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Expatriate San Diegan Visits Roots : Music: Pianist Butch Lacy chose Denmark to pursue his career and is finding ways to use music for non-commercial, humanitarian purposes. He returns for a two-night stint at Horton Grand Hotel.

January 04, 1991|DIRK SUTRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — By 1982, pianist Butch Lacy's jazz career was on the verge of what most people consider success. After years of playing clubs and writing commercial jingles, the former San Diegan had landed a job touring with singer Sarah Vaughan.

But to Lacy, who is in San Diego for shows this Friday and Saturday nights with bassist Gunnar Biggs at the Horton Grand Hotel downtown, this country's idea of success didn't cut it. The music and media businesses weren't going in directions he wanted to be a part of.

After seeing how music and musicians are exploited for commercial ends, and how television dominates the lives of many Americans with less-than enlightening messages, Lacy opted out.

He moved to Copenhagen in 1982 and has lived there ever since. And, Lacy said, he is convinced of a "synchronicity" that put him where he is. Through his tenured position as a teacher and composer at the government-backed Royal Conservatory in Denmark, he is finding ways to use music for non-commercial, humanitarian purposes, including communicating with the people of diverse cultures through exchange programs.

Lacy, 43, with a bulky build and full beard, projects an imposing appearance, but at heart he is a shy, bear of a guy who finds it difficult to articulate his complex ideas about the world and his music.

He sipped beers and smoked filter-less cigarettes in an Encinitas bar earlier this week as he talked about his life's work, his commitment to using music for something other than than gaining fame or wealth.

"Sometimes, things happen in a way that seems coincidental, but, in retrospect, the synchronicity of it is awesome," said Lacy, describing how his life has unfolded.

Things began to click in the right direction almost as soon as he got off the plane in Copenhagen.

Lacy--who grew up in Richmond, Va., and launched his jazz career with regular dates at a small Washington club in the early 1960s--had fallen in love with Danish singer Birgitte Frieboe (now his wife). When he arrived at the airport, she greeted him with the news that she had used her contacts to line up his first job: composing three original works for the Danish national radio Big Band, one of several government-backed ensembles.

"I did the three, and that led to two years of composing and arranging for the radio Big Band and light orchestra," said Lacy, who now speaks Danish fluently.

In Denmark, he also tapped the local jazz scene of fellow expatriates, hanging out with pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and saxophonist Ernie Wilkins. During the mid-1980s, he recorded with Chet Baker, Red Rodney, Gary Bartz, Bob Rockwell and Swedish clarinetist Putte Wickman for Steeplechase, a Danish label.

Lacy's turning point came in 1986, when the Danish government started a conservatory for "rhythmic music"--music other than classical, including jazz and rock. Lacy was hired as a teacher, and when two tenured positions were added in 1988, he got one of them.

"I had a chance to really study music. The first awakening came when I went to Africa last year.

" . . . The leader of our conservatory and two tenured teachers (including Lacy) went to Ghana to try set up a cultural exchange."

What Lacy discovered during his travels is that all music goes back to Africa, Egypt, Iraq: the places where civilization began. He saw connections between Mozart and Beethoven and primal forms of music. He also observed how, even today, people in these regions approach music with a healthier attitude than many Americans do.

In Accra, Ghana, last fall, his belief in the difference between American ideas about music and the approaches taken by people elsewhere was reaffirmed. Dozens of townspeople lined up to give the Danish visitors an impromptu performance, and Lacy was struck by the music's profound emotional impact, as the people danced, sang, drummed and clapped with no motive other than joy and communication.

"We were crying like babies," said Lacy. "This was the strongest thing I'd seen in my life."

The experience gave Lacy hope that music can bring the world's diverse cultures together, succeeding where politics has failed.

Lacy plans to visit Africa again, and he will take the radio Big Band to India for 14 days in March. The Danish conservatory has also invited 10 musicians from each of eight Eastern European countries to visit Denmark for two weeks next August.

Lacy has also become a prolific composer in Denmark, turning out more than 15 original works for the radio Big Band, plus several other pieces for orchestra, ballet and choir.

In what is the crowning achievement of his new career, some of his original compositions will be featured during Denmark's celebration of Earth Day in Copenhagen on April 22.

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