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Artist Profiles

Steve Lacy: 1934-2004

By Published: July 24, 2004
It was some time in 1956 playing with my college Dixieland band when our regular reed man could not make a gig. We were intrigued by what we heard about a rising new star on the New York jazz scene. Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was gaining a reputation for playing the old music in a more modern way. And that was exactly what I wanted to be doing, too. If you were to check me out a year later, you would have found me sleeping on the floor of a loft on East Bleecker Street shared by Steve and our mutual friend bassist Buell Neidlinger. In the evening they would go over to the old Five Spot to play with Cecil Taylor and Denis Charles. Sometime later, in 1960, I settled permanently in New York and Steve thought it would be a good idea to rehearse together. This was the beginning of a music partnership that would go on intensively in NYC for the next 3 years.

For me it was a chance to explore some great music, specifically that of Thelonious Monk. Steve was further down the road, having already released recordings of Monk's music. He even played in Monk's band. So the shared passion for this music became a special focus for us. There was not a week that went by that we didn't rehearse. Steve and I would play regardless of whether bass or drums would show up. This devotion, happening as it did in our early 20s, was to become a fulcrum into the future for us, a permanent musical, even emotional, bond.

The joy of the sound that we got stemming from Monk's high musical intelligence was enough for me. However Steve's vision included more; for him it was also about realizing the commercial potential of this sound. Thankfully there was an entrepreneurial side to him that would serve him abundantly in the years ahead - and many other performers, myself included, would also benefit from this. But here in NYC in the early '60s, that commercial breakthrough never quite happened. For instance, when Steve found a flea-ridden, dark basement beneath Harut's Restaurant in the West Village, I went home, got my hammer, nails and saw. We cleaned up the space and built a platform out of scrap lumber to play on. This was where we first played out in 1961. We passed the hat for six months before moving on to better venues. Finally it was our poet friend Paul Haines who recorded us on a borrowed tape machine in a coffee shop that was released on Emanem Records a few years later as School Days, with Henry Grimes (bass) and Denis Charles (drums). This went through several re-releases in different formats and it has become a favorite collector's item. When Steve pulled up stakes and went to Europe in 1963 he hit the ground running and eventually attracted American musicians residing in Europe as well as European musicians who were drawn into the Monk mystique and Steve's passion for the music. From this point on he would develop the shank of a career spanning the next 40 years. In fact, all and more of the opportunities denied to him in NYC in the early '60s, he would realize in Europe and other parts of the planet, including NYC and America. His musical spirit would produce many remarkable solo performances as well as unique ensembles including his wife, violinist/vocalist Irene Aebi. There is a formidable body of original music that came out of all this.

Thus during the years 1964-2004 I followed his career and although we were living and pursuing whatever we could on two different continents, there were occasional opportunities to touch base or do things together here or in Europe. Over there in 1965 he told me "I'm free now. I'm playing free," and he was now writing and recording his own material for the first time. In 1976 a little known album called Blown Bone was recorded in NYC, featuring all my compositions. And Trickles (Soul Note) featured music by Steve with Beaver Harris (drums) and Kent Carter (bass). This was actually the first time I played Steve's music. It had a similar deliberate quality to it reminiscent of Monk.

In the summer of 1981 we recorded an album called Regeneration with one American, Kent Carter, and two Dutch musicians - Han Bennink (drums) and Misha Mengelberg (piano), on which we recorded the music of Monk and Herbie Nichols. Later on in 1981 we both participated in the concert Interpretations of Monk. In 1999 we recorded Monk's Dream (Universal-Verve) in Paris which had, in addition to Monk, material by Steve and Duke Ellington. Steve asked me to join his then trio with John Betsch (drums) and JJ Avenel (bass) to make it a quartet that we would co-lead.

So you can see, since we first started playing together, Monk's music was our continuum and in fact, the last music we performed together was intended to come full circle. Steve called it "Monksieland" - a Dixieland instrumentation and a free counterpoint approach to Monk's tunes. Our quartet now became a quintet, adding Dave Douglas on trumpet. As I begin to look back less than a week after Steve's passing, I see how extraordinarily lucky I was to meet Steve in our early 20's. We knew each other for the bulk of our lives and shared some deep musical moments together. It is much too soon to begin to take in the exact magnitude of this loss or the exact magnitude of the gift.

I will always love you Steve.


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