Courtesy of Frank Lacy
CHAT WITH KU-UMBA FRANK LACY
have developed a fondness for the trombone through the years. Maybe it
comes with age as does wisdom and maturity. Hard as it may be for me to
digest J.J. Johnson or Slide Hampton, I am starting to appreciate the
artistry of bone players like Konrad Bauer, Gunter Christmann, Paul Rutherford,
Albert Mangelsdorff, Ray Anderson, and Frank Lacy. I first saw Lacy live
when he was touring with the Mingus Big Band some ten years ago. He weighed
in by taking a twenty minute (I kid you not because I timed him) solo
that had the audience standing in ovation. His mastery of the instrument
had me wanting to bring him to the Roadshow for some time now, but Lacy
has a hectic schedule to say the least, but he came onboard and shared
his thoughts on his instrument, his music, and his future, as always,
unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
LACY: I waited until later to make music as a profession. I started piano
lessons when I was eight, but I didn't make music my profession until
I was about twenty, twenty-one. I started playing the trombone around
the age of seventeen. I was in the twelfth grade. Before that, I played
trumpet and euphonium. The trombone was a very interesting instrument
to me. It is a very unique instrument to me, a very unique instrument
with the positions, slide positions and all. I just the gravitated towards
the weirdness of it, the oddity of how it is being played.
What were you listening to?
LACY: Wayne Henderson of the Jazz Crusaders. Wayne was from Houston. He's
from the same part of Houston that I'm from. Later on, I got turned onto
J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller, Albert Mangelsdorff.
What type of trombone do you play?
LACY: I play the standard, classical trombone, Bach Stradivarius 42G.
FJ: How much
did you pay for it?
LACY: Well, I bought it in 1976 for seven hundred dollars, but now, I
would say it costs between twelve and eighteen hundred.
How do you approach playing the trombone?
LACY: I would say, probably with the approach of a brass player or trumpet
player and probably with the approach of a violin player or string player.
How does a trombonist playing a slide instrument mirror a string instrument?
LACY: It has positions just like a string instrument.
How does the use of a plunger augment the sound of the trombone?
LACY: Well, the plunger actually, it makes a stoppage of the air, the
sound when it comes out the bell. But it has enough, the plunger has enough
space in it to give the trombone a different sound when the plunger is
closed. When you open a plunger on the horn, then it has another sound
(imitating doo-woop sounds). That is the main thing. It sounds like something
where you plunge it into a deep abyss or something like that.
You had a brief tenure with Art Blakey. What did he impart to you?
LACY: Oh, man, confidence. I would say, for the most part, confidence,
a lot of things, but for the most part, confidence. To a certain extent,
it was kind of like going to school, but I think a lot of people that
played with him, they always say the thing about the Art Blakey School
of Music. Well, Art wasn't like that. He didn't really refer to his band
as being a school. A lot of people, as time went on, they called it a
school, but Art didn't look at it that way. Art just looked at it as a
band and that we were here to play some music. He didn't really look at
it as a school. He just had ways that he had the band play and he had
ways that he showed the guys how to act and I guess that you can look
at it being a school in that way, but Art Blakey didn't look at it as
a school himself. It was just a band of cats that he loved.
Touch on your close association with Lester Bowie as a member of his Brass
LACY: Well, Lester taught me a lot about the business of music, how to
book my own band without using managers and agents and middlemen. He knew
a lot about the business of music, how to get your band working because
he never recorded on a major record label. He had to do it all himself.
He had to have his own productions. He never recorded on a major record
label all throughout his life. He never got a music contract with Blue
Note or Columbia. But yet a lot of people know about him. That is how
resourceful he was.
That is the state of the marketplace.
LACY: I think that's the way musicians always have done it. The guys with
the record contracts, they are the few, Fred. Most musicians don't even
get a record contract in their whole lifetime.
Is that a first person point of view, considering you yourself have never
had a record contract?
LACY: Right, and I don't at the moment. Well, I think America plays a
lot of attention to the saxophone and trumpet and vocalists. They don't
really pay enough attention to trombones, but Europe does. I work pretty
decently in Europe.
Is Europe more enlightened when it comes to jazz music?
LACY: I hate to say it, but I think so.
You recorded a few titles that were released on the little known and even
lesser available Tutu label.
LACY: I did three. One of them, I was the musical director for a big group.
I wrote some music for a German musical. But I did two as a leader, yes,
Tonal Weights & Blue Fire and Settegest Strut.
Short of knocking on the label's front door, how does one get his or her
hands on these ditties?
LACY: I would try Cadence (www.cadencebuilding.com) or KOCH Jazz.
During his lifetime, Lester was lambasted by critics for taking on pop
tunes, something you have been doing of late.
LACY: Well, Lester came out of the blues. He used to play with Sam &
Dave and Ike and Tina Turner. So he didn't really play in too many jazz
groups. He really came out of the blues groups, Sam & Dave, Righteous
Brothers. He came out of that bag. So that is why I think he had his own
way of turning pop tunes. But that is the problem with these jazz critics,
Fred. They are always trying to say what jazz is and what jazz isn't,
what's good music and what's bad music. Sometimes I think a lot of jazz
musicians and a lot of the general public kind of listen too much to what
critics say. They buy into it.
You have held a trombone chair in the Mingus Big Band for some years.
I recall on concert a few years back when the Mingus Big Band actually
played in my hometown of Fullerton. You stood up and took a fifteen minute
solo (I timed him) and it was the first time I had seen an audience hand
a bone player a standing ovation.
LACY: For one thing, when you say it was the first time you heard a trombone
player get a standing ovation from the audience. You see that is what
most Americans would say. They don't particularly look at the trombone
as being able to get a standing ovation. Europeans do. Well, it takes
an amount of thinking to play a fifteen minute trombone solo because you
have to be creative. You have to be creative. I'm happy that I was able
to do it, but some people think that's kind of rare to be able to do that.
But, the trombone is such a special instrument that if you really know
what you are doing on it. If you really know the history of the trombone
from Jack Teagarden all the way to Albert Mangelsdorff and J.J. and all
in between, one can put together a somewhat innovative solo because the
instrument lends itself to innovation. For me, I think the trombone is
the closest instrument to the human voice. In Europe, they have country
towns in the hills of Switzerland, in Germany, in Austria where almost
the whole town plays a brass instrument. They have brass bands. The town
has their own brass bands in like Italy, Germany, or Austria. It is a
normal thing. The kids learn how to play the instrument. The instrument
gets handed down to them from their parents and grandparents. You don't
get that here. So they are more knowledgeable about the brass instrument
itself, not only the trombone, but tuba, trumpet, baritone, all the other
instruments. So they are more knowledgeable about the brass instrument.
So it is a funding and cultural priority issue. We should place more funding
into our schools, so our youth develops an appreciation for jazz music
and place a greater importance in music and the arts?
LACY: Yes, I definitely agree. Place more importance on instrumentalized
music, music with instruments. We tend to pay a lot of homage to vocalists.
Well, they call themselves singers, which I am not really crazy about
the term. I am a vocalist myself. I think singers should call themselves
musicians. Their instrument is the human voice, instead of calling themselves
a singer. When people call themselves a singer, I think about a sewing
machine. They should call themselves musicians, whose instrument is their
And the future?
LACY: Right now, Mapleshade wants to record my big band, but I don't know,
I am trying to get the big band together. We have a big band that plays
every Monday in New York now at the Jazz Gallery. We're trying to do that.
It is hard for trombonists, but we're trying to do that. I'm pretty sure
that I will be recording in the next year or so with Mapleshade, hopefully.
The thing is, Fred, I do more music than just jazz. I don't really want
to sign to a label just on a jazz track. A lot of record companies feel
that it is hard to pigeonhole me because I do so many different musics.
I have like twenty difference ensembles, about eleven that are in the
jazz category. I have nine of them that aren't even in the jazz category.
I do rock, funk, R&B, hip hop. Right now, I am playing with D'Angelo.
Did you play on Voodoo?
LACY: Yeah, I am on that record. I did the Voodoo tour. I am doing so
many different musics that I am most content when I am doing different
genres of music and not just one.
Roy Hargrove is on the D'Angelo record as well. You have been somewhat
of a mentor to the young Hargrove through the years.
LACY: Yeah, Roy Hargrove has been on that record as well. We're pretty
close through the years. I'm glad that you realize that I am sort of a
mentor to him. There were a lot of tunes, I played with Roy's Sextet and
a lot tunes that people were associating with Roy, which were my compositions.
Like for instance, on his record that got the Grammy (Habana), the first
tune and the last tune of the record is my tunes, but a lot of people
think it is Roy's. There is a lot of tunes that Roy plays that are mine
that a lot of people incorporate with Roy's music, but it is actually
mine. Roy is always looking at me as a mentor, nice guy. He said he first
met me when he was in the seventh or eighth grade in junior high school
and I was the lead trombonist in the high school big band. We gave a jazz
festival at this college and he came by. His band played and he came and
met me. That was back in 1976 and I can't even remember it.
People's perceptions are due in large part because of the stigma that
seems to follow you about being a sideman and further demonstrated by
Downbeat's proclamation that you are "the best sideman in jazz."
LACY: The best sideman in jazz. You know, Fred, I don't appreciate it,
but what I am most appreciate about it, it is in part. It is like half
and half. Most sideman don't even get on the cover of Downbeat. You have
to either be a bandleader or some great musician. I had just been a sideman
and made the cover of Downbeat, so I really think that it gave a big kudos
to the sidemen, when most of the articles give the play to the bandleader.
But the bandleader can't do it without the sidemen. But being a sideman
all those years gave me a lot of wisdom. Now, I know how to be a good
bandleader. I know how to be more compassionate to the sidemen because
I've spent most of my time as a sideman. Some bandleaders, they just have
been a bandleader, so they aren't really compassionate enough to the sidemen.
It is time people quit referring to you as a sideman.
LACY: Thank you, Fred. Thank you.
Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and enjoys the Stugots. Email