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The goodest thing going
Remembering Steve Lacy: 1934-2004

For the Boston jazz fan, itís difficult not to feel a bit selfish about the death of Steve Lacy. He just got here.

Lacy, who died of cancer on June 4 at the age of 69, was the most renowned of latter-day jazz expatriates ó living in Europe, primarily Paris, for more than 30 years, visiting America sporadically since the mid í80s to play with his various bands. When he returned to live in America, it was to teach at the New England Conservatory. When he and his wife, Irene Aebi, gave his first faculty concert at Jordan Hall in November 2002, it was a kind of annunciation. The hall was unusually crowded for a free faculty recital. He played a handful of solo Monk pieces, then his settings of poetry from his "Beat Suite," with Aebi singing. It brought down the house. The beginning, it seemed, of a beautiful friendship.

In his time here, Lacy was joyously promiscuous. For several years an annual visitor to the Regattabar with his trio, he now showed up everywhere, as player and audience member. He played with the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra at the ICA, at the Artists-at-Large Gallery in Hyde Park, at Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square. He and Aebi performed in a concert/reading with their friend the poet Robert Creeley at MIT last April. These were not high-profile, big-money gigs, but Lacy, with the financial security of a teaching job, was eager to do them, even as he played at the MFA with Aebi, the Regattabar with Danilo Pérez, and Iridium in New York with Roswell Rudd, Dave Douglas, and the Lacy Trio in a Monk tribute.

He tended to show up everywhere as a fan, too. To see not only his old friend Rudd play the Regattabar but also Dave Douglasís quintet there (he remarked, in passing, that he was especially fond of Douglasís pianist, Uri Caine). And, of all people, the singer/composer/pianist Dave Frishberg at the Jewish Theatre of New England at Newtonís Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center. This latter appearance was particularly surprising because Lacyís pedigree since the late í50s, when he was playing with Cecil Taylor, had been as an inveterate avant-gardist, and Frishberg, even to himself, is a Tin Pan Alley throwback to the music of Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, and Johnny Mercer. But Lacy was a repository of jazz styles and jazz attitudes. The particulars of his career have been well documented. A clarinet student, he picked up the soprano saxophone after hearing a recording of Sidney Bechet and soon immersed himself in New York Cityís Dixieland scene. Born Steven Lackritz, he was given his new name by the great cornettist and trumpeter Rex Stewart. It was Taylor who challenged Lacy by demanding to know why such a young man was playing such old music. That led Lacy to join Taylorís group.

But Lacy never segregated the jazz styles ó they lived side by side in his music. Shortly after he arrived in Boston to teach at the NEC, he described living and playing in New York City in the 1950s. "On that island there were hundreds of really great players ó from New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, different schools, young players, modernists, beboppers, experimentalists, traditionalists, all kinds ó but real giants. The principal players from all these schools were still active and the music was accessible. All these things were going on simultaneously in New York, and also in my head."

Lacy was fascinated by the soprano sax because of Bechetís big sound. (He once described that first experience of hearing Bechet play Ellingtonís "The Mooche": "God, thatís it! Iíve got to have one! What is it?") But he was also fascinated with the soprano sax because no one else was playing it ó it was a dead instrument. Likewise, he said he became fascinated by the music of Thelonious Monk. On the one hand, he said, no one but Monk was playing Monk in the í50s, so there was plenty of room to explore. And as he once told an audience at Harvard, "Monkís music fit my horn," whose range extended "from a little below middle C to the top of the piano. I can get to the top of the piano when Iíve got a good lip and a good reed."

He and Rudd started a band who specialized in Monk (their legendary, rough live recording, School Days, is these days available on hatART). Throughout his later career, he named Taylor, Monk, and the big-band leader and arranger Gil Evans as his mentors. With Monk, he played for several months in 1960 (Lacy appears on the 1963 all-star conclave, Monk: Big Band and Quartet in Concert from Columbia/Legacy). He played with Evans throughout both menís careers ("Iím on his first record and his last").

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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