Steve Lacy Remembered


Steve Lacy + Franz Koglmann, 1974
Steve Lacy + Franz Koglmann, 1974                                             Courtesy of Ingrid Karl + Franz Koglmann

Franz Koglmann: I first heard Steve Lacy live in 1971 in a posh Parisian jazz club right behind the Palais Royal. We were sitting in comfy club chairs, an atmosphere more befitting Monty Alexander perhaps, but the contrast between the stern-faced soprano sax player and the red, plushy surroundings was rather intriguing. I have to admit that at the time I hardly knew who Steve Lacy was, knowing him only from the Jazz Realities LP with Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, but it seemed obvious that he was something like a re-inventor of how to play the soprano saxophone. A high-pitched instrument anyway, the sax was pitched even higher by his crystal-clear and completely unsentimental lines, his musing style seemingly unrelated to Bechet or Coltrane. A musician totally of his own right was demonstrating an aesthetic approach of uncompromising beauty, light years away from pursuing current trends, jazz-rock fads or mainstream routines, but not yielding to the power-play of free jazz either, as it was still common at the time.

Still a student at the jazz department of the Vienna Conservatory, I was already disengaging myself from the many standards and arrangements of the Count Basie Band that were used in the classroom. I felt ready for my own way and was bold enough to ask Steve Lacy if he was interested in making a record with me. A few sheets of music were all I had to show for myself, but, surprisingly, Steve immediately agreed. The result was the Flaps LP, taking its name from a composition Lacy dedicated to Pee Wee Russell, released under my newly founded Pipe label.

Of course, HE was the authority; he was older, and his musical track record –including Thelonious Monk, for instance – gave him my vote of confidence. And: “an American in Paris” still had a somewhat mythological ring in the early 1970s. In fact, there were very down to earth reasons for Lacy’s move from the USA to Europe – mainly Paris – since his chances of getting recognition were simply greater here and there was a larger audience not exclusively looking for popular junk-fare. At this level we were very much in sync. In a world where everything had to be popular, everything had to be for everyone and as loud and fast as possible, we met in the agreement that music should be uncompromising, even if that was not what would get you a huge audience.    

The Flaps session wasn’t to be our last. A number of concerts and recording sessions (for hat ART) meant we had some part of the way to go together. Finally, Wiener Musik Galerie even organised a 3-day Steve Lacy festival (Listen to Lacy, 1990), where we left the decision about the program entirely to him. Apart from some of his own compositions, Steve decided for works by Stravinsky, Bartok, Cowell, Cage, Rzewski, and for a performance of the Japanese dance artist Shiro Daimon.

Which takes us to an important issue: Anyone who had the chance to take a look at Steve’s sketchbooks knows how deeply he felt related to visual artists, writers and ‘serious composers’. Almost all of his music had a dedication to someone; usually he would glue a small photo of the respective person on the page. Steve Lacy was arty, a highly educated and well-read man, and he was not shy at all about letting it show. On the contrary, the many dedications made that fact even more obvious.

This circumstance combined with his cool manner will probably not have made everyone his friend. He had no truck with the buddy-buddy approach so popular in jazz circles, and he kept his Becket-like distance also with me. Which reminds me that I once saw Becket in a café in Paris. He ordered a café italienne, made notes in three colours in a notebook and, in a quite solipsistic way, seemed royally uninterested in his surroundings. After this chance meeting I always considered Lacy as a Becket of music. I felt there was a strong affinity between those two outsiders (in the best sense of the term). To my mind, this “end-of-days” mood, which is not always easy to take, the enigmatic character, but also the quirky sense of humour found in many an artistic expression reminiscent of “absurd theatre”, created an imaginary connection between Godot and Steve’s incorruptible coloratura soprano. I think Steve even put a few Becket poems to music – as he felt the need to on an almost daily basis with texts by Robert Creeley and many others – but I never got to hear them.

On 3 June 2004 the poet Anne Waldman sent me the shocking news about Steve Lacy being in a coma. This is what she wrote:

“One of the things he said to friends was ‘keep the tempo!’ before the coma ... great advice for these troubled times, what a great spirit!”

George Lewis: Over the years I have witnessed many acts of courage, great and small, on the part of musicians.  In fact, it seems obvious that courage is a crucial constituent of a great musician’s approach to music-making.

The morning of one of our last engagements as a quintet, Steve received not only a devastating medical diagnosis, but also a gratuitous slap from the doctor, blaming his “lifestyle” (whatever that might mean) for what we all realized would be a terminal illness.

The combination of this emotionally draining encounter with the extreme pain that Steve was undergoing caused considerable dislocation on stage that evening. Steve’s horn sounded as vibrant as ever, but at times he would seem to lose his place in the form of the music, something that I had never--ever--heard in over twenty years of performing with him. Equally painful, I imagined, was the fear that he might not be able to function fully, as he always had in his ensembles, as a source of the calm and stability that was a hallmark of the inner life of his ensembles, however turbulent the music might be at times.

Somehow, without words being exchanged, Jean-Jacques, John, Irene, and I came to the collective realization that we needed to play in a different way. It seemed as if we were using sound itself to fortify Steve’s bones and flesh--a kind of empathy-based projection made possible by improvisation, the musical practice that is simply a subset of the practice of everyday life itself. 

Much is glibly made of “music as a healing force,” but for me, this possibility was never so immediately and acutely felt as that evening. After the set, we didn’t talk about our discoveries, but I do recall Steve saying to us simply, “Thank you cats for making life worthwhile for me.”

Lous Moholo-Moholo: Once in a while a musician of Steve's calibre comes along. I was very fortunate to meet this giant ,in the early sixties when we were all at the peak of our craft. Steve was attracted to us by the quality of our music and the sound of my drums. I was very excited when he asked me to join him and go to Argentina. We spent two glorious years over there making music. We really grew in stature and experience during this period of our lives, needless to say we met a lot of people who really loved us and made lots of friends. Steve was well liked by other musicians. Our record The Forest and the Zoo has stood the test of times. This was recorded at the time when we were longing for our homeland South Africa, which we left under heavy manners due to the Apartheid regime of the time. I am now back in South Africa since 2004. I now look back with pride and fondness having played a small part in Steve Lacy’s life. Long may his memory live.

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