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Steve Lacy: 1934-2004


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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.


Quite simply he WAS the soprano saxophone; we all know that Trane got to the horn through Lacy (playing with Don Cherry according to Steve). For that alone his contribution was immense. But it was more than that in Steve's case. He was a true artist coming out of the Beat Generation where musicians like him, Mingus, Cecil Taylor and others commonly mixed with artists from other genres and tried to combine their forces for the betterment of humanity. Steve played everything and always maintained his distinct and strong musical personality, no matter whether it was with a Russian poet or playing Monk tunes. He was the prototype eclectic, categories meant nothing to him. His playing was so concentrated and understated that it drew you in on a level different from most players, much like Bley or Desmond or Lee Konitz.

As a person though I didn't spend a lot of time with him, it was apparent that he was brilliant and generous with his wisdom. He shared a conversational characteristic that I have seen in others from that period - understatement; the use of language like music to make a point in the most direct and economical way possible, always with a sly sense of humor and irony. Steve was one of the kings of the one line answer to a query that said it all. We shared a duo concert in Italy in the '80s and for the first part I played solo to be followed by him and then a duo portion. After I finished playing (in front of THE MASTER of solo performances!!), he said:"You're playing in the corners!!" I understood exactly what he meant - 'nuff said. His presence will be sorely missed in the integrity department for sure.


Steve Lacy started in my life as a hero, the At Newport record with CT (Cecil Taylor), the records with Gil Evans and then the early records for Prestige under his own name, especially Evidence (1961) were essential listening for anyone with an idea to play the soprano. I heard the School Days band with Roswell at the Phase Two coffee bar in the West Village and still remember Steve's announcement after the first set to remind the audience theat "the band is pleased to play requests - we'll play any tune by Thelonious Monk". I requested "Four in One" and it was duly played (beautifully). Next I came to hear of Steve having passed through London on his way to Rome when he first came to Europe to live. He came to the Little Theatre Club and heard AMM, maybe played with Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo. Quite soon after that came the South American adventure and Forest and the Zoo (1966) was the document. Still a hero but a little closer. Gradually we started to play on the same festivals, FMP in Berlin organised the first one I think. In 1974 Steve asked me to play on the concert in London that was issued on record as Saxophone Special, then we were in Globe Unity for a long tour together, later another tour with Company and a Kenny Wheeler larger group and in between every so often a duo concert. Steve had magically become a highly esteemed colleague and mentor. I studied his materials and still do. In the course of more than 30 years my hero, Steve became a friend. Life does not have much greater rewards.


I was very sorry to hear of Steve's demise, even though I know it comes to all of us eventually. Too soon in his case in my opinion. He was a true creative force in the music world. Still underrated I believe. He was the type of musician that I always aspired to be. Someone who followed his own muse irrespective of fashion. He always had plenty of new ideas, and I found his quote from years ago about "all these people trying to play like Coltrane gives me so much room to do my own thing", a real truth and inspiration. Not an exact quote, but the meaning was that.

I always found Steve to be intelligent, focused, good humoured and open to others. A true musicians' musician, and he will be missed hugely. I am pleased to have been associated with him if only briefly. I will carry the inspiration I gained from him with me always!


It's true that Coltrane got inspired to take up the soprano partly through Lacy, but it's important to appreciate that what each of them did with the soprano was totally different and unique. Lacy's intense focused brilliance is well displayed in his 1961 solo on Monk's "Evidence" with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and bassist Carl Brown. His solo has such melodic richness (like some of Rollins' '60s work, but in Lacy's very own way). I'm listening to it in tribute to Lacy's passing - I can't get it out of my head!


I didn't know Steve Lacy well although I first met him in the early '50s at one of his initial rehearsals with Cecil Taylor and Buell Neidlinger when they were beginning to put together the music that resulted in Taylor's recording on the Transition label. Everyone was so young then. His love and devotion to the music was extraordinary and the oeuvre out of which he chose to matrix his creative work in composition and improvisation - dance, literature, poetry, painting and the theatre - was, while wide in range of breadth and scope, quite personal as he sought to present those things in the world of art that were both of interest and important to him. As a performer on the soprano saxophone instrument, he had no equal and his sound and inflection could immediately be detected and easily identified after the utterance of but a few notes. He was the consumate musician; the complete artist. His passing will make the world of art a smaller one, but the catalogue of recordings that house so many of his pure and unblemished [not touched by the gravitational pull of commercial constraints] compositions, should serve as a reminder that indeed he was here. The world of creative music will miss Steve Lacy.


After many years of admiring Steve Lacy, his music and wondering what it would be like for us to play together, a few years ago I got the opportunity during a week long European tour. The band featured Mal Waldron, Steve Lacy, Enrico Rava, Roswell Rudd, Reggie Workman and myself. Subsequently, on a following occasion honoring Mal Waldron's 72nd birthday in Antwerp, Belgium, I had another opportunity to play with Steve. It was not only the way he played the saxophone, his sound and musical sensitivity that were engaging - I found playing his uniquely brilliant compositions challenging, thrilling, inspirational and wonderful works of music.


Some people - children and adults alike - sometime have a period of picking their nose constantly without any demonstrable reason. Out of shyness, to think, to gain time. It seems more like a phobia than a necessity. Steve Lacy's repeated tinkering with the mouthpiece and reed of his saxophone, in the cloakroom as well as on stage, was comparable to this.

However, Steve had a very good reason for all this tinkering and twisting. He had to get the correct tone, practically perfect tuning, crystal clearness. Only then he could achieve that heavenly sound on his instrument. A musical colossus gone, never to be forgotten...


It was hearing Lacy that made me a soprano player, period. That sound he had in the '50s was so pure and clear. It was January 2004 that I got to meet and play with Steve for the first time. At McGill University in Montreal, Steve says, come on let's play a duet. I don't think he had ever heard me play a note until then. Standing next to Lacy with that sound in my right ear. Wow. Afterward, he told me how much he liked my music, my sound and my playing. When I told him it was kind of him to say that, he got a little angry. "Kindness has nothing to do with it. You don't know how rarely I get to say that about a soprano player." A month later I caught him at Iridium in NYC. After the set, I went over to say hello, as he was speaking to a group of about six people. He had a big smile on his face as I approached, put his arm around me and, pointing to me, said to the people around him:" Now, here's a real soprano player." And I responded: "Exactly how much money do I owe you, Steve?" The last time I saw his face, he was laughing at that. And I can still see that smiling face. That's what I'll remember. And his words: "We don't determine the music. The music determines us."


Steve Lacy will long be remembered as a great musician and an inspirational figure. While I mourn his passing, I celebrate it too. I heard him many times in Paris and New York and he was always very friendly, sharing observations and advice. Naturally he always sounded great and played soprano like no one else, which is of course the point. His melodic sense, his sound, time, intonation and use of space really set him apart. I treasure a postcard he sent to me after receiving several charts I sent him of transcriptions of Monk pieces for guitar. He complimented me on the charts, saying he wished he could play the guitar and "I have never seen better, but I've seen a lot worse". I still feel that the little 8-bar harmonized figure he plays with Monk on the version of "Evidence" from the Lincoln Center big band album is one of the hippest and fun things I've ever heard. Steve's beautiful spirit lives on.


I was lucky to meet Steve when I was young (20 years old), and I must say he changed my life. I was not sure which direction to give my musical life and, besides my love for this music, I was not ready to face the jazz scene. He was generous enough to welcome me into his "world" and to give me the opportunity to grow in his music. Playing with Steve then was a beautiful experience. His unique sound on the soprano, his music with the sextet was so different, so exciting, so meaningful and happy. It was like jumping into a new world for me, and since then I always had the same feeling. He never told me what to do, and gave me total freedom. "Keep the music alive", he used to say, was the only rule. His music was feeding me, each tune's bass line had something interesting I could work on and each gig we played was a musical adventure. He was always surprising and made everyone play better just trying to keep up with him. His sense of humour was great, too. Often when he was happy with the music, he used to make very funny sounds, like neighs, just for us on the bandstand. Steve's interest for different fields like literature, painting, dance and his open-mindedness made his company always fascinating. To me, Steve's music is like my home, I grew up with it and I will play it as long as I live.

I am very happy and proud to be associated with the beautiful "world" Steve has created, the work of a great master, a great human being who touched so many people on this planet.

Bye-ya Steve, I will miss your kindness, your smile and your beautiful sound, but I will keep the music alive.


Although it was a great sadness to learn of Steve Lacy's passing, it was not unexpected, and his music will always be a great source of joy. On June 9th, 1977, Steve and I were invited to play back to back solo concerts in Basel, Switzerland, by Werner Uehlinger (producer of hatHUT Records). I remember Steve saying to me, how important (for very personal reasons) it was to be invited to Basel; he wouldn't just go there for a gig. To share the bill was a great honor for me, and since I was on first, I thought if I could just keep my nose above the waterline, all would be OK. Then as Steve was about to begin his performance, he invited me to play a duet to close out the evening. I had just made a kind of blowout, way over the top multi-instrument performance, and there was Steve ever the gentleman, with just his soprano. I kept thinking, what instrument should I choose...certainly not the soprano...certainly not the tenor... certainly not the trumpet!

Finally I settled on the soprano, and then came time to play. As the first notes emerged, I thought to myself, "Are you crazy? Do you know who you are playing with?!" After almost 20 minutes it was over, and I thought I had escaped a bullet. I had received a cassette tape of the performance which I picked up, turned over and looked at many times, but was too embarassed to listen to for fear I had really got in over my head. Now 27 years later almost to the day, and I got up the courage to listen to the duet which came at the end of what became Hat Hut F:CLINKERS. The music is amazing! What I heard is a real dialogue, and a look into the heart of one of the kindest, most generous people it has ever been my pleasure to meet. This duet has never been heard publicly, but if this CLINKER is ever reissued, I certainly hope this episode will be included. Thanks Steve!


I will always remember Steve. When I moved to Paris in 1972 he was one of the first musicians to help me feel comfortable in France. He gave me leads for gigs and answered any questions we had. Steve was a great musician and a wonderful human being


I started working with Steve doing some things in New York and a stay in Europe from about '63 to '68. In 1970, we joined up again in Paris where he was putting a new group together, a group that I was in until 1983-'84. I must say, I learned a hell of a lot in those years.

He was a cultivated person. His awareness in art and literature was wonderfully stimulating. I loved going to concerts and galleries with him. And he had a sophisticated sense of humor. He taught all of us about dedication to one instrument = the evolution of the soprano sax. His sound became art itself.

I can say he was my musical guru in a way, and we learned much from each other. He did a great deal of work in his life and left us a lot . Thank you Steve Lacy.


Photo Credit
© 1996 Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

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