By Mike Zwerin
28 June 2002 - "It's time to book," Steve Lacy said; a
traditional road expression for let's move out. During a recent 10-day
farewell engagement at the Sunset / Sunside duplex - Paris's premier
jazz club - Lacy was proclaimed a Commander of the Order of Arts and
Letters by the French Ministry of Culture. He was already a Chevalier,
a Knight. Under the circumstances, it was an ironic promotion.
is leaving France for a day gig that includes artistic freedom, a
generous salary, social and medical benefits, miscellaneous perks and
When he first came to Paris 32 years
ago, the soprano saxophone, had been out of favor for a generation -
Bechet's heyday. It was a lonely instrument then but the
originator of the soprano's post-Coltranian popularity has been
winning US jazz polls for many years now. Laid back, sensitive, Lacy
gives the impression of continuing to play the instrument despite
His fat sound has an instantly recognizable
hoarse, purring, contemporary warmth to it; reminiscent of a finely
tuned vintage sports car. The highly-strung and unpredictable
instrument attracts players such as Lacy who like challenges. The
relative ease with which he could cross musical boundaries in Europe
has had a lot to do with his success here.
his lush garden outside the attractive pavillon near the
Telegraph metro station he will soon be leaving, he started to
summarize by saying he'd "played dodecaphonic music, chance
operations, free improvisation, dixieland, Chicago blues, standards,
bebop and controlled chaos" with "clowns, strippers,
singers, magicians, painters, poets, happeners and all sorts of
radical experimenters and it's still going on."
worked with early formations led by Cecil Taylor,
Gil Evans and
Thelonious Monk and
co-led - with Roswell Rudd - an ahead-of-its-time quartet in the 1960s
that performed only Monk compositions. At the same time, he was
free-lancing with a mixed bag of stylists from Pee Wee Russell and
Oran "Hot Lips" Page to Jimmy Giuffre and Don Cherry. By
now, he has lost count of his recordings; there have long been three
or four a year, mostly on European labels.
He has come to
feel stalled, "local," taken for granted in Europe. So he
accepted an offer he couldn't refuse in Boston. A contract to teach at
England Conservatory. Before the start of the next school year,
he and his Swiss born wife and singer Irene Aebi and their two cats
will move to Massachussetts. The Lacys are having trouble finding a
landlord who will accept the cats, and he is aware that, "the
transition will be hard. I have mixed emotions. But I've had it with
Paris. I want to go home. I've been here too long. You have to follow
the music. That's why I came here in the first place. The expat thing
This coming from America's leading jazz
expatriate might just signify the end of an era. However, given Lacy's
geographical promiscuity, the future cannot be called clear. After
being stranded in Buenos Aires in 1966, he moved to Rome and in 1970
from Rome to Paris (it was the height of the Viet Nam war and his band
was performing only one extended number, "The Woe," which he
calls "our war song") and from Paris to Berlin in the 1990s
- a move that was also supposed to be definitive. In Berlin, he was
quoted as saying: "There's nothing happening in Paris any more
but football." It caused him a certain amount of woe when he did
in fact return to Paris.
Having written more than 200 songs,
mostly for Aebi, who performs with him much of the time, he will work
with vocalists as well as composers, saxophonists and improvisers at
England Conservatory, where teachers like George Russell and
Gunther Schuller have the freedom to create much of their own
syllabus. The resulting cross-pollination includes classical musicians
taking improvisation, jazz musicians studying world music and both
disciplines attending Ran Blake's courses in "Earobics." A
perfect environment for somebody who once defined a jazz musician as "combination
orator, singer, dancer, diplomat, poet, dialectician, mathematician,
athlete, entertainer, educator, student, comedian, artist, seducer and
general all around good fellow."
There is another reason
to move. "The 'fisc' is on my case," is the way he put it.
The French equivalent of the IRS "wants money I never made. I
have three lawyers working on it. It's expensive and boring and it
keeps me from concentrating on the music. There's a guy there who
thinks I'm a big American fish with bank accounts everywhere. I always
manage to keep busy but basically I run at a loss. I kept it going on
deficit financing from my mother's stocks and the MacArthur."
In 1992, Lacy was awarded a $340,000 fellowship - popularly
known as a "genius grant" - by the
in Chicago. (He says he paid taxes on it in the US.) It was spent
subsidizing his intellectual, often austere and classically and
ethnically oriented projects celebrating Monk, Charles Mingus, the
poet Robert Creeley, composers Henry Cowell and Charles Ives and
writers Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and others.
takes a sort of perverse pride in being a sloppy record-keeper. Having
trouble proving his losses, he finds himself paying for all those
scorned receipts: "Like I can't drive a car and I can't play
chess, I can't keep books. Not everyone can do everything.
Fortunately, I can write music and play the saxophone okay."
Steve Lacy plays in Trio with Jean-Jacques Avenel
(bass) and John Betsch (drums) at the Iridium in New York from 6 - 11
Lacy's Web Site
Sidney Bechet Society, Ltd. Web Site.
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press
and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.