'Lucky Thompson was a perfectionist almost to the point of mania," Ronnie Scott remembered of the time the tenor saxophonist played at his London jazz club in June 1962. "Between sets," Scott continued, "he'd clean his instruments out and pack them away, and when it was time to go on, you'd have to allow 10 or 15 minutes for him to get them out again and clean them up and get them ready."
By mixing elements of the playing of the tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Don Byas with a considerable helping of his own style, Lucky Thompson became one of the great players of the instrument. He fell between the swing players and the bebop musicians in terms of style, but by the Fifties had adjusted his playing so that it sat happily at his best with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk or Milt Jackson.
Thompson was always difficult, an awkward eccentric and, sometimes with good reason, a constant complainer. He didn't like the rhythm section provided by the Scott Club and wrote an open letter which was published in the Melody Maker:
I've just done the best that's possible in the circumstances. If that's any consolation. It seems to me the main difficulty lies in the fact that there are vast differences of conception in the rhythm section itself. This makes it impossible to establish the kind of impulse to which I could respond fully.
Stan Tracey was the pianist in that rhythm section. "Socially, musically, Lucky Thompson and Don Byas were the hardest to accompany," he responded:
Just plain horrible vibrations. Used to put us down in the music - all sorts of nasty little messages flying about in the music. I was all fucked up at the time and I was Mr Nasty anyway. My nerves were all nicely bared and raw and so I used to take the piss out of them in the music.
Throughout his career Thompson used the term "vultures" to describe those whom he saw as preying on musicians to exploit them. He battled them ceaselessly and formally announced in Downbeat magazine in 1966, and on many other occasions, that he was retiring from what he called the business side of jazz.
He was born Eli Thompson in South Carolina in 1924; his mother died when he was five and Eli had to help bring up his younger siblings. At one stage his father bought him a jersey with the word "Lucky" across the chest. He didn't realise that he was setting his son's nickname for life. Given what was to follow, it was hardly an appropriate choice.
Fascinated by and absorbed in music, the boy had no hope of affording a saxophone. "I ran errands and got myself enough money to buy a saxophone book," he said.
It had a picture of a real saxophone to use as a fingering chart. I chopped the bristles off a broom and carved the main lines of a saxophone into it. I carved the keys into it, too.
Thompson finally acquired a saxophone when one was accidentally delivered to his home with some furniture. He had already taught himself to read music.
After a job as a barber, he began his musical career in the early Forties working first with territory bands, including nine months with the 'Bama State Collegians. "I came to New York in 1943 with Lionel Hampton's band," Thompson said.
Shortly after I arrived found myself replacing Ben Webster at the Three Deuces. The first night I was to play, who was in the house but Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Ben Webster, all of them there at the same time.
Art Tatum was also in the audience. "I never played so horrible in my life," Thompson said. "I don't know how I survived, believe me, because for the first time, I found my fingers in between the keys."
Thompson worked in the New York clubs with the bassist Slam Stewart's quartet, that included Erroll Garner and Thompson's particular friend, the drummer Big Sid Catlett. He went out on the road again with Hampton, but left after six months to join the band led by the singer Billy Eckstine. This band was the embryo of bebop, including as it did Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan.
In November 1944, Thompson left for a year with Count Basie. Settling in Los Angeles at the end of 1945, he soon found work as a studio musician and as a sideman in the jazz groups led by Boyd Raeburn, Slim Gaillard, Jimmy Mundy and Dodo Marmarosa. When Parker and Gillespie visited Los Angeles, he played and recorded with them.
In 1948 he came to Europe to play at the Nice Jazz Festival, by this time having returned to live in New York. He led a band of his own at the Savoy Ballroom there, worked with Thelonious Monk and was one of the musicians on the seminal Miles Davis recording session in 1954 that produced "Walkin'". He made further outstanding albums with Milt Jackson and Jo Jones.
"I fought against being a stereotype," Thompson said,
So they wrote about me as the musician "without school, without stereotype". It cost me a career. This profession was indifferent to an honest man. In fact I never had a career, but I fought for a few moments here and there.
To escape the "vultures", Thompson moved to Paris in February 1956 and in April that year joined the Stan Kenton band which was touring France and short of a baritone sax player.
I picked up a baritone sax right off the stage. Never had played one, but I had to play it in the band straight after picking it up for the first time.
Thompson returned to the States with Kenton, but was blacklisted by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong's manager, after a pointless row on a flight over whether Armstrong should leave the plane first when it landed. Starved of work, Thompson made another fine album with Milt Jackson and then in 1958 he bought a farm in Michigan, where he lived with his wife, Thelma, and two children.
Leaving them behind, he went back to France, where he stayed until 1962, never short of work, and at this period he became one of the first modern musicians to take up the soprano saxophone. He played frequently with another maverick musician, the bassist Oscar Pettiford, and with the remarkable pianist Martial Solal, achieving great things with both of them. Shortly after he went back to the farm in Michigan, his wife died. He drifted away from music until, in 1968, he returned to France and toured widely across Europe.
In 1973-74, Thompson taught briefly at Dartmouth College and at Yale University, after which he retired once more from music. He lived for a while in Canada before moving to Savannah, Georgia. Here he gave his instruments to a dentist in exchange for dental work. He moved on to Atlanta, where he was badly beaten up, and then to Denver, to Oregon and in the late Eighties to Seattle. He became a homeless recluse in the city until in 1994 he was taken into the Columbia City Assisted Living Center there.
Steve VoceReuse content