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Steve Lacy

by

Mel Martin

Reprinted from Saxophone Journal
Volume 16, Number 3 Nov/Dec
1991



I was very fortunate to have caught up with Steve Lacy when he performed at Koncepts Kultural Gallery in Oakland on April 12, 1990. His very influential career has spanned some thirty-five years. Steve Lacy's productive, multifaceted career, judging by the musicians he has been influenced by and the many he himself has influenced, has been marked by many unique and precious experiences.

Born in New York City in 1934, Lacy took piano lessons as a youngster before switching to the clarinet. Enthralled by Sidney Bechet's recording of The Mooche, Lacy began studying the soprano sax in earnest. After spending nearly a year at Schillinger House in Boston, Lacy returned to New York and spent 1953-54 working with the likes of Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing, Dicky Wells and Walter Page. Not only did Lacy learn to tame his instrument's inherent, peevish problems with intonation, but he was among the first (if not the first) of the soprano saxophonists to transform the "straight" sax into a woodwind capable of stratospheric flights. Lacy progressed from Dixieland music to bebop, and ultimately to nonchord-based nirvanas of the avant-garde. Yet all the while he has maintained his melodic inventiveness and keen sense of organization as both composer and soloist.

Lacy left for Europe in the mid sixties where he took up residence in Paris, and it is where he currently resides. He has recently been touring the United States on an annual basis and his recordings have gained more visibility due to his contract with RCA. I had never met him or heard him live prior to this occasion. We struck up an informal conversation concerning his solo recording of an obscure Thelonious Monk song called Gallop's Gallop. His open, easy going and warm manner, encouraged me to request an interview to which he responded immediately by inviting me to his motel the next day. That happened to be Friday the 13th. Coincidentally that is the name of a famous Monk tune. It was indeed a great pleasure interviewing the pioneer of modern jazz soprano saxophone. He expressed views that were wide ranging, knowledgeable and fascinating.

Why don't we start with you telling me the set-up you're currently playing.


I have a Super Action Series I Selmer that I've had about six years. Before that I had the previous model, the Mark VI. It's like a car. You stick with one name brand and trade in the old model for the new one when it comes out. I'm waiting for the newest Selmer to come out. I'll probably take that and give them my old one. But I love the old one, it's been great.

You were saying that you feel they have made certain gains but with these come certain losses.

By now I've gotten used to those losses, and they don't even bother me any more. They were small things but they really are important. For example, the left hand pinky action. The difference between the Mark VI and the Super Action was radical and unnecessary. The Mark VI worked perfectly well. But in order to conform with the other members of the family, the tenor, the baritone, etc., they changed all the fingerings on the left hand, including the pinky. For soprano it didn't make sense to match the roller mechanism. The older ones were a lot simpler and worked much better. It's like the old thing, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But they fixed it! The overall gains were much more important and I go along with Selmer and their tooling philosophy and all that. I've tried the new soprano model which is in preparation now, and it's pretty good.

Do they take your input in developing the instruments?

Yes, they call me before they go into production, when they have a prototype, and they call legitimate saxophonists, too.

As opposed to the other kind

(laughter).


Really, they call all kinds of so-called experts who test them out and give them their opinion and advice. Selmer and I are very much in tune, and that's important. Another important thing about living in France is that the reeds come from the South of France. This is very interesting. Recently I visited the factory down south where the reeds I use come from and I got to know the process in person. It's a small company called Marca (distributed by Leblanc), which means Manufacturer Anche Reeds Coast Azure. It's like a family concern, and they sometimes supply the cane to Vandoren.

I don't know if you're familiar, but over here there's been severe reed problems for a number of years now. Most of the professionals and students alike are crying the blues pretty badly over lack of good cane. Many well known products seem to have fallen down badly. They are cutting them fine, it's not that they don't have good quality workmanship, it's just that they're not getting good cane.

It's a vicious circle. Like it was explained to me, reed is a weed which grows wild all over this region called the Var in France and only the wild variety is good - the stuff growing by the roadside and all that. If you try to plant it, it's no good.

That's what they found. They can't duplicate that natural chemistry.

Let's call it spirit, because to me, there is spirit in a reed. It's a living thing, a weed, really, and it does contain spirit of a sort. And they say these areas make sound when the wind comes. It's really an ancient vibration.

Apparently, part of what their problem was in obtaining good, wild, French cane is that land developers have moved in on a lot of that land, and also severe winters hit the cane crops quite badly. Even Vandoren doesn't get all their cane from France anymore. They seem to have always had the better quality of cane, how-ever, I don't always enjoy their cuts. Are there such things as bamboo reeds?

No, cane is not bamboo. Bamboo is different. Cane is rushes, or Rousseaux in French - Junkus.

When I went to the Roy J. Maier factory down in Los Angeles, I thought that was bamboo they cut the cane out of.

They are stalks like bamboo, but it's a different plant. Bamboo is not a weed, it's a flowering plant, but these are weeds that grow wild to about twenty feet. They're not like bamboo which can make a forest and bloom once in a hundred years. Bamboo is a magnificent plant. These are crude weeds, this is what they make baskets out of.

Ah-ha. So you are able to get good French cane, but from a small company.

I order directly from them. I've seen them in Japan, and I believe you can get them in places like Charles Ponte in New York. Specialized places probably know about them. But I use very soft ones and I must order them directly.

You use a pretty open mouthpiece, too?

Yes, Otto Link made three identical mouthpieces for me a number of years ago and I use them. It's a number twelve, and larger than their usual sizes. They normally go up to a ten. I had an eleven which got stolen so I asked for one a little bit bigger and that was it.

I heard you play into the stratosphere. Notes that are up there and I'm wondering how you do that on a soft reed on an open mouthpiece.

It's in the reed. There's a lot more flexibility with a soft reed, so you can go much higher. A hard reed is limited. After you reach a certain point, the door is closed. I arrived at using the soft by going through the hard. I used to play hard reeds, and plastic reeds, and metal mouthpieces, etc. I went through those phases over a period of thirty years before I gradually arrived at the best solution for me. I can have the maximum flexibility and sound possibilities. I can release all the harmonics in the horn without killing my lip. When you go to the moon like that, it hurts, and you can't do it that often and it's got to be controllable.

I have been listening to you over the thirty years you're talking about and I always hear a great deal of control in your playing, especially compared to many current soprano players. Most soprano players obviously play it as a double, and you have dedicated your life to playing the soprano. Did you ever play any of the other saxes before?

I did. I started on clarinet. When I went to school, they wouldn't accept clarinet, so I had to play alto. I got interested in the tenor for awhile, and I also played baritone and flute. I dropped them one by one because the soprano had so many interesting problems in it, that it was enough for me to deal with.

I can relate to why a person would gravitate toward one instrument, especially because at the time you were playing it, hardly anyone else was.

It was wide open, nobody was doing anything with it. It was just laying in the pawn shops. Sidney Bechet was in Europe, and his student Bob Wilber was playing the music of Bechet a little bit in New York. He was the only one touching it at that time. It was like a new instrument. I responded to the sound of it because it's like the treble clef personified. It's a treble instrument which sounds like a human voice range. It's feminine, but it can be masculine, too.

I've noticed in the past, and especially hearing you last night, how you make great use of the low register. Obviously you also have great control of the high register, but you were playing the low register in a way I hear almost no soprano players doing, which was intriguing to me.

Yes, I find the low register very fascinating in the soprano because the low register of the tenor is too low to dwell too long on. But the low register of the soprano is very mellow and right in there. The soprano has all those other instruments in it. It's got the soprano song voice, flute, violin, clarinet, and tenor elements and can even approach the baritone in intensity. It can sound like a baroque trumpet, too. It's used instead of the baroque trumpets sometimes for the Bach Concertos.

Have you been heavily influenced by the great pianists?

Yes. I wanted to be a pianist but I couldn't do it, it just wasn't my thing. I guess I wanted to stand up rather than sit down (laughter). When I was a kid I saw Art Tatum and he blew me away so I gave up the piano. Happily, I discovered the clarinet first then the soprano saxophone when I was sixteen.

You've had working relationships with some great pianists such as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and Gil Evans.

Yeah, that was not a coincidence. I worked with Cecil Taylor for six years and a lot of that rubbed off. I've been working with Mal Waldron on and off for nearly thirty years. Monk was also a fantastic playing experience. I was associated with him for a couple of years with the big band and then I worked with his quintet for a season, about four months with Charlie Rouse. There's a pirate tape and there are three tunes that were all recorded at a festival in Philadelphia in 1960, Evidence, Blue Monk and Rhythm-a-ning.

You've seen the soprano come from a completely obscure instrument to one that's played by many jazz musician's and even pop stars. How do you feel about this?


That's right, more and more. I have a feeling that there's going to be more dedicated soprano players. I get an awful lot of people that want to come and study and send me tapes. You see, saxophone is one thing, and music is another. You must have the music to justify an instrument's extensive use. The problem I had on this instrument was that I not only had to learn how to play it, I had to learn what to play on it because there was nothing written for it. I couldn't play Charlie Parker tunes because they were too low.

Yes, they don't lay right for Bb instruments. I always felt that was alto music. Tenor's hard too because they just don't lay in the right registers. They're either too low or too high.

Register is very important. Music sounds best in a certain register. As I said before, the soprano turned out to sound to me like the right hand on the piano, but at first, it didn't. I started in New Orleans music and played all through the history of jazz and then worked with Cecil Taylor. When I found the music of Monk I finally found music that fit that horn. Every one of his tunes fit it perfectly, so I started really studying his music but I also studied the songs of Webern because that also fit my horn. If someone wants to play soprano saxophone all their life, they must find someone else's music or eventually their own that will make it worthwhile for them, the public, and everybody.

I think that's great advice even for someone who doubles because the thing I hear lacking is that they don't really know what to do on the instrument. It's as if they sometimes try to make it an extension of the tenor, which it sort of is since it's an octave higher.

Coltrane started out that way. It was like a path upward from his tenor.

Right. I think his influence took a lot of people in that direction. He also had a particular tone that I think needed more work.

Well, he did, but he got it after about three years. I heard him all the time when he first started on it because I worked opposite him in the same club. We talked about some of the problems with it, such as pitch control, but two or three years later, he had it tamed, it did exactly what he wished it to do. You must subdue the beast so you can get it to swing quite a bit. Swing is not immediate. You must first get it to walk, and then run.

How long has your band been in existence?

About twenty years.

You've been expatriated, so you've lived in France since 1970. I still see you as being very vital and creative and what you call "on the cutting edge" of the music. There tends to be a viewpoint from this side that people living in Europe tend to lose that edge a bit. How do you feel about that?

It ain't necessarily so (laughter). You must go where you don't lose your vitality. In New York in the sixties my vitality was being sapped and stifled and stymied and subdued, and it was terrifying. It seemed like it was hopeless. Then I went away for a couple of years, came back, and it was worse. It seemed to open up and get a little better in the seventies, when I started peeking back. Since then I go back more frequently.

I think the seventies were a bad period for jazz.

I think it was a period when it was best to be busy doing your own thing because you couldn't count on any community support. It was a very tough time, yet glorious. That was when we did the research that was necessary to refine what we did in the sixties, the breakthrough period, a revolutionary period in jazz. The seventies was the time when you couldn't continue what you did, you had to make it go into a more modern direction in a more acceptable way. What we had found was too chaotic, we had to start shaping it.

If you can describe it to me, what ways did you personally find to shape your music?

Composition! By finding the appropriate structures to contain the type of improvisational material that we had discovered. What Monk had was the appropriate containers. He wrote the lines that made the guys sound good and that they liked to play. They developed a language and improvisation came naturally out of that material and it was a coherent whole. That was what I was after. The saxophone is a very interesting machine, but I'm more interested in music. Saxophone is part of that. I was spoiled by Monk's music because it was so good, so complete. You could play them over and over again, even just the heads. You could play them badly and they sounded good!

And he might even have liked them! There's a lot of consciousness about Monk now, but a lot of us were playing Monk when you couldn't get arrested for it. What I found early on was by studying his music it made you play differently right on the spot. If you really learned one of his tunes well and played it with some people, something new would emerge immediately. It would take you to another place to improvise.

That's right, that's a very good point. In effect, he was the brains of the bebop revolution and his pieces were the vehicles.

But a lot of people didn't play them in that era.

What's easy now was very difficult back then to learn and to play. It was very abstract. When I first started playing his music in 1955, there was just a small body of people that knew it. It was a very esoteric type of thing, they were "insiders." But as I learned those tunes from the records, the more interesting they became.

Do you feel that studying his music particularly helped you to discover your own voice?

Yes, that was the best model I could find to help me get to my own stuff. I played that as long as I could before I started to uncover my own sound. I still play his music sometimes at solo concerts.

I feel that for a lot of musicians who have delved very deeply into Monk, it has brought out something unique of themselves. It wasn't just that when we started playing his music that it made us play differently, it led us to another direction of how to "sing a song."

Monk himself could do that for the players who played with him: Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Rouse and all those great players.

After they played with him, something opened up for them, too. They all went on to something new.

Yes, that's why I needed to play with him, that's what it did for me. He was a great leader like that.

I love the work you and a friend of mine, Johnny Coles, did with Gil Evans. It's always stuck in my ears. How did you come about playing with Gil Evans?

He heard me play as an amateur on the Arthur Godfrey radio show. When I was a kid I had a Dixieland band on there in 1952. Five years later in 1957 he went looking for me and called me up and asked me to play on his first album under his own name. He wanted me to play the lead sound. This was very important in my life. He was able to recall my sound five years later and then find it. I love that album.

That's Gil Evans Plus Ten?

Yes. It's a record that sounds better with time. That was the beginning of my association with him which lasted until his death. We did the duo record just before he died.

You say he had the ability to remember your sound. I've also heard him talk about others' sounds. It seems he did much what Duke did which was write people's personal sounds into his music.

Duke was his inspiration. He heard Duke in person in 1929 with Bubber Miley. Louis Armstrong also greatly influenced him. He went way back in the music, he was very well educated, and a great talent.

He seemed to understand the significance of individuals. He did a record which featured Wayne Shorter on some tracks. I heard this record only in the last year or so and it completely blew my mind. The record is titled, 'The Individualism of Gil Evans.' He really appreciated individuals.

He was a collector. He used older players mixed with younger players, and it worked.

I try not to ask questions that put words in your mouth, but could you offer some advice to help people develop their own individuality?

Attach yourself to somebody stronger than you and get to the bottom of what they do. Then find somebody else. I think it is in collaboration that the nature of the art is revealed. I've always been extremely lucky in playing with great people who knew much more than I did. That's how I got from there to here. I would advise everyone to start from where you are at this particular moment, and think about what you do , what you want to do and who you could work with that would help you get a little further. There must be somebody better than you (laughter)!

I'm quite certain there is. When I hear somebody like yourself say that, it's interesting because from the get-go I heard in you an immediately identifiable voice. When I heard John Coltrane play, I heard the same thing; Sonny Rollins the same thing, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and all the players from that era seemed to have all developed that individual thing early on. They got better playing with the greats, obviously.

You have a point. It starts with a single sound. If there's something in that sound, then it's worth continuing. If there's nothing happening in that sound, it's hard to imagine where you'll get with that. You can get to a journeyman stage, you can get to be a technician and recreative and all that, but originality and invention starts with something we haven't heard before.

Would you say it's a state of single mindedness?

It's a new sound. It seems simple, and it's a dangerous phrase, "a new sound," but I mean it. When I first heard Bechet to me it was new but I realized it was an old sound. When I tried to get on that train, what I came up with was a new sound because I really didn't know what I was doing. I was playing the mouthpiece upside-down for a few weeks while experimenting. Then I got lucky immediately. I started studying with Cecil Scott in New York, a bandleader and musician. He used to have a big band, a territory band called The Bright Boys, and a lot of great musicians played with him. He played tenor, clarinet, piano he was a great all around musician and teacher. He really helped me get started, he straightened me out. I studied with him for about a year and a half.

What kinds of things did he lay on you to help you to learn to swing? It's an important question, because I had this come up with a student. He couldn't swing if you hung him and it was really a problem.

There again I was really lucky. Where I was working at the time were these so-called Dixieland concerts where some of the greatest players in the world were playing, guys like Pee Wee Russell, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing, Max Kaminski, Cecil Scott and Red Allen and all these great cats. I cut my teeth in those places. First I was photographing them and selling the photographs, photography was my game at that time. Then I was studying with him, then I was sitting in, then I was hired. You can't tell somebody now to go out and do that because it doesn't exist. Most of those players are dead.

But those were all strong, original voices even if you put them all in the category of "Dixieland."

There were also schools: the Kansas City school, the New Orleans school, the Chicago school, especially those three. Plus there were some of the New York players and some from Washington and all the New Orleans guys. That was very important for me to be able to work for a season or two with guys like that. Then Cecil Taylor found me and threw me in the deep waters of the oceans.

Sink or swim, eh? I guess you could say that the regional influences are becoming more predominant again. Players are coming out of New Orleans, lots of players have come out of Chicago for years. There was a whole different attitude in Chicago all along. There are many fine players from here (SF Bay Area).

Yes, it depends on the individuals. It can be anywhere. People should learn that it can happen anywhere if you have a few individuals who are crazy enough and can get something going. Before the work comes to you, you have to invent work. What I learned with Cecil Taylor a bit back then was strategy and survival and how to resist the temptations and resist getting discouraged because if you're trying to invent something new, you're going to reach a lot of discouraging points and most people give up. If you're well schooled and tough enough, you persevere, like Monk did. Monk persevered and eventually became quite a star, making Time magazine and all that. I was working with him at that time. That music has gone all over the world and is still going very strong. It can happen. Other people like Herbie Nichols never got to hear his stuff performed and died young.

I would love to see more individuality developing in this part of the world. This is a strong subject in my mind.

It depends on what people want. I always had an individual streak; interested in something not everyone else was doing. I was after my own thing without even knowing what I was doing. But not everybody wants to do that. Some people really want to play Mozart and be just performers. I was more interested in invention. But performance is part of what we do, too. I'm lucky enough to be able to be involved in the preparation and the performance. That's where the saxophone comes in.

Were there a lot of problems when you first moved to Paris?

I would not recommend anyone coming to Paris and hoping to crack it. It's a rough place. It took me five to ten years before we got to the place where we could swing a bit over there. We had to start from scratch all over again which took a while in a strange place to cope, adhere and to surface above the water. You say the seventies were hard for you, well they were hard here too and that is why you really have to invent work. In the eighties the work was coming in, and it still is. But before it comes in, you have to invent it. If you have music you want to play that no one asks you to play, you have to go out and find where you can play it. It's called "do or die." In the fifties we rehearsed many times with Cecil, but only performed a few times. When I had a band with Roswell in the 'sixties doing all Monk nobody wanted to hear about that. Nobody would hire us. So we went block by block canvassing to find places to play. We played for peanuts. But we did what we wanted to do, we heard what we wanted to hear, we performed what we wanted to perform, we learned what we wanted to learn. Of course, years later the record from that will sell forever. You have to go through hard times. People don't want to suffer. They want to sound good immediately, and this is one of the biggest problems in the world. I think it's very important to go through periods where you sound just rotten and you know it and you have to persevere or give up. The next day you still sound rotten, and it goes on for quite a while until one day it starts to get a little better. Something is really happening in a phase like that.

That's really developing a drive that people don't usually have.

You have to sound sad first of all, then maybe later you can sound good.

Do you have anything you would like to add for the readers of this magazine?

The potential for the saxophone is unlimited. I've been working on the soprano saxophone for forty years now and the possibilities are astounding. It's up to you, the only limit is the imagination. Circumstances can be very important. Find the right people to work with. You can work on the saxophone alone, but ultimately you must perform with others. I've performed solo for twenty years now, but I don't do much of it, and I don't do it too often, because it's an exceptional thing to do. If you only play alone, you go crazy and out of tune and play foolish music. Jazz is people's music, a collectivity. Also, never play anything boring, but play difficult and interesting things. If you play boring things, you risk losing your appetite. Saxophone can be tedious with too much of the same, so you must keep stimulating yourself with good materials to keep your appetite alive.

© COPYRIGHT 1991 Mel Martin

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