Steve Lacy, one of the greatest soprano saxophonists of all time and a New England Conservatory faculty member since fall 2002, died Friday [June 4th, 2004] at New England Baptist Hospital. The jazz master who once defined his profession as “combination orator, singer, dancer, diplomat, poet, dialectician, mathematician, athlete, entertainer, educator, student, comedian, artist, seducer and general all around good fellow” was 69. He leaves his wife and collaborator, the Swiss singer Irene Aebi.
Born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City, Lacy was the first avant garde jazz musician to make a specialty of the soprano saxophone--an instrument that had become almost completely neglected during the Bop era. Indeed, he is credited with single-handedly bringing the instrument back from obscurity into modern music of all types. He regularly received awards from DownBeat Magazine as the premier soprano saxophonist and in 1992 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In 2002, he was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. A prolific recording artist, Lacy is represented on many labels including Universal, Senators, RCA, Verve, Label Bleu, Greats of Jazz, EMI, CBS/Columbia, and Denon.
Throughout his career, Lacy was widely admired for the beauty and purity of his tone, for his incisive melodic sense, for keeping his music uncompromising and fresh, and for his eagerness to play with a wide variety of musicians while retaining long-term musical relationships. For example, since 1998, he performed often with Panamanian pianist and NEC faculty member Danilo Perez, but he also played regularly with Mal Waldron, a pianist he had worked with since the fifties. He was esteemed for his productivity, and for the consistently high quality of his art. As a teacher, a role he took on in the last two years of his life, he was revered for his intense focus and generosity.
During the latter part of his career, Lacy made his home in Paris for 33 years, but returned to the United States in 2002 to begin his first teaching job at NEC. He was prominently featured in the concerts celebrating the centennial of NEC's Jordan Hall in October 2003, kicking off the festivities in a Best of Jazz performance that featured other Conservatory jazz greats like Ran Blake, George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, and alumnus Cecil Taylor.
Lacy got his start as a sideman in the early fifties playing in Manhattan's Dixieland revival scene. He also worked with some Duke Ellington players including cornetist Rex Stewart who christened him “Lacy.” Although he initially doubled on clarinet and soprano sax, he soon dropped the former instrument and found his distinctive voice with the saxophone. It was the NEC-trained Cecil Taylor who set Lacy on a new course and introduced him to Thelonious Monk--who, along with Duke Ellington, would remain the most important influence in his life. “Playing with Cecil Taylor immediately put me into the offensive mode” (of music- making), Lacy recalled in his book Findings: My Experience with the Soprano Saxophone. “This was the avant-tout garde; we were an attack quartet (sometimes quintet or trio), playing original, dangerously threatening music that most people were offended by….”