"A jazz musician," said Steve Lacy once "is a combination orator, dialectician, mathematician, athlete, entertainer, poet, singer, dancer, diplomat, educator, student, comedian, artist, seducer, public masturbator, and general all-round good fellow." He added, "Jazz is a very young art and not too much is known about it yet. You have to trust yourself and go your own way." Those are sentences whose frankness, honesty, and implicit perception have stayed with me a long time. And they come from a young player who has virtually worked his way through the history of jazz: on his first job, a promoter billed him as "Bechet of today" and a few years later he was working with the Cecil Taylor quartet, a group decidedly in the advance guard. The progress was perhaps not slow, but the fact that in the interim, Lacy worked with Max Kaminsky, Pee Wee Russell, Dick Sutton, Rex Stewart, Hot Lips Page, and Buck Clayton may speak for its sureness. Even his teachers encompass jazz history; they include Cecil Scott (who was an important jazz man and leader by 1927), Lee Konitz, and Cecil Taylor. Lacy's is also the kind of mind that cuts across jazz history to draw a strong comparison between Thelonious Monk (with whom he began working in 1960) and Louis Armstrong, each of whom he says is a "master of rhyme." (The other such masters he mentions are Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Cecil Taylorwhich probably reinforces his point as well as any discussion would.)
To put all this in more conventional order, Steve Lacy was born in New York City in 1934. Besides study with the jazzmen mentioned above, he has attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York (as have such jazzmen as John Lewis, Max Roach, and Dick Katz) and the Schillinger School in Boston. His first public appearances came about because he tagged along with Cecil Scott after lessons to the latter's gigs. Later he was leading his own dixieland group. An appearance was arranged on a "Talent Scouts" broadcast, and Gil Evans happened to hear him. Evans was taken by Lacy, particularly by the sound of his soprano saxophone, even then.
By late 1956, Lacy was a member of Cecil Taylor's quartet and a little over a year later he was player and featured soloist with Gil Evans' orchestra. There was a return to Taylor for a Brooklyn job, in the fall of 1959 (Lacy worked a day job and played every night during that one). Several months later, he was in the very unusual quartet that Jimmy Giuffre was leading at the Five Spot in New York. It had an instrumentation rather like this one: the leader's tenor and clarinet, Lacy's soprano, bass, and drums. That group played a lot of Thelonious Monk's pieces (chiefly at Lacy's suggestion), Monk heard them, and when Monk decided to expand his own group, Lacy was asked to join Charlie Rouse's tenor in the front line.
Lacy's instrument is a difficult one in several respects. Not the least of them is that it is hard to get jobs if you play soprano saxophone and don't want to double on other reeds and Lacy doesn't because he is an honest and dedicated enough jazzman to know he has found himself on this one.
"Steve Lacy," wrote Larry Gushee in The Jazz Review, "has turned the special position and difficulties of the soprano sax most successfully to his advantage His tone is fresh, unsentimental, detached, neither brassy nor reedy It makes a brilliant and penetrating impression " And he adds that "even when he was heard in the context of out-and-out or modified dixieland, it was clear that an original imagination was involved."
That originality has certainly been maintained, it seems to me, in Lacy's subsequent work. And you will not hear the protective gambits of currently hip cliches from Lacy. Donna Lee, Charlie Parker's melody on an harmonic frame with a long standing in jazz, is played often enough so that it must tempt anyone to trot out the bebop stockpile. But Lacy is clearly working on that trackand not working just to avoid the cliches. Notice also Criss Cross; both hornmen clearly know that with this, as with most of the Thelonious Monk's pieces, you had better know the melody and the harmony and how they fit, if you really want to play something. After Lacy has stated his boldest variation he quite logically uses a paraphrase of the theme to close his solo. It is the kind of thing a musician of Monk's stature might do, and that Lacy does.