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Steve Lacy, 69; Soprano Sax Jazz Musician Won a 'Genius Grant'

June 08, 2004|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Steve Lacy, a leading soprano saxophonist in the modern era of jazz and one of the few jazz musicians awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant," has died. He was 69.

Lacy died Friday of cancer at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, according to a statement from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught.

Comfortable in various musical forms, Lacy played Dixieland and avant-garde, and with his own groups often incorporated beat poetry, the writings of Herman Melville and obscure Islamic verse.

"He was a distinctive player and a true original in this music," jazz critic Nat Hentoff told The Times on Monday. "He had an enormous appetite for the music and an ability to keep surprising himself by exploring new avenues."

Influenced by such diverse forces as New Orleans-style saxophonist Sidney Bechet and groundbreaking pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, Lacy developed a beauty and clarity of tone, a keen melodic sense and an ability to keep his music uncompromising and fresh.

"Any artist has to focus and search after a certain kind of simplicity and economy," Lacy told a writer for The Times some years ago. "There's a lot of music around, maybe even too much music. Playing a lot of notes is gymnastics or calisthenics or something, exhibition. Music's not about that, really. It's about meaning."

Born Steven Lackritz in New York City, he showed early promise in music as he studied piano and clarinet. He switched to soprano saxophone, a seldom played instrument, after hearing a Bechet recording.

After study at the Manhattan School of Music and what is now the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he worked with some of the leading Dixieland practitioners of the 1950s.

His musical direction took a detour in the mid-1950s when he was challenged by avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor to experience his boundary-breaking notions of harmony and structure. Lacy's -- he changed his name in 1952 -- two years with Taylor's band informed his musical direction for the rest of his career.

"Playing with Cecil Taylor immediately put me into the offensive mode" of music making, Lacy recalled in his book, "Findings: My Experience With the Soprano Saxophone."

"This was the avant-out garde; we were an attack quartet (sometimes quintet or trio), playing original, dangerously threatening music that most people were offended by."

In the late 1950s, Lacy also recorded with the noted composer/ pianist Gil Evans and pianist Mal Waldron and worked with them intermittently into the 1980s. According to legend, the great John Coltrane sought Lacy's advice, coming to hear him play in New York City.

"He was intrigued by the soprano saxophone and he asked me what the tonality was, what key it was in," Lacy told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "When I told him it was the same as a tenor saxophone, he lit up. Then a couple of weeks later, there he was."

Coltrane would play the instrument on perhaps his most famous recording, his 1960 version of "My Favorite Things," and establish himself as a jazz giant.

In the early 1960s, Lacy became interested in the music of Thelonious Monk when Monk was still considered more an eccentric figure than a legitimate jazz composer. He got Monk to let him sit in with his band for four months to learn the music. When he left, Lacy formed what turned out to be a superb band with trombonist Roswell Rudd that was focused on interpreting Monk's music.

Lacy became recognized as one of the leading interpreters of Monk's music; the German jazz writer Joachim Berendt referred to him as "one of the few horn players, and probably the only white among them, who fully understood and assimilated Monk."

From the mid-'60s onward, Lacy was associated with the free-jazz movement and, finding little work in America, lived, wrote and recorded for much of the next four decades in Europe, primarily France, where he was awarded the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1989 and in 2002, Commander of the Order.

His MacArthur Fellowship was awarded in 1992. He returned to the United States and took the teaching post at the New England Conservatory in 2002.

He married Swiss singer and cellist Irene Aebi, who survives him, and she became a key part of his bands, singing the often-complex songs that Lacy tried to bring into his repertoire.

As a composer, he became more structured and would incorporate literature. For example, his first major composition, "The Way," was based on the writings of the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu. One of his last albums, "Beat Suite," was a jazz song cycle based on poetry by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley and other beat poets.

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