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.
SL: We were like a fellow researchers. We both love Ellington and the whole history of jazz, but especially we were very interested in Monk's music. We worked together on it to discover how it was made and what it consisted of. He helped me correct my mistakes and I helped him find good parts for him to play on the trombone, so we collaborated on that and the thing is, you have read the expression "Sunday painters." Well, we didn't want to be that. We wanted to play that every night and for a long enough time so that we got to the bottom of it and also, so that we could play it freely. If you only play something once in a while, you can't, you have to be very polite with the material. You can't take liberties with it. We felt that if we played this music long enough, we could find a freedom on the other side and sure enough, we were right. Of course, we couldn't make any money then. Back then, it was considered very weird to have a quartet with no piano, playing the music of Thelonious Monk in little cafes in New York. That was really underground.
FJ: Roswell has been a champion of the Herbie Nichols' songbook as well.
SL: Yeah, yeah, Roswell made me discover that. I met Herbie when he was alive, but I never heard him play his own things. I only heard him play so called Dixieland that he was playing to make a living at. I met him, but I had no idea about his own music until much later when I discovered it through Roswell Rudd and also through Misha Mengelberg. Now, I love it very well, but I didn't know it at the time when he was alive. The thing is, Fred, Herbie didn't live long enough to see his music excepted and developed really. Monk was lucky enough to have a wonderful wife, who helped him survive the lean years and he could do his own research and he lived to see his music accepted and flourishing. Ellington, of course, had his wonderful band and he had some great hits. He had some big hits that he wrote that helped him pay the members of his ban and keep his music and to be able to realize what he wanted to realize with success. But Herbie, Herbie didn't have a chance really. He died too young and he never lived to see the interest that people have in his stuff. It's very original music and very beautiful stuff and very varied and quite interesting now and more and more people are getting interested in playing it. I think Roswell has done the most to promote it than anybody.
FJ: Your reverence for piano players, Monk, Ellington, and Nichols is acknowledged, but you have had some heavy pianists in your own bands as well.
SL: That's right.
FJ: Bobby Few.
SL: Oh, Irene and I were living in Rome in '68,'69 and by the end of '69, I was writing a lot of music and we were working with amateurs in Rome and they couldn't play what I was writing. Then I played a festival in Belgium, outside of France and I heard all these wonderful musicians from Chicago and different places that were living in Paris. I heard Braxton and Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Jarman and all the wonderful musicians, Frank Wright and I heard Bobby Few. And so that is what really decided me to want to move to Paris from Rome. I told Irene that there were some wonderful musicians in Paris and let's move to Paris. We could form a band. We went there and Bobby was one of the main reasons because he was the first pianist I heard after Cecil Taylor that had his own thing really well developed.
FJ: He is finally getting some appreciation stateside.
SL: Yeah, that's good. The thing is, at that time, we got there to Paris and I did form a band and the band lasted for over twenty years actually, but I couldn't hire Bobby Few for ten years because he was working with Frank Wright all that time. Then finally, in 1980, he was able to join our band and he played with us for fifteen years.
FJ: In the early Nineties, you recorded Spirit of Mingus with Eric Watson.
SL: Spirit of Mingus, yeah, Eric Watson, I liked that record too. I did a couple of other things under his name on small labels. I don't know that they are still in print. That was the most elaborate record that we made, the most developed.
FJ: And your most infamous collaborations have been with Mal Waldron.
SL: Mal Waldron, yeah. I've known Mal from the Fifties. We worked together back then. He was on my second record. We were accompanying the poets together at the old Five Spot. Then we met again later in Europe. We both moved to Europe around the same time in the mid-Sixties. Then finally, in the Seventies, I started to work with him and he started to work with me and then we started doing duos together and it just went on and on and on. 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.
FJ: Playing duos with Mal has a level of intimacy that you are accustomed to because you seem at ease playing solo.
SL: That's right, Fred. That has been something I've been doing since thirty years now. And actually, I have one coming up Monday here in Boston. It is challenging. It is not what I call difficult, but it is dangerous. It has got to be good. Otherwise, it is terrible. I can't do it every night. It is an exceptional thing. For me, it is a thing of exception. I am trying to play with the best musicians I can as much as possible and then once in a while, I play a solo concert. It is an exceptional thing, even if I do it a couple nights in a row. I can't do it more than that. Well, it is exceptional. It is a special thing. It's very nice as a thing apart really. For me, it is very important to have done that and I continue to do it.
FJ: What prompted your initial move to Europe?
SL: Well, first, I went in '65 and stayed there a couple of years. Then we went to Buenos Aires for almost a year and then Irene and I came to New York for a year and in '68, we moved back to Europe and we are just coming back now.
FJ: European labels hatOLOGY, Emanem, and Black Saint/Soul Note have extensive catalogs of your music. That is not the case in the States. Do you attribute that to your lengthy residence in Europe?
SL: Well, you know, Fred, when we left in the Sixties, the music that we were doing was rather still underground. There was little interest in it and we couldn't make a living with it. That was out of the question. When I got to Europe, I found that one could make a living with it over there. There was all the different countries, all the different cities, and lots of good musicians here and there and radio stations, record companies, critics, fans, everything. There was everything that was not in America at that time and so I stayed. It did flourish for a long time and now it started to get better in America and I am working more and more here, so it was logical to follow the music back home. The artistic context is very high there. It is an older civilization. It is older in that it goes back further than it does here and the culture is more grown. It is longer grown. That includes painting and music and dance and lots of things like that. Here, it is a few hundred years old and there, it may be a thousand years or more and in some places, there is much more than that. That is an important part because any kind of an art is an organic commodity that is grown under circumstances with influence and inspiration from the surroundings. For example, Italy is a beautiful place and has a very high level of culture and the music, the people understand music extremely well. They listen to opera in their own language and their ears are highly developed really. In America, you have good listeners and all of that and good performers, but it is a younger kind of thing. It isn't so deep as it is over there yet because it can't be. Too little time has gone by. Even jazz is just about a hundred years.
FJ: Perhaps we place too much of an emphasis on pop/rock music.
SL: Well, it is hard to answer that because when I was a kid, jazz was popular. And popular music was quite sophisticated and quite good quality and all of that. Now, there is a whole other thing out there and there is a lot of junk music out there. There is a lot of recreational jazz also and there is a lot of non-music which is viewed as music like rap without any melody or harmony or anything. It is just language with rhythmic accompaniment. So it is a different ballgame right now. It just goes on and on with variations. The good jazz is appreciated in America. I especially like to live in Boston because it is full of very, very good musicians everywhere here of all styles and the classical scene and the baroque scene and the contemporary scene is very, very developed up here and I like that. I was born in New York. I came from there and I went through that whole thing. I don't need to live exactly there right now. Boston is close enough. I can be there in a few hours if I want to be. I feel more relaxed here. The main consideration for Boston was the New England Conservatory offered me this teaching post, which gives me a little security and three days a week I teach and it's a wonderful experience. It is important to be able to teach young people the things I learned the other way and it is a base for me. I can still travel and I can go to New York and play when something comes up. It is a better situation for me. We went through Paris. We did Paris. We were there thirty-two years. We did everything we could do there and it was time to come back home.
FJ: When Maria Callas did master classes at Julliard, students were experiencing a wealth of art. Such is the case I am sure with your own pupils at the New England Conservatory.
SL: I get a lot of respect, but more important than that, Fred, I get a lot of response. I have a lot of music that was made in Europe and I brought it all back with me and the students eat it up. They love it and not only that, they perform it and then they come up with things I would have never have thought of. It is very gratifying for me to see what they do with this material. So that inspires me and I learn a lot from them and they from me and it is a very fruitful experience so far.
FJ: The partnership you have with your wife Irene is two fold, not only through marriage, but through music as well.
SL: She has been my principal inspiration in composition since the Sixties. We met in '66 in Rome. When we moved to New York in '67, that is when I started writing seriously for her voice. She had a wonderful voice. She was extremely musical and intelligent and I started to write songs for her, things based on Buckner. I had a desire to improve the level of the lyrics in jazz song. And with her collaboration, I was able to accomplish a whole body of work that we made together. Now, it is about two hundred and fifty vocal works in our library in about four or five languages. She has made about forty-five records realizing the songs that I wrote and so now that body of material is starting to spread to all the singers and all that. They are very interested in performing that themselves. That is the experience that I have with the students now. Her collaboration was precious to me. Also, she played cello and violin and now, she is playing piano a lot. She is a genius. She is the only one I know that can interpret these works that we did. We used authors for the words that we used, Herman Melville, all kinds of poets, Russian poets, and some of the New England poets and all beat poets. Our next record is called Beat Suites on Verve, where she sings ten settings of the beat poets, Burroughs, Ginsburg, all the famous ones with George Lewis on trombone and my normal rhythm section with Betsch and Avenel. That's on Verve coming out early next year. I think she is the only one that can sing these serious jazz art songs, so far.
FJ: Hell must have frozen over, finally, some major label respect with Monk's Dream (Verve) and this follow up.
SL: It is always a matter of individuals and that came about through an old friend of mine who was a producer there, Daniel Richard, who had faith in what we were doing and was an old friend of mine who understood what we were doing and was in a position to make a decision like that. Then the success of that record allowed us to do the Beat Suites. We will see how that does. I am looking forward to its release.
FJ: And a new project on the Senators label, 10 of Dukes + 6 Originals.
SL: Oh, you've seen that. That is Vincent Laine. He started the website for me quite a few years ago and he runs it. It is very well done and always up to date and it's got lots of information on it and lots of people hit on it. He also helped me put out my book and has been my musical assistant for many years now. He and some other friends here in New York and Tokyo and France formed a circle that we call the Senators and they have been interested in our music for quite a few years and it was sort of logical that they would produce a record. This is the first record they made and it is on the Senators label and it is from a live concert I did in Japan of this Ellington sequence that I have been doing for a few years. That started from a request from the San Francisco Jazz Festival during the Ellington centennial year. They asked me to do a solo concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco of Ellington, or dedicated to Ellington. I prepared for that about a year in advance. I made this sequence of ten Ellington pieces and did that in various places, in churches, museums and clubs in Italy and France. Then this was recorded in Japan live and that is the first record on Senators called 10 of Dukes. We will see how this does. So far, it is doing very well.
FJ: Avant-garde has so many misconceptions.
SL: I've seen that process in person really. I saw it happen with Cecil Taylor. I worked with him for six years in the Fifties and at that time, he was really in the avant-garde and really almost nobody was interested in what he was doing. In fact, he was considered a musical terrorist at that time. Almost everybody was against what he was doing and it took him about twenty years to break through and I saw that with Monk, who also was considered avant-garde, esoteric, weird and difficult and no technique. That also took about twenty years to clear up so that people started to realize how good it really was. Now, fifty years after Monk wrote all of those things, all of those compositions are classics and all of us want to learn all of them. This is a cultural process. As Monk told me, "You go your own way and the public catches up with you at a certain point." I've seen very often the twenty year gap between the conception and the acceptance. I think also that the more original something is, the more resistance there is to it.
FJ: The fathers may not get it, but their sons do.
SL: That's right. It seems easy now. People hear it and they have no more problems with it, but back then, it was considered weird. For me, it is a kick. It is nice not to be alone anymore. You have some feedback and you have some collaborations.
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