Anybody who cares about the soprano saxophone, the straightest and most nasal-toned member of the sax family, knows that Sidney Bechet pioneered its use in jazz. Current listeners of light jazz and pop music probably associate it most commonly with Kenny G. But to hardcore jazz fans willing to listen to more challenging music, no soprano sax player has been more important or influential than Steve Lacy. From the 1950s to the present, Lacy’s work on that instrument, combined with his unique talents as a composer, has earned him a reputation among genuine jazz buffs, as a true giant of jazz. To trace his career, through his sequential forays into dixieland, bebop, free jazz, and postmodern hybrids, is to retell the modern history of jazz itself.
Lacy was born Steven Lackritz on July 23, 1934, in New York City. As a youngster, Lackritz studied piano and clarinet. Inspired by Bechet, he eventually switched to soprano sax, and began specializing in old-time New Orleans-style jazz, which at that time was about all you heard played on the archaic soprano horn. He began to study with clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Cecil Scott, and took classes at the Manhattan School of Music and the Schillinger School of Music. Schillinger later changed its name and became famous as the Berklee School of Music. Lackritz also changed his name, in 1952, to Lacy.
Lacy spent the early 1950s playing dixieland and other early jazz styles, mostly with a group of older musicians that included Red Allen, Dickie Wells, Vic Dickenson, Zutty Singleton, Joe Sullivan, and Pops Foster. During a performance in New Orleans one day in 1953, pianist Cecil Taylor, an unknown upstart at the time, introduced himself to Lacy, and asked him why such a young man was wasting his time playing such old music. The question posed by Taylor represented a crucial turning point in Lacy’s career. He did not immediately give up the old styles, but he became friends with Taylor, and together the pair began exploring a new brand of jazz that stretched the boundaries of harmony and structure to a degree that was not yet common in jazz.
From 1955 to 1957, Lacy performed in a quartet led by Taylor, whose futuristic ideas about music were so advanced that Lacy had to struggle just to keep up. Taylor eventually dropped Lacy from his band, but not before launching him on a career path that emphasized originality and imagination. In the late 1950s, Lacy hooked up with Gil Evans and Mal Waldron, musicians with whom he continued to perform on and off into the 1980s. About this time, Lacy become keenly interested in the music of pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. He joined Monk’s band in 1960. After a short stint there, Lacy formed a group with trombonist Roswell Rudd that was dedicated to interpreting Monk’s music. He continued to focus on Monk and Monk-inspired music throughout the first half of the 1960s. Lacy’s immersion in Monkness was so complete that it moved German jazz writer Joachim Berendt to call him “one of the few horn players—and probably the only white among them— who fully understood and assimilated Monk.”
In the mid-1960s, Lacy’s interest shifted toward the burgeoning free-jazz scene. He joined forces in 1965 with trumpeter Don Cherry and pianist Kenny Drew to perform for a month at a Copenhagen club called Montmartre. That group then went to France and Italy in search of gigs. He also worked with Carla Bley during this period. In 1966 Lacy formed an ensemble in Italy with trumpet player Enrico Rava. That was also the year he met Swiss vocalist and cellist Irene Aebi, whom he eventually married.
Later in 1966, Lacy, Aebi, and Rava, with the addition of bassist Johnny Dyani and drummer Louis Moholo, embarked on a disastrous tour of South America, after which they returned to New York. Lacy and Aebi stayed in New York for about a year, but work for experimentalists like themselves was hard to come by. Frustrated, the pair moved to Rome, and they lived in Europe ever since. For the next few years, Lacy dabbled in a variety of musical forms, with influences ranging from rock, to contemporary art music, to free jazz. He performed with many different Italian musicians of varying abilities, and
Born Steven Norman Lackritz, July 23, 1934, in New York, NY; married Irene Aebi, c. 1966; Education: attended Schillinger School of Music, 1953; attended Manhattan School of Music, 1954.
Performed with a variety of New York-based bands, playing dixieland and other old-time jazz styles, 1953-54; member of band led by pianist Cecil Taylor, 1955-57; began ongoing collaborations with Gil Evans and Mal Waldron, 1957-59; member, Thelonious Monk’s band, 1960; co-led Monk-inspired band with trombonist Roswell Rudd, 1961-65; performed in Europe with Enrico Rava, Carla Bley, Kenny Drew, and others; toured South America, 1966; began playing solo soprano sax concerts, 1972; formed and led quintet, which performed worldwide and recorded prolifically, 1970-79; expanded to become sextet, 1981; toured U.S. with trio, 1997; over the course of his career, has produced more than 100 recordings as a bandleader or collaborator.
Awards: Frequent winner of Down Beat poll as “Best Soprano Saxophonist” Mac Arthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, 1992.
worked with the experimental electronic group Musica Electronica Viva.
Lacy’s own composing began to mature around this time. His music began to veer away from free jazz toward more structured compositions. Many of his pieces were settings of poetry or other words to music, including his first major composition, “The Way,” a suite based on the ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching. In 1969 Lacy and Aebi moved to Paris, where the avantgarde jazz scene was in full bloom. There Lacy found an enthusiastic audience for his work, and he had little problem hooking up with good musicians and finding decent work.
For the next twenty years, Lacy churned out an astonishing catalog of albums, over 100 in all. Most often, he has toured and recorded as the leader of a sextet, often featuring long-time associates Aebi, drummer Oliver Johnson, and alto saxophonist Steve Potts. Other frequent collaborators have been bassists Jean-Jacques Avenel and Kent Carter, and pianist Bobby Few. During the 1970s, inspired by the work of saxophonist Anthony Braxton, he began performing occasionally as a solo act. At other times, he has performed as half of a duo with any of a number of musicians, including Potts, Mai Waldron, and Gil Evans.
At some point during the 1970s, Lacy dubbed his musical style“poly-free,” alluding to its connections to both free jazz and more concretely structured forms. By the mid-1980s, Lacy’s sextet was a finely-honed musical machine. The string of albums recorded around that time, including Prospectus, Futurities, The Gleam, and Momentum, represents the band at is peak. In addition to his own compositions, Lacy continued to throw in the occasional Monk piece, and to this day he remains one of Monk’s chief interpreters.
Lacy is the type of musician who thrives on collaborations with artists of other ilks. He likes to work, for example, with poets and dancers, and the textual sources for his lyrical compositions are amazingly diverse, ranging from Herman Melville to obscure Islamic verse. In 1992, Lacy received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in recognition of his brilliant and prolific work in jazz. As the 1990s continued, Lacy more or less pressed on with his continuing mission; namely, to create works of art with his horn and his pen, incorporating as influences whatever moved him at the time, be it poetry, painting, movement, philosophy, or a mundane life event.
After more than two decades based in Paris, Lacy moved to Berlin in the mid-1990s. From there, he has continued to churn out new material at an impressive pace. In 1997 Lacy broke up his sextet and toured the United States as a trio with bassist Avenel and drummer John Betsch. Now in his sixties, he remains as innovative and active as ever. Steve Lacy may never become a household name, but his status as the most important modern soprano sax player, one of the most important interpreters of Thelonious Monk, and simply one of jazz’s more intriguing figures, is already beyond debate.
Soprano Sax, Prestige, 1957.
The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, Candid, 1960.
Evidence, New Jazz, 1962.
Disposability, RCA, 1965.
Sortie, GTA, 1966.
The Forest and the Zoo, ESP, 1967.
Epistrophy, BYG, 1970.
Moon, BYG, 1970.
Roba, Saravah, 1971.
Wordless, Futura, 1971.
Lapis, Saravah, 1971.
Steve Lacy Solo, Emanem, 1972.
The Gap, America, 1972.
Estilhacos (Chips) Live in Lisbon, Guilda da Musica, 1972.
The Crust, Emanem, 1973.
Scraps, Saravah, 1974.
Saxophone Special, Emanem, 1974.
Flakes, RCA Vista, 1974.
School Days, QED, 1975.
Dreams, Saravah, 1975.
Lumps, ICP, 1975.
Trickles, Black Saint, 1976.
Torments, Morgue, 1976.
Clangs, Ictus, 1976.
Stabs, FMP, 1976.
Stalks, Denon, 1976.
The Wire, Denon, 1976.
Distant Voices, Nippon Columbia, 1976.
Sidelines, IAI, 1977.
Threads, Horo, 1977.
Raps, Adelphi, 1977.
Straws, Cramps, 1977.
Clinkers, Hat Hut, 1977.
Follies, FMP, 1978.
Points, La Chand du Monde, 1978.
Catch, Horo, 1978.
The Woe, Quark, 1979.
Troubles, Black Saint, 1979.
Stamps, Hat Hut, 1979.
Shots, Musica, 1980.
Alter Ego, World Artists, 1980.
New York Capers, hat Art, 1981.
Tips, Hat Hut, 1981.
Ballets, hat Art, 1982.
The Flame, Soul Note, 1982.
Prospectus, hat Art, 1983.
Blinks, hat Art, 1984.
Futurities, hat Art, 1985.
The Condor, Soul Note, 1986.
Outings, Ismex, 1986.
The Kiss, Lunatic, 1987.
The Gleam, Silkheart, 1987.
Only Monk, Soul Note, 1987.
Momentum, RCA, 1987.
One Fell Swoop, 1987.
The Window, 1988.
The Door, 1989.
Weal and Woe, Emanem.
Vespers, Soul Note.
We See, hat Art.
Revenue, Soul Note.
Blues for Aida, Egg Farm.
With Mai Waldron
Mai Waldron With the Steve Lacy Quintet, America, 1972.
Snake Out, hat Art, 1982.
Herbe de L’oubli, hat Art, 1983.
Let’s Call This, hat Art, 1986.
Sempre Amore, Soul Note, 1987.
Hot House, 1991.
With Cecil Taylor
Jazz Advance, Blue Note, 1956.
Masters of Modern Piano, Verve.
Atlantic, November 1989, p. 120.
Boston Herald, December 4, 1997, p. O63.
Down Beat, May 1980, p. 20; May 1987, p. 30; April 1988, p. 30; October 1989, p. 32; June 1996, p. 56; February 1997, p. 18.
Jazziz, July 1997, p. 55.
Jazz Times, December 1997.
Rolling Stone, March 5, 1981, p. 53.
San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1997, p. B3.
Seattle Times, November 27, 1997, p. 111.
Additional material for this profile was provided by Steppin’ In Artist Development.
—Robert R. Jacobson