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A Fireside Chat With Steve Lacy

By Published: June 5, 2004
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.

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