Billy Eckstine's band, Pittsburgh 1944, l. to r.: Thompson, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Eckstine
Photo from the Frank Driggs Collection
Born in Columbia, SC, on June 16, 1924 and active from the forties to the sixties, Thompson was one of the tenors bridging the gap between swing and bop.
Mr. Thompson connected the swing era to the more cerebral and complex bebop style. His sophisticated, harmonically abstract approach to the tenor saxophone built off that of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins; he played with beboppers, but resisted Charlie Parker's pervasive influence.
(from Ben Ratliff's obituary in the NYTimes - link)
Eli Thompson's lifelong nickname -- the byproduct of a jersey, given him by his father, with the word "lucky" stitched across the chest -- would prove bitterly inappropriate: when he was five, his mother died, and the remainder of his childhood, spent largely in Detroit, was devoted to helping raise his younger siblings. Thompson loved music, but without hope of acquiring an instrument of his own, he ran errands to earn enough money to purchase an instructional book on the saxophone, complete with fingering chart. He then carved imitation lines and keys into a broom handle, teaching himself to read music years before he ever played an actual sax. According to legend, Thompson finally received his own saxophone by accident -- a delivery company mistakenly dropped one off at his home along with some furniture, and after graduating high school and working briefly as a barber, he signed on with Erskine Hawkins' 'Bama State Collegians, touring with the group until 1943, when he joined Lionel Hampton and settled in New York City.
(from Jason Ankeny's biography on allmusic.com - link)
Upon his arrival in New York City, Thompson quickly was respected by fellow musicians, playing the street, joining Billy Eckstine's short-lived big band (with Dizzy, Bird and Art Blakey). In late 1944 he became a member of Count Basie's big band, remaining up to 1945 or 1946. In that year he joined Dizzy as a temporary replacement for Charlie Parker and he recorded on one of Bird's west coast dates for Dial. By 1947, Thompson was back in New York, leading his own band at the Savoy Ballroom. In 1948 he made his European debut in Nice. In the years to come, he played with bands as different as Charlie Parker's, Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, again with Count Basie, and in 1952 he participated in one of Thelonious Monk's great Blue Note recording sessions.
"Lucky had that same thing that Paul Gonsalves had, that melodic smoothness. He wasn't rough like Ben Webster, and he didn't play in the Lester Young style. He was a beautiful balladeer. But he played with all the modernists."
(Johnny Griffin, quoted by Ratliff, see link above)
In 1953, Thompson made his recording debut as a leader (for Decca), and in April 1954 he took part in the great session with J.J. Johnson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis', ending up on the later's "Walkin'" (Prestige). Thompson made few recordings as a leader, but he continued recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Jimmy Cleveland, Jo Jones, John Lewis and others, and beginning in early 1956, he made a series of fine sessions with Milt Jackson (mostly on Savoy, some on Atlantic). Also in January 1956, his own "Tricotism" was committed to disc - parts of the album featuring a highly unusual instrumentation of tenor sax, guitar (Skeeter Best) and bass (Oscar Pettiford). (Read a review on bagatellen.com - link)
By February 1956, Thompson was in Paris, where he recorded a string of great sessions with Henri Renaud, Martial Solal, Kenny Clarke and others. For one date, he teamed up with French sax great, Guy Lafitte.
"I fought against being a stereotype"
Then he joined Stan Kenton while the later was on tour in Europe and short of a baritone saxophonist... Thompson had never played the baritone before. He remained with Kenton long enough to take part in the recording of "Cuban Fire" (Capitol). Upon returning to the US with Kenton, Thompson was blacklisted by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong's manager, after a pointless row. Out of work, he still continued to appear on records - among them some marvellous dates with Oscar Pettiford, a marathon session led by Lionel Hampton and also featuring Ray Copeland, Cleveland, Pettiford, Gus Johnson, and pianist Oscar Dennard (Jazztone, now complete on a 2CD set by Freshsound Records), Quincy Jones' "This Is How I Feel About Jazz" (possibly Q's masterpiece), and in December 1956 and early 1957 he took part in some sessions by the Louis Armstrong All Stars.
By mid 1957, Thompson was back in Europe recording dance sessions with Eddie Barclay and jazz with Martial Solal and Kenny Clarke, as well as an album with singer/pianist Sammy Price. Then in 1958 Thompson bought a farm in Michigan where he lived with his wife and two children. Leaving them behind, he went to France again, staying until 1962, where work was never short. Around that time, Thompson took up the soprano and it quickly became clear that he was one of the first modern jazz musicians to fully master the bitchy straight horn. He continued appearing with Martial Solal and others, taking part in several NDR Jazz Workshops and concerts with expats (including his old collaborator Oscar Pettiford) and European musicians such as Hans Koller, Dusko Goykovich, Michael Naura, Barney Wilen, and the late Swedish singer, Monica Zetterlund.
In spring 1961, Thompson recorded a date with Solal, Peter Trunk (bass) and Kenny Clarke that eventually was released as "Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know" (Candid). The album is another highlight of his recorded output. It included a spoken introduction recorded in 1968 from which the following quote is taken:
"I feel I have only scratched the surface of what I know I am capable of doing."
Then Thompson went back to the US. He recorded a few albums for Prestige and other labels, with sidemen such as Hank Jones, Richard Davis, and Tommy Flanagan, including another one of his finest outings, "Lucky Strikes" (1964). Then in 1965 Thompson seems to have disappeared again, after the death of his wife.
In 1968 he turns up again, living in Lausanne, Switzerland until 1970, and touring Europe. That's the period the recordings offered here are from. In March 1969 he made another album as a leader, featuring René Thomas, the great Belgian guitar player, as well as Fats Sadi, Ingfried Hoffmann, Eberhard Weber and Stu Martin. Thompson appeared with Johnny Griffin, the Danish Radio Big Band, and in 1970 he played on Tete Montoliu's "Soul's Nite Out" (Ensayo).
By 1971, Thompson was back in in the US again, teaching music at Dartmouth University for a short time. In 1972 and 1973, he made his final recordings for Groove Merchant, then Thompson vanished from the scene. It seems he spent several years living on Ontario's Manitoulin Island before relocating to Savannah, GA, trading his saxophones in exchange for dental work. By the early 90's he was in Seattle, mostly living in the woods or in shelter offered by friends. He did not own a saxophone.
After a long period of homelessness Thompson checked into Seattle's Columbia City Assisted Living Center in 1994. He was hospitalized a number of times in 1994, and finally entered the Washington Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation. Thompson remained in assisted care until his death in Seattle, on July 30, 2005.
Discography (by Noal Cohen):
Ben Ratliff: Lucky Thompson, Jazz Saxophonist, Is Dead at 81, www.nytimes.com, August 5, 2005 (link)
Steve Voce: Lucky Thompson, www.independent.co.uk, August 5, 2005 (link)
Jason Ankeny: Lucky Thompson, Biography, www.allmusic.com (link)
Photo: Herman Leonard
Lucky Thompson - 1968/1969 Radio Broadcasts
CD1 / Rotterdam '68 & Rome '69 / 68:02
[A] November 22, 1968 - Rotterdam (NL), B14 Club
Lucky Thompson, soprano sax (#1-4) & tenor sax (#3); Rob Madna, piano; Ruud Jacobs, bass; Eric Ineke, drums
1. On Green Dolphin Street (Bronislau Kaper, Ned Washington) 6:35
2. Street Of Dreams (Victor Young, Sam M. Lewis) 7:02
3. Cherokee (Ray Noble) 8:56
4. unknown (7:20)
TT: 29:54 / Sound: A- / Source: radio broadcast
[B] February 28, 1969 - Rome (Italy)
Lucky Thompson, soprano sax (#1-4) & tenor sax (#4); George Arvanitas, piano; Jacky Samson, bass; Charles Saudrais, drums
1. The World Awakes (Lucky Thompson) 9:14
2. Street of Dreams (Young-Lewis) 8:22
3. Have You Met Miss Jones (Rodgers-Hart) 11:20
4. Cherokee (Ray Noble) 9:09
TT: 38:07 / Sound: B+ / Source: radio broadcast (RAI)
CD2 / Warsaw '69 / 37:17
[C] ca. October 1969 - Warsaw (Poland)
Lucky Thompson, soprano sax (#1,2) & tenor sax (#3,4); Adam Makowicz, piano; Janusz Kozlowski, bass; Anrzej Dabrowski, drums
1. The World Awakes (Lucky Thompson) 9:11
2. Body and Soul (Heyman-Sour-Eyton-Green) 8:44
3. Now's the Time (Charlie Parker) 9:20
4. Cherokee (Ray Noble) 9:57
TT: 37:13 / Sound: A-/B+ / Source: radio broadcast
Note on the Rome session (from http://www.jazzdiscography.com/):
"This a private recording of a radio broadcast on RAI. It appears that recordings of tracks a-d have circulated among collectors with another track, "The Song Is You" included. However, aural evidence clearly indicates that the tenor saxophonist on this additional track is Stan Getz and NOT Lucky Thompson. When and where this live Getz quartet performance was recorded and how it became attached to the 1969 Rome Thompson concert are unanswered questions."
Two items from the Rome broadcast are missing: "Why Weep?" (Thompson) 13:26 and unknown 9:29