Verve Records

Jazz Magnet


I can't say enough about Steve Lacy. Never mind that his voice on the soprano saxophone is so distinctive that you can name that tune in five notes. He is a provocative composer as well. And bar none, no one interprets Thelonious Monk better than Lacy. He has done numerous records proving my point. Verve (unbelievably bold and I applaud them) has just released Monk's Dream, featuring frequent Lacy collaborator, trombonist Roswell Rudd. They are coming to a club near you, Boston, the Regattabar, Chicago, the Empty Bottle, and my own City of Angels, McCabes, so break open the bank. This is a once in lifetime kind of thing here. This has to be the finest interview that I have read in at least a week (JW is a weekly), so take a gander, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

STEVE LACY: I was born in New York in 1934. I fell in love with jazz when I was twelve years old from listening to Duke Ellington on record and hearing a lot of jazz in New York on the radio. I was playing piano poorly from the age of eight until I heard Art Tatum at the age of thirteen and gave up the piano. At the age of sixteen, I took up the soprano saxophone after having fooled around with the clarinet for a while. I heard Sidney Bechet play a Duke Ellington piece and fell in love with the soprano saxophone. I worked days to get some money and bought a soprano saxophone without knowing anything about it. Then I was hanging around Dixieland concerts and listening to New Orleans masters and the Chicago people and the Kansas City people and the weekend jazz concerts in Central Plaza in New York, a beer hall that had Friday and Saturday concerts with two bands each. That's where I found my first teacher, Cecil Scott, who was a saxophone and clarinet player and bandleader from the Midwest and who was a very good teacher, took me under his wing and after a couple of years with him, I started to sit in with these people. Then soon after, they started to hire me as an add-on to their bands. Like they had trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano and drums and they added me on at the soprano saxophone as an extra player. That was in the early Fifties. Then I started working with all these traditional players like Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, quite a few people from the different schools of traditional jazz and that is how I got my start.

FJ: At the time, the soprano saxophone was foreign to most bandleaders.

STEVE LACY: It didn't exist, Fred. It was in complete limbo. Nobody was playing it. They were in pawnshops and in the back of musical instrument stores. Sidney Bechet was in Europe by that time and his only student Bob Wilber was playing pretty much like him. But that was all, nobody was playing the soprano saxophone and certainly nobody was trying to do anything with it. So I was all alone. I didn't know that at first, but I soon found out.

FJ: Finding work must have been an uphill battle, just on basis of that.

STEVE LACY: It was very difficult at first, but on the other hand, Fred, the advantage was that I didn't compete with anybody. I didn't take anyone else's job away from them. I was welcomed on as an additional player. On the other hand, I couldn't get work because when I gave up the clarinet and just concentrated on soprano saxophone, then I really put myself out there. It was difficult to get work, but I had my own little bands all the time. From the age of sixteen, I had my own amateur band and a little bit later, different groups, trios, quintets, and things like that, plus working with the traditional players until I ran into Cecil Taylor and Cecil Taylor put me out in the ocean, in the avant-garde ocean really. I worked with him for six years.

FJ: Cecil's individuality made a great many enemies.

STEVE LACY: Well, the thing is, Fred, we both loved Duke Ellington and so to me, it wasn't so far out. I understood his music perfectly. Everybody was against him, just about. There were only about three or four people that really liked what he was doing, the few of us in his band, Dennis Charles and myself, Buell Neidlinger on bass. We appreciated what he was doing and he had three or four people that would follow us around that really liked what he was doing, but almost everybody else was against it. There was a sea of hostility around him from club owners who would lock the piano when he would walk in and drummer who would run from the bandstand when he would arrive. Critics and almost all the musicians were hostile to what he was doing. Now, when you listen to those early records of his, it doesn't seem so weird at all. It seems very swinging and humorous and coherent, but at that time, it seemed like a threat to many musicians. It was a threat to jazz. It was a threat to piano players. Critics and clubs and really everybody was against him, except us.

FJ: What were they afraid of?

STEVE LACY: He was way ahead of everybody. He was a very advanced player. He was very original. He had a lot of technique and it was very daring and challenging, what he was doing. Anybody that comes along with some new message, it threatens the people that are carrying the old message. The more original something is, the more of a threat it seems until the people catch up with it. That happened with Thelonious Monk. It happened with anybody who is really original. Whoever has an original thing to say, it is sort of a threat to the status quo.

FJ: You have a special affinity for the music of Thelonious Monk, recording a handful of albums devoted to Monk's music.

STEVE LACY: Well, when I was playing with Cecil, one of the tunes we played was "Bemsha Swing," of Thelonious Monk. Cecil really turned me on to Monk's music. When I heard Monk in person in 1955, it was in a club. He was playing with a quartet in a small club. The place was full of musicians, but there was no public at all. It was really esoteric, avant-garde, for musicians only. A few years later, after Miles had recorded "Round Midnight," which was a big hit, people started getting interested in Monk's music. I was already crazy for it and trying to learn all his music. In 1959, I made a record of all Monk music and that was the first album that anybody had ever done of exclusively of his music. That is how I got in deeper contact with him. And then a year or so later, he hired me for both his big band and his quintets. I worked with him for sixteen weeks in a club and festivals and the Apollo Theater and different places with him, all for a whole season like that. It was great.

FJ: I have to commend Verve for having the courage to put out a recording with you and Roswell Rudd, Monk's Dream.

STEVE LACY: I knew the producer for a long, long time and he wanted to do something with me for a long time, but he couldn't justify it to his boss until this happened and Roswell and I started to play together again. We were doing something in Paris and I approached him and said, "Look, here is an opportunity. Maybe we can do something." He cleared that and we went ahead on it. As you say, Fred, it is courageous, but risk is at the heart of jazz. Every note we play is a risk. These people are very sympathetic to the music, but they also have commercial considerations. It is just like Monk, Fred. It started in the avant-garde, esoteric, musicians only, and a few years later, he was a star and people came from all over the world to see him. Now people play his music all over the world and they are considered classics. It goes from the avant-garde to the classic stage. It may take twenty or thirty or forty or fifty years, but eventually, the public and even the producers catch up and something become viable, even commercially, just by virtue of the fact that it has been cooking for so many years. It is like wine. When it is new wine, it is only for the experts, but when it gets older, everybody wants it.

FJ: New wine, old bottles they say.

STEVE LACY: Well, this is old wine, new bottles (laughing).

FJ: Are people catching up to your music now?

STEVE LACY: Not completely, but enough. Enough so I can live from it. We can record for a major label and we're doing twenty-two concerts now from coast to coast and Canada too. I have a good agent and record company, yeah, Fred, I would say that there is some kind of catch up going on there.

FJ: It has been a long time coming.

STEVE LACY: Yeah, these things take a long time. Cecil Taylor too, he was in the hall of shame, right? I worked with him six years and twenty years later, he was in the hall of fame. So it is a natural process. We have seen it happen so many times, but people don't seem to get the point. They don't seem to understand that it is a natural process. It is an organic thing. When something is interesting, it becomes more interesting.

FJ: Playing the straight horn, it must have killed you to witness the dawn of Kenny G.

STEVE LACY: (Laughing) He is my illegitimate nephew.

FJ: Don't tell anyone. We will just keep that between the two of us.

STEVE LACY: (Laughing) Well, it is just proof that the instrument is a good instrument. It can be played in so many different ways. You could do this with it. You could do that with it and you can make a lot of money with it if you play it that way. So it is a very flexible instrument. There is so much potential in it, which was not apparent when I first started, but it is now. And Kenny G is a proof of it. I have to be grateful to him for proving that the instrument can be played all different kinds of ways.

FJ: Has that potential been reached on Monk's Dream?

STEVE LACY: I was very happy with the way it came out and certainly, the way it is being promoted now. What I hear on it is the fact that Roswell and I both came out of traditional jazz. We have that collective improvisational thing going and not everybody can do that. The young players now, they can't do that. But we can do that, so we do it. We do what we can. It has a flavor to it that goes way, way back to the origins of jazz. It makes me very happy and there is a certain joy there. On the other hand, the rhythm section, those people have been playing with me for years. Jean-Jacques Avenel has been playing with me for twenty-five years and John Betsch has been playing with me for twelve years now. And Irene, my wife sings two of those songs on there. That is a thirty-year association. So those things are organic, Fred. That is something that is grown over a long period of time. That is why it has a certain positive flavor to it. I am happy that it exists on record, really.

FJ: Your trio and even Roswell, you have such a lengthy association with him.

STEVE LACY: Long time.

FJ: That is non-existent in today's market.

STEVE LACY: I think so too. There is a lot of jerrybuilt structures out there and put together things, and sudden all-stars, and shotgun marriages and all kinds of things. You can't imitate something that is homegrown over a long period of time.

FJ: To liberally cite a sports analogy, when you have a quarterback and receiver tandem that have worked with one another over a period of time, there is an undeniable chemistry.

STEVE LACY: Exactly. You can take risks that other people can't. You can have more fun than other people and you can win more games.

FJ: Are musicians taking those risks?

STEVE LACY: Not too many, Fred. There is an awful lot of what I call recreational jazz going on, where people go out and learn a particular language or a particular style and practice it and become real sharks on somebody else's language really. When I came up, it was all about originality and collective research. There is an awful lot of imitation going on now, recreation jazz, almost like gymnastics.

FJ: Frank Sinatra referred to that as "aping." And back then, musicians avoided that, maybe it is the whole karaoke phenomenon, but it almost seems accepted these days.

STEVE LACY: Yeah, the people that really inspired me, each one had their own voice, their own style, their own manner, their own language, but it fit together and they could have wonderful times and play together. But each one had their own voice and their own style. That is what inspires me and it still does. I still love the whole history of jazz, Fred. The old things sound better than ever. If you listen to Louis Armstrong from 1929, you will never hear anything better than that really and you will never hear anything more free than that, Charlie Parker and all those things, they all had an individuality and collectivity and a lot of freedom.

FJ: And the future?

STEVE LACY: I think it is a very exciting period for us right now. The fact that I have a label and a good manager and it is opening up more and more for me in America. I still live in Paris after thirty years, but I come more and more frequently to America. I am coming again in a couple of months with Mal Waldron, who I have been working with since the Fifties. We are doing Lincoln Center and a week at the Iridium. There is more and more potential for me in America and that is wonderful.

FJ: I am pleased to see we are catching up.

STEVE LACY: Yes, thank you, Fred.

Fred Jung is Editor-In-Chief and a hard day calls for a hard lemonade. Comments? Email him.