Steve Lacy: 1934-2004

AAJ Staff By

Sign in to view read count
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!


About Steve Lacy
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...


Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.