A Fireside Chat With Steve Lacy
“ A collaboration like that is rare and very precious and flourishes. It is organic. It goes on and on and on until it can't go on anymore. Mal is a wonderful accompanist. He can make anybody sound good. I like to play with him because he made me sound good. ”
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
STEVE LACY: I have always loved music and theater and dance and cinema and painting, all the arts. I was really into that all my life. But jazz, I got very interested in jazz from when I heard Duke Ellington at twelve years old. That is what started me into the jazz world. It was the hottest swinging, spicy music that I had every heard. I heard the records that he had made in 1929 and 1930, when he had the original Jungle band with Bubber Miley on trumpet and I bought those records as a kid without knowing what they were exactly. I was just intrigued by the way they looked on the shelf. I had some birthday money. I was twelve years old and I bought them without listening to them. I look them home and a flipped. That was the birth of my interest in jazz really. At sixteen years old, a few years later, I heard a record of Sidney Bechet playing a Duke Ellington piece actually and that combination was just magic for me.
FJ: The soprano saxophone was not a very popular instrument at the time.
SL: No, it was completely in limbo. Nobody was playing it. Bechet was in Europe and his only disciple, Bob Wilber was in New York playing pretty much like Bechet and there was nobody doing anything with the instrument. I didn't know that at the time. I found that out sooner than later (laughing).
FJ: Finding work couldn't have been easy.
SL: It was mixed, but I was into the traditional jazz world playing with the people from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, and playing traditional jazz. The reception was good there because I wasn't competing with anybody. There was already the trumpet, trombone, and the clarinet in those bands and I was playing the soprano saxophone. I wasn't taking anybody else's job away, so they just sort of added me on.
FJ: This lead to a couple of recording sessions for Prestige.
SL: My own first records, that's right. I recorded with Gil Evans in his first record for Prestige and as a result of that, the producer, Bob Weinstock offered me my own chance to record under my own name. So I made my first record. I used Wynton Kelly on piano and Dennis Charles on drums, Buell Niedlinger on bass and I did the best I could for a young beginner. I had some Ellington material, one piece of Monk, and a calypso piece.
FJ: Those sessions were a sign of things to come. You have almost been the standard bearer for the Thelonious Monk songbook.
SL: That's right. I fell in love with his music, really, Cecil Taylor, I was working with Cecil for six years in the Fifties and Cecil turned me onto Thelonious Monk. First, we were playing one of his pieces in Cecil's group and then I went with him to hear Monk in 1955 at a little club in downtown New York. And again, I flipped. Every time it is some great music that I hear for the first time, I flip. I flip again and again. I really fell for Monk's music and I started to learn it the best I could from his own records. I found to my delight and surprise that it was very good for the soprano saxophone. The range was ideal for me. It was like the right hand of the piano, which is the same range as the soprano saxophone. They fit me. Those pieces fit me and also, they were very full of challenges and problems. They were difficult to play and nobody else was playing them. Not even Monk was playing them. He wasn't working very much in those days. So it seems like that material was made for me in a way, or made for my instrument.
FJ: Are you familiar with the complete canon?
SL: By now, well back in those days, up until the early Sixties when I had the group with Roswell Rudd and we played exclusively Monk's music, at that time, Fred, we had fifty-five of his compositions under our belt. We were performing fifty-five pieces of his and now, a book recently came out and they have seventy pieces of his and some of which I didn't know at all. Anyway, I've gone through much of his book and it is all available now. Back then, Fred, there were no books at all.
FJ: You continued your collaborations with Roswell Rudd through the years.