recorded at The Little Theatre in New York City. During this time, Thompson’s wife passed away and he struggled to keep his career active while raising his children.

From 1968 to 1970, Thompson lived in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1968, Lucky toured as a leader throughout Switzerland with saxophonist Buddy Tate, pianist Milt Buckner drummer Wallace Bishop as his sideman. The following year, he toured throughout Germany and Poland and added a tour of Spain to his itinerary in 1970.

The same year, Thompson recorded the album Soul’s Nite Out. Recorded in Barcelona, Spain, the album featured the talents of pianist Tete Montoliu, bassist Eric Peter and drummer Peer Wyboris. Lucky followed up the album with the album Goodbye Yesterday!, which featured pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Billy Higgins.

On Friday, October 13, 1972, Thompson performed in Chicago with Cedar Walton, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. The concert was recorded and included on the album Friday the 13th: Cook County Jail, alongside organist Jimmy McGriff and his quintet. The ensemble is especially noteworthy on the song “Everything Happens To Me.”

Walton sets up the melodramatic feel of the song with a brief introduction on the electric piano. The vibrato used on the electric piano perfectly coincides with Thompson’s own tone. Lucky’s use of the soprano saxophone on this humber further augments this feeling. At around four minutes into the piece, he begins to utilize several melodic devices that brilliantly segues back into the melody. Lucky’s unaccompanied coda adds a heartfelt conclusion to this sentimental song.

In 1973, Thompson taught at Dartmouth College and Yale University after he became disillusioned with the music business. The same year, Lucky recorded his final album as a leader, I Offer You. After a year, he retired, first to Manitoulin Island in Canada and then to Savannah, Georgia. During this time, he needed dental work and sold his instruments to a dentist in Savannah in exchange for his services.

While living in Savannah, Thompson was badly beaten, and he moved to Colorado, then Oregon, and by the late 1980s, to Seattle. While living in Seattle, he became homeless, often living in the woods. His whereabouts were unknown, and he surfaced only rarely, such as at the Jazz Alley in Seattle where he saw drummer Kenny Washington perform with saxophonist Johnny Griffin. In August of 1994, Thompson's fortunes improved somewhat when he moved in to the Columbia City Assisted Living facility in Seattle.

Thompson passed away on Sunday, July 30, 2005 at the age of eighty-one in Seattle, Washington. Lucky is survived by his son Daryl Thompson, his daughter Jade Thompson-Fredericks and his two grandchildren.

Select Discography

As a leader

Lucky Thompson & His Lucky Seven (1953)

Tricotism (1956)

Brown Rose (1956)

Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know? (1961)

Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More (1963)

Soul’s Nite Out (1970)

I Offer You (1973)

With Miles Davis

Walkin’ (1954)

With Milt Jackson

Jazz Skyline (1956)

With Jimmy McGriff

Friday the 13th: Cook County Jail (1972)

Contributor: Eric Wendell