Lucky Thompson, Jazz Saxophonist, Is Dead at 81
Lucky Thompson, a legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist who took his place among the elite improvisers of jazz from the 1940's to the 1960's and then quit music, roamed the country and ended up homeless or hospitalized for more than a decade, died on Saturday in Seattle. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by his son, Daryl Thompson; the cause was not announced. Mr. Thompson was living in an assisted-care facility at the Washington Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation in Seattle.
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. He also played the soprano saxophone authoritatively.
Lucky had that same thing that Paul Gonsalves had, that melodic smoothness," one of his contemporaries, the saxophonist Johnny Griffin, said in an interview. 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."
Mr. Thompson was born Eli Thompson in Columbia, S.C., on June 16, 1924, and moved to Detroit with his family as a child. After graduating from high school in 1942, he played with Erskine Hawkins's band, then called the 'Bama State Collegians; the next year he moved to New York as a member of Lionel Hampton's big band.
After six months with Hampton, while still very young, he swiftly ascended the ranks of hip. He played in Billy Eckstine's short-lived big band, one of the first to play bebop, which also included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1944.
In 1945 he left Basie in Los Angeles, and in 1945 and 1946 he played on, and probably created arrangements for, record dates for the Exclusive label, including those by the black cowboy star and former Ellington singer Herb Jeffries. When the Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie sextet came through Los Angeles, Mr. Thompson was hired by Gillespie as a temporary replacement for Parker. Mr. Thompson was also on one of Parker's most celebrated recording sessions, for Dial Records on March 28, 1946.
Fiercely intelligent, Mr. Thompson was outspoken in his feelings about what he considered the unfair control of the jazz business by record companies, music publishers and booking agents. Partly for these reasons, he left the United States to live in Paris from 1957 to 1962, making a number of recordings with groups including the pianist Martial Solal. After returning to New York for a few years, he lived in Lausanne, Switzerland, from late 1968 to 1970. He came back to New York again, taught at Dartmouth in 1973 and 1974, then disappeared from the Northeast, and soon from music entirely.
Friends say he lived for a time on Manitoulin Island in Ontario and in Georgia before eventually moving west. 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. He walked long distances, and was reported to have been in excellent, muscular shape.
He was hospitalized a number of times in 1994, and finally entered the Washington Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation.
His skepticism about the jazz business may have kept him from a career recording as a bandleader - Tricotism," from 1956, and Lucky Strikes," from 1964, are among the few albums he made under his own name - but he left behind a pile of imposing performances as a sideman. Among them are recordings with Dinah Washington in 1945, Thelonious Monk in 1952, Miles Davis in 1954 (the Walkin' session, a watershed in Davis's career), and Oscar Pettiford and Stan Kenton in 1956. His final recordings were made in 1973.
In addition to his son, Daryl, of Stone Mountain, Ga., Mr. Thompson is survived by a daughter, Jade Thompson-Fredericks of New Jersey; and two grandchildren.
Part of Mr. Thompson's legend came from the fact that he was rarely seen in public; at times it was hard for his old friends to find him. But the drummer Kenny Washington remembered Mr. Thompson's showing up when Mr. Washington was performing with Johnny Griffin's group at Jazz Alley in Seattle in 1993. Mr. Thompson listened, conversed with the musicians, and then departed on foot for the place where he was staying - in a wooded spot in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, more than three miles away.