RIP Steve Lacy
- Sadly the unconfirmed reports I heard yesterday are now confirmed.
Steve Lacy, 69, Who Popularized the Soprano Saxophone, Dies
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: June 5, 2004
Steve Lacy, an American soprano saxophonist who spent more than half of his
50-year career living in Europe and helped legitimize his instrument in
postwar jazz, died yesterday in Boston. He was 69.
The cause was cancer, according to an announcement from the New England
Conservatory of Music, where Mr. Lacy had been teaching since 2002.
After performing in New York, his hometown, Mr. Lacy moved to Italy and
France, and became the most Europeanized of all expatriate American jazz
musicians. He married one of his musical collaborators, the Swiss-born
singer Irene Aebi, who survives him. He insisted on a literary dimension to
his work, incorporating texts by novelists, poets and philosophers ? as
well as visual-art and dance components, when time and money allowed.
For someone long considered an avant-garde artist, Mr. Lacy always insisted
that nobody could get more avant-garde than Louis Armstrong; his best work
was anti-highfalutin and doggedly practical. His most representative
melodies, like "The Bath" and "The Gleam," use gentle repetition and gentle
wit; he developed his saxophone tone to be as attenuated as a Hemingway
sentence, and his improvised lines as succinct. At the end of his life,
hounded by tax problems in France, he returned to the United States, moving
in 2002 to teach at the New England Conservatory and live in Brookline,
Mr. Lacy formed musical partnerships and made records at an astonishing
rate. He led working bands of up to eight musicians for nearly 30 years; he
also performed and recorded often as a solo saxophonist and in duos with
partners as different as the American pianist Mal Waldron and the Japanese
percussionist Masahiko Togashi. One of his discographies lists 236 items up
to the year 1997, including more than 20 solo saxophone albums.
Mr. Lacy was born Steven Lackritz and grew up on the Upper West Side of New
York City. Clarinet was his first instrument; then, inspired by hearing
Sidney Bechet's version, recorded in 1941, of a Duke Ellington song, "The
Mooche," he decided to pursue Bechet's instrument, the soprano saxophone.
At the time ? it would still be a few years before John Coltrane would make
it popular with his recording of "My Favorite Things" ? he had little
At the age of 21, he was performing the standard Dixieland repertory on
both instruments at Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza in New York; he
shared stages with musicians like Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Buck
Clayton and Hot Lips Page, and his teacher, Cecil Scott. And he was also
playing at the Newport Jazz Festival with the pianist Cecil Taylor, who was
terrifying audiences by doing away with traditional structure and tonality.
Mr. Lacy worked with Mr. Taylor for six years and with other bandleaders as
well, including Gil Evans; he always described this mix as the best
possible training for a jazz musician.
One of them was Thelonious Monk, who became a guiding aesthetic master to
Mr. Lacy for the rest of his life. Through playing with Monk in a quintet
and big band, and studying his music assiduously, Mr. Lacy was able to
absorb the elder musician's wit, economy, insistence on simple rhythmic
patterns and range of melody. He once described Monk's music as perfect for
the soprano saxophone: "Not too high, not too low, not easy, not at all
overplayed and most of all, full of interesting technical problems."
In 1966, with no work at home, Mr. Lacy began his long trip away from
America. He took a group to Argentina and ended up stranded there for nine
months because of political unrest. Later he headed to Rome with Ms. Aebi,
where they worked with Musica Elettronica Viva, a quartet that blended
modern-classical tendencies with improvisation and included two other
American expatriates, Frederic Rzewski and Alvin Curran. After a brief stay
in Rome, Mr. Lacy and Ms. Aebi moved to Paris in 1970, in the beginning of
the era that he often called "post-free": all experimentation came grounded
in scale and melody. And with his long-lasting sextet, which he started
shortly after he arrived in Paris, he found an original compositional
style: lilting and singsongy with a bitter twist, often compared to nursery
rhymes, though Thelonious Monk's sense of melody was probably a greater
Mr. Lacy preferred to collaborate with artists from other fields. Most of
the time that meant setting words to music, and in his group Ms. Aebi sang
poetic texts by Herman Melville, Robert Creeley, Gregory Corso and Lao Tzu,
among many others; in other works he collaborated with dancers, painters
and stage designers. "To me," he said in a 1990 interview, "music is always
about something or somebody, or from somebody or something. It's never in
the blue, never abstract."
Mr. Lacy was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992; he published a book of
writings and saxophone exercises, "Findings," in 1994. The French
government's ministry of culture appointed him Chevalier of the Order of
Arts and Letters in 1989 and Commander in 2002. In addition to his wife,
his survivors include a sister, Blossom Cramer, and a brother, Martin J.