“I wanted to come back. You can't stay away forever. I'm from here, I'm from New York and it was time to come home."
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, whose career began inauspiciously in 1954 on an instrument which would lose its main progenitor in Sidney Bechet five years later, made this statement recently during an interview with AllAboutJazz-New York. The 69-year-old Lacy, neé Lackritz, has removed the ex- from ex-pat, after close to 35 years immersed in Europe's rich cultural opportunities.
The mid '50s to '60s saw Lacy playing with musicians as diverse as Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans, releasing four records as a leader for Prestige, New Jazz and Candid and being involved with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra organized by Carla Bley. He came to Europe for two years, spending time in Rome and quickly establishing himself there through a series of albums, some recorded with a group that included Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava.
He returned to New York in 1967 only to record two albums, Gary Burton's A Genuine Tong Funeral (written by Carla Bley) and The Jazz Composers Orchestra's Communication, before returning, frustrated, to Europe – Paris this time – and settling there until returning to the States last year.
"Europe was an opening for me in the ‘60s," says Lacy. "The '60s in New York, things were really very tight and the music we were doing was completely underground. And we couldn't make any money and we had to work days, and it was misery. And when I got to Europe in '65, I found that that there was lots of work there for me. People knew my sound and everything. There were clubs and record companies and very good musicians everywhere. And there was no need to go back underground so I stayed in Europe for a while. And when I came back to New York... it was worse than ever.
"So then we left in '68 and we stayed. It was very fruitful for us and we were able to form a group and develop our music in the next 30 years. And then it started to go the other way and we started to work more in America than in Europe. It started to dry up in France and it was time to come back home."
American jazz musicians, from Bechet to the Art Ensemble of Chicago (who were in Paris at the same time as Lacy), have seemed to have an easier time in Europe. Recalls Lacy: "It was the question of having the possibility of work. A musician without work is the most pathetic thing in the world... like some kind of bum with an instrument. You got to have the gigs, where are the gigs? There was nothing happening in New York for us so it had to be Europe. And Europe is vast so there was work in Italy, France, Holland, Germany, in Scandinavia... in England. So it was a much richer scene and much more possibilities."
Lacy recounts the days in Europe when, unlike anything in the States, even to this day, musicians were supported as an integral part of the culture. "The Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the radical Party, all the different political parties supported culture. That was true in France and in Italy at least. There was work at the festivals that the political parties ran and they also sponsored tours."
During those years, Lacy would record frequently, perhaps holding the record for most records released on different labels in different countries. "I've been making records for almost 50 years... I'm glad of the ones I like that I've made and I regret the ones I don't like that I've made," says Lacy. "...It's important to me because each record is a messenger of your own style and they get around even more than you imagine... a record is very important ... for spreading the content, disseminating the content around the world. People in Mexico have some of the records, and in Japan, in Australia and to me that's very important because that's the way of touching people, of communicating. And sometimes it gets back to me how much the records mean to them."
Lacy's recorded output, myriad as it is, can be split into several discernable categories. There are his solo recordings, some of which include Lapis (Saravah, 1971), Concert Solo (Emanem, 1972), Solo at Mandara (Alm, 1975), and Stabs (FMP, 1976). Lacy, playing an instrument which has had few real icons and is usually a second choice for tenor players since Coltrane, single-handedly created the solo soprano saxophone. He also rescued the instrument from obscurity, introducing it as a potent voice in the avant garde after it had been largely ignored by bop players.