Lucky Thompson – New York City, 1964-1965

UptownCD_coverReleased in March 2009, this CD (Uptown UPCD 27.57&27.58) is a major addition to Lucky Thompson’s recorded legacy, recorded at a time when he was in his prime and accompanied by some of New York City’s finest musicians. I contributed an essay to the liner notes of this issue. Unfortunately, in the production process, the endnote numbering was lost. The following is a reproduction of the essay with the proper endnote formatting and errata.

About Lucky Thompson

In 1968, the saxophonist, composer and arranger Eli ‘Lucky’ Thompson stated, “…I feel I have only scratched the surface of what I know I am capable of doing.”[1] Such a comment was thought provoking in view of both the quality and quantity of the music he had produced to that point and one was led to wonder what directions he had in mind. As it turned out, his career as a performing musician was largely over by this time and we can only speculate as to what might have been. He became a notable casualty of the dynamic first century of jazz and, as has often been observed, his sobriquet did not accurately reflect his actual life experiences.

Thompson’s failure to achieve iconic status has been discussed and lamented. Although immensely gifted, he was clearly a difficult individual, a loner and one ill-equipped to compromise or accept situations he found to be artistically or economically below his standards. Steadfastly aiming for perfection and often behaving arrogantly, he had little patience for colleagues who could not read music or were unreliable. Throughout his thirty-year career as a performing artist there were contentious encounters with agents, reporters, record companies and club owners that limited his employment and recording opportunities. In this regard, parallels exist with the saxophonist and composer Gigi Gryce, another fine musician and a contemporary of Thompson whose career also ended prematurely in frustration and bitterness.[2] Both were deeply troubled by the way in which the music business operated, especially regarding the exploitation of African-American artists. They started their own publishing companies in order to maintain control over their compositions and to insure that resulting royalties would be fully and properly collected and encouraged others to do the same. By so challenging the status quo traditionally imposed by the recording industry, both suffered the consequences of their provocative actions. Gryce, at least, spent the last twenty years of his life productively as a respected teacher in the New York City school system. Thompson, on the other hand, spiraled into a paranoid oblivion and was not heard from after 1974.

But Thompson’s unique characteristics as a soloist also proved problematic in terms of his instrumental legacy. While emerging at the beginning of the bebop era and participating in some key recording sessions of that genre, he chose not to follow closely in the footsteps of Charlie Parker or Lester Young, the dominant saxophone models of the time. Instead, he drew on Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Don Byas for his inspiration, ingeniously updating those earlier influences harmonically and rhythmically to create a most original sound and conception that could be adapted to almost any musical context. In an insightful article, Tad Shull has analyzed Thompson’s style and describes it as “backward” in the sense that his phrasing is the opposite of what one might expect, with accents falling in the “wrong” places on the “wrong” beats and in the “wrong” order.[3] That such an approach was successful is a tribute to Thompson’s great talent but at the same time a hindrance to the facile categorization and assimilation of his playing. The subtleties of his innovations were difficult for many listeners, critics and musicians to fully appreciate, especially in his later years.

Eli Thompson, Jr. entered the world on June 16, 1923 [4] in Columbia, SC, the eldest of three siblings born to Eli and Azalee Dawkins Thompson. The family moved to Detroit, MI shortly thereafter and it was in the Motor City that he was raised and received his first musical training and experience. Although he did not own a saxophone until he was in his teens, he had been teaching himself the workings of the instrument since the age of 8 and by his high school graduation (Cass Technical) was playing professionally. By 1943 he was a member of Lionel Hampton’s orchestra and in 1944 replaced Ben Webster in drummer Sid Catlett’s quartet in New York City. He first attracted attention overseas when he performed at the 1948 Festival International du Jazz in Nice, France but it was also on this trip that an unfortunate altercation took place involving Louis Armstrong’s influential manager Joe Glaser that proved to be a harbinger of professional difficulties to come.[5]

During Thompson’s three decades on the international jazz scene, he worked and recorded with just about every key figure: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk to name just a few. He transcended stylistic and geographical barriers playing in a wide variety of settings on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.A. and for extended periods in Europe. He appears on several historically significant and influential sessions and although he stopped performing in 1974, barely into his fifties, his recorded history is extensive. As a composer, he left an impressive legacy of over 150 known songs including some with potential for cross over into pop music like the ballad “While You Are Gone” recorded by Sarah Vaughan in 1949 and later covered by the Four Freshmen.

Thompson’s first recording session as a leader took place during his Los Angeles residency (1945-47), in the fall of 1945, for the Excelsior label. Of pertinence to the music herein, the ensemble was an octet (five horns and three rhythm), a setting that he seemed to favor and one that would eventually be called “Lucky Thompson and his Lucky Seven.” Besides trombonist J.J. Johnson, this session featured Thompson’s wife, vocalist Thelma Love (Lowe) on two titles. This format was revisited in April 1947 with guitar (Barney Kessel) replacing trombone and the resulting four tracks recorded for RCA Victor attracted considerable attention. In particular, the leader’s bravura performance on the ballad “Just One More Chance” was reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins’s historic “Body and Soul” solo eight years earlier. By the early 1950s, Thompson’s octet was recording for Decca Records and ensconced at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. Many notable players would pass through this ensemble and one, drummer Percy Brice, recently remembered Thompson as very concerned with the business aspects of leading a band, especially the need for and negotiation of contracts.[6]

Certainly a significant event in Thompson’s career was his participation in the vastly influential Miles Davis sextet session of April 29, 1954 for the Prestige record label. Appointed to bring some original material for the ensemble that also included J.J. Johnson, pianist Horace Silver, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke, he came to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with charts that just did not work and were quickly scrapped.[7] Instead, the two extended blues performances that were recorded that day, bebop classic “Blue ‘N Boogie” and “Walkin’” (really Jimmy Mundy’s “Gravy”) made history by becoming the gold standard for the hard bop genre and revitalizing Davis’s career. All of the band members were at the top of their game and if Thompson had left us nothing other than his efforts on these tracks, his legacy would have been notable. This is the saxophonist at his very best on tenor, offering beautifully constructed solos with elegance and passion.

The following year saw the birth of Thompson’s son Darryl as well as some publicity resulting from his friendship with boxer Archie Moore.[8] There were recording sessions with trombonist Jimmy Cleveland (Emarcy), drummer Jo Jones (Vanguard) and an excursion into what would become known as the “Third Stream” with John Lewis and Gunther Schuller issued on Norgran as The Modern Jazz Society.

With the 12-inch LP now the entrenched format for even small labels, offering thirty or more minutes of music, 1956 was a huge year for jazz and Thompson was right in the thick of things. There were small group recordings with vibraphonist Milt Jackson for the Savoy and Atlantic labels and his own sessions for ABC Paramount at the beginning and end of the year. These were split between a trio of tenor saxophone, guitar and bass and a quintet with Jimmy Cleveland’s trombone as the other horn. Common to both ensembles was the great bassist Oscar Pettiford whose strong and supportive presence is clearly felt. It is here that we are first exposed to Thompson’s considerable talent as a composer in the modern jazz idiom. Early that year, he relocated his family to Europe and over three months recorded extensively in Paris with local musicians such as drummer Gérard ‘Dave’ Pochonet and pianists Henri Renaud and Martial Solal. In February and April, he recorded with only bass and drums, well before the Sonny Rollins Way Out West session of March 1957 for Contemporary Records that attracted so much attention and helped elevate Rollins’s status to that of the premier tenor saxophonist of his era. Thompson enjoyed this challenging trio format and, even when performing with a pianist, would play extended choruses without chordal accompaniment.

In May of 1956 Thompson joined Stan Kenton’s band in Paris as a substitute for baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz and upon returning to the U.S.A., participated in the Cuban Fire recordings for Capitol Records. Back on his usual instrument, Thompson solos memorably on several of these Johnny Richards arrangements. But there were other big band involvements that busy and productive year including Quincy Jones’s first ABC Paramount sessions and a unique but short-lived ensemble led by bassist Oscar Pettiford for which both he and Gigi Gryce contributed arrangements. Thompson also found time in December to back Louis Armstrong on the Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca, reuniting briefly with the jazz master for whom he had worked in 1947.

By 1957, Thompson’s career was on a seemingly upward trajectory and his already impressive achievements promised more of the same. In fact, that year was the beginning of a gradual decline. Drugs and alcohol, which had taken such a severe toll on many of his contemporaries, were never an issue with Thompson who would not even permit as mild a stimulant as coffee to be consumed in his home.[9] He was by all accounts well organized and always prepared for whatever musical situation he found himself in (more similarities with Gigi Gryce). But his inability to deal with the music business and contempt for those who ran it (“vultures” as he called them[10]) rendered him incapable of working within the system. He made a few recordings with Milt Jackson, Louis Armstrong (Louis and the Angels), Kenny Clarke, Eddie Barclay and others but the output was relatively meager. Although many sources indicate that Thompson remained in Europe through 1962, he spent most of 1958 with Thelma, daughter Jade and son Darryl on a 35-acre farm he had purchased in Belleville, MI and made no recordings. The farm was viewed as a potential alternative to the music business he held in such low regard.[11]

It was around this time that both Thompson and John Coltrane began performing on soprano saxophone. Thompson had purchased a Selmer soprano in Paris in 1957[12] and developed an approach that was characterized by remarkable intonation, facility and tone on a difficult horn whose sonorities in the wrong hands can range from annoying to unbearable. Pioneered by Sidney Bechet, this reed instrument had been largely ignored in modern jazz although Steve Lacy had been using it since the mid-1950s. In January of 1959, Thompson, now back in Paris, recorded on soprano for the Symphonium label. The tracks that resulted, including a striking duet with African percussionist Prinz Ghana M’Bow, received little recognition since they were released only in France and not available internationally until a 1999 CD reissue. Another recording took place in February for the German Manhattan label but again, the material issued had little impact. So while Coltrane’s first soprano saxophone recordings did not take place until June 1960, it is he who is largely credited for the putting the small horn on the map despite Thompson’s earlier explorations. In a 1964 article, Don Heckman wrote in reference to Lacy, Coltrane and Roland Kirk (who actually played a soprano-like instrument called a manzello), “The dominance of the soprano saxophone by these three players has been challenged by Lucky Thompson playing a pleasant, post-Lester Young style…”[13] These comments, while positive in tone, suggest that seven years after he had first started playing soprano, Thompson’s ability on that instrument was still insufficiently known and appreciated in the U.S.A., undoubtedly a result of his long absences while in Europe.

Thompson himself commented on Coltrane’s playing and provided insight into his own philosophy regarding improvisation: “As far as I’m concerned, every note in a solo must mean something. All the strands of sound and rhythm must be tied together and make for a stimulating, informative picture. What Coltrane is doing may be fine for him. I respect his efforts. He’s trying to tell you what’s going on inside him. He’s deeply involved and always working toward a goal. However, there is one basic thing that the improvising jazzman should remember. When music is calculated like math, it is no longer music.”[14]

Between 1959 and 1963, most of Thompson’s activities took place in Europe with few commercial recordings emerging. Nonetheless, he was quite active, being part of many radio and television broadcasts, club and concert appearances and even some films. His younger son Kim was born in Paris in 1960.

Of great interest and pertinence to certain of the tracks on this collection are the five NDR (North German Broadcasting) jazz workshops that took place on April 17, 1959 (No. 6), April 22, 1960 (No. 13), November 25, 1960 (No. 16), April 28, 1961 (No. 19) and May 31, 1962 (No. 25) in which Thompson participated along with many of Europe’s finest musicians such as saxophonists Barney Wilen, Bengt Jaedig, Klaus Doldinger, Hans Koller, expatriates trombonist Nat Peck and guitarist Jimmy Gourley and many others. The series, broadcast from studios in Hamburg or Frankfurt, was produced by Hans Gertberg and often featured original compositions by the ensemble members. The workshop of April 28, 1961 comprised all Thompson material, nineteen new pieces performed by his favored octet of five horns and three rhythm. Anyone fortunate enough to have heard the unauthorized recordings of these radio and TV broadcasts would certainly find them exceptional and wonder why they have never been released commercially. Around the same time in 1961, Thompson made a remarkable quartet recording in Paris for the Candid record label but only one track, Lord, Lord Am I Ever Gonna Know, was released initially. A fine trio of Martial Solal on piano, Peter Trunk on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums accompanied him and most of the remaining material from this session was finally released on CD in 1997. These pieces were untitled at the time of their discovery and turned out to be Thompson originals debuted by the larger group on radio although this was not known when the CD was issued.[15]

Soon after his return to the U.S.A. in December of 1962, Thompson’s wife Thelma died of a cerebral hemorrhage leaving him responsible for the care of their children, an exceptionally difficult burden for a performing musician. Living with his sons Darryl and Kim at the Schuyler Hotel on West 45th Street in New York City, he found work there and in Boston and played during the summer of 1963 at the Woodside Park Country Club in Colts Neck, NJ. His first American recording in several years was done for the Moodsville label, a Prestige subsidiary, in March of that year and the excellent rhythm section was made up of Hank Jones, piano, Wendell Marshall, bass and Dave Bailey, drums. Jerome Kern composed all nine songs recorded by the quartet and in what was by now a familiar scenario, the saxophonist employed tenor and soprano about equally. In his liner notes, Dan Morgenstern commented, “And you will also make the acquaintance of a new facet of Lucky Thompson’s music: his distinctly original and authoritative approach to the soprano saxophone, on which he has never before been heard to such good advantage.”[16]

Throughout 1964 and 1965, Thompson remained in the U.S.A. and made two additional LPs for Prestige, Lucky Strikes, featuring several of his originals andLucky Thompson Plays Happy Days Are Here Again. On the latter, several songs associated with then rising star Barbra Streisand were performed and a harpist was added on two tracks. His accompanists were New York’s finest, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, bassists Richard Davis and George Tucker and drummers Walter Perkins and Connie Kay. He also made two albums for the newly formed Rivoli label, Lucky Is Back and Kinfolk’s Corner, on one session replacing Flanagan’s piano with an organ (Frank Anderson). He would revive the octet format during this period but more about that below.

Little is then heard from Thompson until his return to Europe (Switzerland) in 1968 although Mark Gardner reported spending time with him in autumn of 1967 in New York City and hearing a band that included trumpeter Ray Copeland, trombonist Benny Powell, Al Gibbons on reeds and Pete Clark on baritone saxophone.[17] He told Dan Morgenstern that he was through with the music business, a decision made in part because of the responsibilities he felt towards his sons then 9 and 5. He also reiterated his disdain for the way the business operated, the people in charge and with obvious bitterness, even seemed to see a positive side to his lack of commercial success: “My not having been accepted on a full scale has been the greatest compliment to me. For anyone to be rejected by those who mean so little as human beings should consider it an honor.”[18]

Following a pattern of career ups and downs, successes and failures, withdrawals and comebacks, he returned to performing in clubs and concerts throughout Europe in 1968 although no commercial recordings were made until March of 1969. Then for the German MPS label, he assembled an international sextet composed of vibraphonist and percussionist Fats Sadi, guitarist René Thomas, organist Ingfried Hoffmann, bassist Eberhard Weber and ex-Quincy Jones drummer Stu Martin. Five of the seven tracks were Thompson originals. After that, the only studio recording documented during this period took place in Barcelona, Spain for the Ensayo label in which he was backed by the trio of pianist Tete Montoliu. Both of these albums demonstrate that Thompson was playing and writing better than ever while still garnering little recognition in America.

Thompson’s final attempt at carving out a career in his own country began with his return to the U.S.A. in 1970 although health problems involving his younger son forced him back to Lausanne for part of that year. In fact, these were very unsettled times for the saxophonist and his family and in 1971, he temporarily relocated to Colorado.[19] But in December of that year, back in New York City, he appeared with a rhythm section composed of Hank Jones, bassist Wilbur Little and drummer Frank Gant on Gil Noble’s WABCTV show Like It Is, a weekly public affairs program, and recorded in 1972 and 1973 for Sonny Lester’s Groove Merchant label. For these sessions, Cedar Walton was the pianist, while Sam Jones and Larry Ridley shared bass duties. The drummers were Billy Higgins and Louis Hayes. With such stellar backing, Thompson plays beautifully on both tenor and soprano and introduces yet more original compositions. Unfortunately, the production values on what would be his last studio recordings were not up to par and many of the tracks fade out prematurely.

The last chapter in Thompson’s professional life took place in the hallowed halls of academia and the Ivy League, no less. On October 7, 1972, he was one of forty musicians selected to be the first recipients of the Duke Ellington Medal and the first Ellington Fellows at Yale University. This was a program established by bassist and horn player Willie Ruff, a music faculty member, and envisioned as a “conservatory without walls.” Ruff had played on the Lucky Is Back session for Rivoli in 1965. As Ruff described it, “My dream was for world-class artists to come regularly to the campus and give performances and workshops for Yale students as well as children in the public schools.”[20] Thompson performed at the award ceremony, and Ruff’s recollections suggest that even at this point, the saxophonist’s soprano work was not well known: “And then it was time for Lucky Thompson’s soprano saxophone. As Lucky played “In a Sentimental Mood,” as nobody on the stage had ever heard it, I watched Benny Carter’s face shine with pure admiration. The same admiring smile played on Harry Carney’s face and on Russell Procope’s. And when Lucky was finished, he spoke eloquently of his debt to the late saxophone masters: to Johnny Hodges, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.”[21]

Thompson taught at Dartmouth as a visiting professor into 1974 and also gave workshops at Yale but then tired of the academic atmosphere. Before leaving, he presented a concert on April 20, 1974 at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with a quartet including Hank Jones, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.[22] A recording of this event may have been made and if so, it was his last. After this time, his activities become murky and except for an interview given in 1981,[23] Thompson is not heard from again. He lived for a time in Savannah, Georgia, possibly also Colorado, Canada and Oregon before being discovered in Seattle, Washington in the 1990s in an essentially homeless condition and out of contact with his family for nearly twenty years. It has been rumored that his descent into dementia was accelerated by a beating he received at the hands of police but when and where this took place has not been documented. With help from local residents who, fortunately, had recognized him, he obtained housing and medical attention. He lived his final years in the Washington Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation where he usually refused or was unable for medical reasons to be drawn into meaningful discussions of his past experiences and achievements. Visitors, including famous former collaborators, reportedly found him bitter and paranoid. An exception occurred in 1995 when Daniel Brecker was able to interview him for radio broadcast [24] and in January 2005, trumpeter Marcus Printup and a group of musicians from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra passing through Seattle visited him and reported being able to elicit a coherent response.[25] Lucky Thompson died on July 30, 2005 of Alzheimer’s disease.

About the Music

February 28 & 29, 1964

In a rare venture into the world of concert production, writers Dan Morgenstern and David Himmelstein in early 1964 organized a series called Jazz On Broadway to be held at The Little Theater located in Manhattan on 44th Street west of Broadway. Seating about 300 and blessed with outstanding acoustics that obviated the need for amplification, this space seemed ideal for the programs the producers had planned.[26]

The series kicked off with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster who performed two concerts on Friday, February 21 and one on Saturday, February 22, a scheduling pattern that would be used for all the artists. Thompson’s band performed on February 28 and 29, followed by Earl Hines on March 6 and 7 and Randy Weston on March 13 and 14. Muddy Waters and The Ellingtonians were scheduled to appear the following two weekends but the series was cancelled after Weston’s sextet concerts because overall attendance had failed to meet expectations.[27]

Thompson’s participation in the Jazz On Broadway series was noted as his first concert appearance since returning to New York City from Europe.[28] The octet he assembled, utilizing the same instrumentation as the very first recording under his own name, was impressive and made up of some of the most respected musicians based in New York, although none were known predominantly as leaders in their own right. The ensemble may have made a studio recording but if so, nothing was ever issued from it and there is no evidence that this was a working band. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that Thompson had hopes that this appearance would lead to further bookings but except for a brief mention of a Jazzmobile concert in September 1965 and the 1967 gig attended by Mark Gardner noted above, the octet does not seem to have performed or recorded again.

Both trumpeter Dave Burns (b. Perth Amboy, NJ 1924) and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne (b. Brooklyn, NY 1922) were members of Dizzy Gillespie’s groundbreaking big band of the mid to late 1940s. Payne, whom we lost in 2007, is considered one of the first on his instrument to master the bebop intricacies and can be heard on many seminal recordings of that genre. His mid-1950s collaborations with fellow Brooklynites, pianists Duke Jordan and Randy Weston are noteworthy and in more recent years, he had reinvigorated his career by teaming up with some of the younger exponents of straight ahead jazz such as saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth.

Burns carved out a notable career including a period with Duke Ellington’s orchestra and a long association with saxophonist James Moody in the 1950s. Recorded in 1962 and 1963, his two Vanguard LPs constitute his only efforts as a leader and have finally been reissued. They are highly recommended.

After spending twelve years as a member of the Count Basie orchestra, trombonist Benny Powell (b. New Orleans, LA 1930) left that organization in 1963 and at the time of this concert was establishing himself in New York as a versatile, first-call musician capable of fitting into a variety of settings including Broadway shows and commercial recording studios. He would later become a member of pianist Randy Weston’s African Rhythms ensembles, a collaboration that continues today and has made some fine recordings as a leader. In addition, he has been active in jazz education and currently teaches at the New School.

Another band member with a substantial Basie association is alto saxophonist James Daniel ‘Danny’ Turner (b. Philadelphia, PA 1920) who unfortunately does not solo on any of the tracks herein. He also worked with vocalists Dakota Staton and Jimmy Witherspoon as well as organists Milt Buckner, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott and Jimmy McGriff. Turner, who passed away in 1995, recorded his only LP as a leader for the Hemisphere label in 1983.

What can one say at this point about the great pianist Hank Jones? Born in Vicksburg, MS in 1918 but raised in Detroit, MI, he and his younger brothers trumpeter/cornetist/composer/arranger Thad and drummer Elvin, sadly now both deceased, cut an enormous swath through the fabric of modern jazz. Hank Jones has to be one of the most recorded of all musicians, participating in hundreds of sessions in many genres over a career now in its ninth decade. And amazingly, he continues to perform with the same elegant taste and touch for which he was always known. Jones was one of those accompanists who could make anyone sound better and was in perpetual demand. The pianist had a long association with Thompson dating back to their formative years in Detroit and they can be found in many live and studio settings together, including the saxophonist’s last known concert in 1974.

Bridging the worlds of classical music and jazz and another widely traveled musician of great talent is bassist Richard Davis (b. Chicago, IL 1930). Like Jones, his list of credits is endless but let it suffice to mention his contributions to groundbreaking recordings by multi-reed innovator Eric Dolphy, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and pianist Andrew Hill. In September of 1964 he would record on Thompson’s Lucky Strikes session.

Least known of the octet members is drummer Al Dreares (b. Key West, FL 1929). A steady and supportive player, he worked with Gigi Gryce, Randy Weston, Lionel Hampton, Frank Strozier and Bennie Green among many others.

The pieces issued herein are essentially all that seems to have been preserved from the octet’s performances. In Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker Magazine review of the 8:30 P.M. Friday night concert, he indicates that the event was “apparently being recorded,”[29] but who is responsible for doing so and from which set or sets the tracks were taken are unanswered questions. It should be noted that recordings were made of Earl Hines’s appearances the following weekend.

Except for the “theme” that we hear briefly twice, three of Thompson’s originals, “Minuet In Blues,” “‘Twas Yesterdays” and “The Fire Bug” were premiered earlier at the aforementioned NDR jazz workshops but never before performed in the U.S.A. As for “The World Awakes,” this 12-bar blues in F-minor was first recorded on tenor saxophone in April 1956 in Paris and issued on an obscure French label, Club des Amateurs du Disque (C.A.D.). It became almost a theme song for Thompson being performed numerous times in live settings and recorded thrice more, always on soprano, in a quartet setting, as is the case here. The routine is typical starting with Latin drums joined by bass and piano over which Thompson noodles for a while before stating the theme. His 7-chorus solo is notable for some rather uncharacteristic flurries reminiscent of John Coltrane while still maintaining the elegance of construction always present in his work. Jones contribution is a study in quiet intensity and Davis walks for 12 choruses before the leader and Dreares engage in some exchanges, dividing the choruses with Thompson soloing for the first four bars and the drummer, the last eight.

“Minuet In Blues” is a fascinating mini-suite first heard on April 28, 1961 in Hamburg, as part of workshop No. 19. A slow section with striking dissonances under Thompson’s soprano leads to the main blues theme by way of Dreares’s brushes. Soloists are Davis, Jones and then Thompson after which a rubato piano interlude takes us back to a reprise of the introductory section.

Thompson’s tenor saxophone ballad mastery is in evidence on the lovely “‘Twas Yesterdays,” premiered at the May 31, 1962 workshop in Frankfurt (No. 25). The other horns lay out on this, leaving the leader the spotlight for one-half chorus after which Jones takes the bridge and Thompson returns to complete the all too brief performance.

Also from NDR Workshop No. 19 is “The Fire Bug,” an up-tempo piece having a 32-bar theme but improvisations based on the 12-bar blues structure. A 16-bar introduction takes us to statement of the head with trumpet lead over a Latin feel. After an 8-bar drum break and another 8-bars from the ensemble, the solo activities begin with everyone in fine form. First up is Jones followed by a spirited Payne, then Powell, who begins and ends his 11-chorus solo in the low register of his instrument. After Burns contributes 8 fluent choruses, it’s Thompson’s turn on tenor for 14, at times evoking the excitement Paul Gonsalves could generate with the Ellington Band. Throughout the extended performance, Dreares and Davis keep things moving along nicely, never allowing the intensity level to diminish.

Since Thompson’s “theme” does not show up anywhere else, it may have been written expressly for these concerts. In each version, we hear but one ensemble chorus with pianist Jones laying out. Thompson’s soprano takes the lead, playing the attractive and deceptively simple line in which the bridge features subtle meter shifts.

Both Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker[30] and John S. Wilson in the New York Times[31] praised Thompson’s playing in their reviews but commented on an apparent lack of rehearsal evident in certain of the ensembles performances. Wilson was particularly critical of Thompson’s writing described by the critic as stodgy. In Thompson’s defense it should be noted that both reviewers attended the first of the three concerts where the musicians were least familiar with the arrangements and as a composer and arranger, his uncompromising approach often required more than one listening in order for his pieces to be fully absorbed and appreciated.

February 19, 1965

By 1965, Thompson was starting to reestablish a significant presence on the New York scene. On January 31st of that year he opened the Jazz ‘N’ Breakfast series at the Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street in which artists appeared Sunday mornings from 3 to 7 A.M. and on March 14 participated in a jam session at the same venue organized to recognize the tenth anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death. Also that month he shared a rhythm section including Barry Harris or Richard Wyands on piano, George Tucker on bass and Oliver Jackson on drums with trumpeter Roy Eldridge for a two-week stint at the Village Vanguard and it was shortly before that notable gig that the tracks issued here were recorded.

Located at the corner of Hudson and Spring Streets in lower Manhattan, the Half Note was, for many years, one of New York City’s best-known jazz venues, featuring around this time artists including Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, the Clark Terry-Bob Brookmeyer quintet and especially the tenor saxophone duo of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. Thompson had appeared there himself in October of 1964 with a quartet made up of pianist Paul Neves, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Charli Persip. Owned by the Canterino family, the club offered Italian food as well as alcohol both of which were consumed in abundance and appreciated by musicians and customers alike.

In early 1965, radio personality Alan Grant was broadcasting live jazz in stereo from the Half Note on Friday nights, as part of his Portraits in Jazz series on WABC-FM. Grant had been a New York airwave presence since the early 1950s and in addition to his broadcasts, emceed jazz festivals and wrote liner notes. He relocated to San Francisco in the early 1970s. The broadcast from which the four tracks herein were recorded took place on February 19th.

Thompson’s accompanists for this quartet appearance are ones he was working with quite a bit during this New York residency. Bassist George Tucker (b. Palatka, FL 1927) spent several years with saxophonist Earl Bostic before emerging in 1957 to become a ubiquitous presence on the New York jazz scene. He lent solid underpinning to a host of recordings during his brief career and perhaps is best remembered as part of the hard swinging rhythm section backing tenor saxophone titan Stanley Turrentine during 1960 and 1961 that also included pianist Horace Parlan and drummer Al Harewood. Associations with not only mainstream artists like Coleman Hawkins and Pee Wee Russell but also adventurous and forward looking performers including Eric Dolphy and Booker Ervin demonstrate his versatility. Tucker recorded on Thompson’s Happy Days Are Here Again session in February just days before this live broadcast but died tragically a few months later on October 19, 1965 from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 38.

Drummer Oliver Jackson, Jr. (b. Detroit, MI 1933) was another incredibly versatile and widely respected musician with both outstanding technique and sensitivity. A favorite of many of the older players such as Earl Hines, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers and Sir Charles Thompson, he could easily adapt to more modern settings. He recorded with Thompson for Rivoli and was a member of the Hines ensemble that was part of the Jazz On Broadway series the year before. While mainly a sideman, Jackson made several recordings for French Black & Blue label under his own name. He passed away in 1994.

Although clearly an accomplished and respected player to have been in ensembles led by Lucky Thompson and others of stature, relatively little is known about pianist Paul Neves. Along with his brother bassist John Neves, he was part of the exciting 1950s Boston jazz milieu that included trumpeters Herb Pomeroy and Joe Gordon, saxophonists Charlie Mariano and Serge Chaloff, drummer Alan Dawson and many others. But he is found on only one commercial recording, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s Spellbound done in 1964 for the Status label, a subsidiary of Prestige. In the liner notes to that LP, Dan Morgenstern offered complimentary comments regarding Neves saying, “As you will hear, he is a sensitive and lyrical soloist with a truly pianistic touch and a wonderful ear for unhackneyed chord voicings. We can expect to hear more from Paul Neves in the future.”[32] Unfortunately, that prediction would not be borne out.

We do know that Neves was quite active in New York at the time of this recording. Working frequently with Coleman Hawkins (including the opening Jazz On Broadway concerts in February 1964), the pianist also appeared with saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, drummer Roy Haynes and was able to secure some club bookings on his own. He later moved to Puerto Rico where he was instrumental in founding the Caribbean Jazz Workshop, an organization that provided opportunities for local musicians to rehearse and hold jam sessions, and became a revered and inspirational figure in the performance, promotion and teaching of modern jazz on the island.[33] He died in San Juan in the early 1980s, probably 1982 (exact details could not be obtained), and was only around 50 years of age.[34]

As was the case with most of Thompson’s performances throughout the remainder of his career, the quartet’s set on this evening offers mostly standards with some originals mixed in, kicking off with “The World Awakes.” While very similar to the 1964 version, there are some interesting contrasts resulting from the presence of a different rhythm section. Jackson’s drums set up a Latin motif, joined by piano and bass and finally Thompson who vamps for 48 bars before playing the theme. He then solos first with just bass and drums and then with full rhythm section generating a seemingly endless series of beautifully constructed ideas woven together without repetition and demonstrating further how his approach had evolved over the years. Neves follows, alternating single lines and block chords and swinging vigorously before Thompson returns for a chorus and then engages Jackson in several choruses of exchanges using the 4-bar ensemble/8-bar drums routine. The track ends much as it began with the saxophonist vamping to a fade out.

One might wonder as to what more could be done in 1965 with the oft-performed ballad “What’s New” but in the hands of a genius like Thompson, beauty has no bounds. After a 4-bar piano introduction, again on soprano, he takes liberties with the well-known melody performed here in the key of G rather than the usual C. Neves has a full chorus building intensity with block chords before settling back to provide a dynamically balanced solo. He was certainly someone we should have had greater opportunity to hear and appreciate. Thompson returns at the bridge for a final half chorus and ends with a fitting cadenza. This is a study in exemplary ballad performance.

More familiar territory comes in the form of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” on which Thompson switches to tenor saxophone and provides a bit of a twist by altering the usual melody and harmony in bars three and four. He dedicates this performance to the composer who, at the time, was quite ill and actually would die less than a month later. In typical fashion, Thompson begins his solo with Neves laying out for 4 choruses before continuing for another 12 with the pianist joining in. The saxophonist’s solo is laced with double-time runs and reminds us how similar his conception was on both the large and small horns. Neves comes along for 7 facile and at times very down home choruses before Tucker’s only solo opportunity. The leader exchanges fours with Jackson to conclude the proceedings.

A blistering “Strike Up the Band” is the last title of the set and Jackson’s paradiddles take us to the Paramount Studios newsreel theme (“Paramount On Parade”) stated on soprano saxophone before Thompson is off and running on tenor. The drummer is featured here engaging in extended choruses of 8-bar exchanges with the leader who then continues, never seeming to run out of gas or ideas as Grant closes out the broadcast.

Some Afterthoughts

Although Thompson remains largely overlooked by many jazz fans, critics, teachers and musicians of today, and while his compositions are seldom performed, there have recently been some encouraging signs. On the nights of March 22-25, 2006 saxophonist Chris Byars presented a fitting tribute to the saxophone giant at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. Covering 1947-1973, each night featured a different ensemble and aspect of Thompson’s considerable legacy. And in 2007, Michael Blake, another young and gifted New York-based saxophonist, in collaboration with a group of Danish musicians, produced a CD entitled The World Awakes in which several Thompson pieces are given a fresh and intriguing interpretation. So perhaps there is hope for the future.

It must also be noted that Thompson’s musical lineage continues with his son Darryl, an accomplished guitarist, long a part of the Chicago blues scene, whose work has sometimes crossed over into the jazz genre through recordings with trombonist Bill Watrous, organist Charles Earland, bassist John Lee and saxophonists Sam Rivers and David Murray.

Lucky Thompson was unquestionably a phenomenal talent and although he left a sizable body of recorded work, his professional ups and downs prevented a constant flow of high quality material, especially during the latter phase of his career. The music herein comes from a period when he was playing exceptionally well and we must be grateful for the discovery of a few more outstanding performances from an artist who richly deserves greater appreciation and respect.

Noal Cohen, Montclair, NJ, 2008

[1] Spoken introduction by Lucky Thompson issued on Candid CCD 79035 (Lord, Lord Am I Ever Gonna Know?); Transcription: Gardner, Mark, “Lucky Thompson In the Sixties,” Coda, June 1969, pp. 3-8.

[2] Cohen, Noal and Fitzgerald, Michael, “Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce,” Berkeley Hills Books, Berkeley, CA, 2002.

[3] Shull, Tad, “When Backward Comes Out Ahead: Lucky Thompson’s Phrasing and Improvisation,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies 12 2002, Berger, E., Cayer, D., Martin, H., Morgenstern, D., Eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, MD, 2004, pp.63-83.

[4] Although most sources give June 16, 1924 as Thompson’s date of birth, this earlier date is the one he provided on his SS-5 form (application for Social Security number) in 1941.

[5] Hentoff, Nat, “Lucky Thompson: In Which an Underrated Musician Talks Strongly About the Seamier Side of Jazz,” Down Beat, April 4, 1956, p. 9.

[6] Percy Brice interviewed by Noal Cohen, February 8, 2008.

[7] Carr, Ian, “Miles Davis,” William Morrow and Co., New York, 1982, pp. 55-57.

[8] “Archie’s Return,” Time Magazine, September 12, 1955, p.52.

[9] Darryl Thompson interviewed by Noal Cohen, February 11, 2008.

[10] See ref. 4.

[11] Jones, Max, “Talking Jazz,” W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1987, p. 73.

[12] ibid., p. 78.

[13] Heckman, Don, “The Woodwinds of Change,” Down Beat, October 8, 1964, pp. 15-17.

[14] Korall, Burt, “Lucky’s Back In Town,” Down Beat, July 4, 1963, pp. 16-17.

[15] The identities of several of the songs on Candid CCD 79035 were only discovered in 2006 by saxophonist Chris Byars when he auditioned the German radio broadcasts. For the full story on how this came about see: Lucky Thompson Tribute.

[16] Morgenstern, Dan, liner notes to “Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More,” Moodsville 39, April 1963.

[17] Gardner, Mark, “Lucky Thompson In the Sixties,” Coda, June 1969, p. 8.

[18] Morgenstern, Dan, “Lucky Thompson Says Later for the Music Business,” Down Beat, January 13, 1966, p. 11.

[19] See ref. 9.

[20] Ruff, Willie, “A Call To Assembly,” Penguin Books, New York, 1991, pp. 368-369.

[21] ibid., p. 377.

[22] Powers, Will, “Lucky Thompson,” Coda, July 1974, pp. 36-37.

[23] Kuhl, Christopher, “A Visit with ‘Lucky’ Thompson,” New Arts Review, December 1981, pp. 13-16.

[24] This interview can be heard at saxophonist Mel Martin’s website.

[25] Printup, Marcus, “The Insider: A Lucky Awakening,” Down Beat, May 2006. p. 22.

[26] Dan Morgenstern interviewed by Noal Cohen, February 8, 2008.

[27] “Strictly Ad Lib,” Down Beat, May 7, 1964, p. 10.

[28] “Strictly Ad Lib,” Down Beat, April 23, 1964, p. 10.

[29] Balliett, Whitney, “JAZZ CONCERTS Trial Run,” New Yorker, March 7, 1964, pp. 174-175.

[30] ibid., p. 175.

[31] Wilson, John S., “Thompson Is Heard In 2d Jazz Concert,” New York Times, February 29, 1964, p. 13.

[32] Morgenstern, Dan, liner notes to “Spellbound,” Status ST-8303, December 1964.

[33] Pinckney, Jr., Warren E., “Puerto Rican Jazz and the Incorporation of Folk Music: An Analysis of New Musical Directions,” Latin American Music Review, Volume 10, No. 2, 1989, pp. 236-266.

[34] Email correspondence with friends and colleagues of Paul Neves: Guitarist Carlos ‘Kiko’ Menendez, drummer Rik Tinory, bassist Bob Bowers and pianist Don Baaska.

Many thanks to Darryl Thompson, Percy Brice, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Cleveland, Benny Powell, Willie Ruff, Michael Fitzgerald, Dan Morgenstern, Don Schlitten, Tad Hershorn and the friends and students of Paul Neves (Kiko Menendez, Rik Tinory, Bob Bowers, Don Baaska, Betty Reid Soskin).

Discographical Sources:

Salemann, Dieter, “Roots of Modern Jazz – The Be Bop Era Vol. 13: Solography, Discography, Band Routes, Engagements of Eli “Lucky “ Thompson 1943-1950,” Berlin, Germany, 2001.

Online discography of Lucky Thompson, 1951-1956 & 1957-1974.

©2008 Noal Cohen

Errata and New Information:
“Thompson also found time in December to back Louis Armstrong on the Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca, reuniting briefly with the jazz master for whom he had worked in 1947.” should read: “Thompson also found time in December to back Louis Armstrong on the Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca, reuniting briefly with the jazz master for whom he had worked in 1946.”

“The workshop of April 28, 1961 comprised all Thompson material, nineteen new pieces performed by his favored octet of five horns and three rhythm.” should read: “The workshop of April 28, 1961 comprised all Thompson material, seventeen new pieces performed by his favored octet of five horns and three rhythm.”

The online discography of Lucky Thompson now covers his entire career, 1943-1974.

Nelson Gonzales, a friend of Paul Neves, emailed me (October 4, 2014) a copy of Neves’ obituary published in the San Juan Star, October 3, 1981. Neves died of a heart attack on October 2, 1981, at the age of 51.

Ref. 10 should read: “See ref. 5.”

Ref. 17: “p. 8.” should read “p. 3.”