Friday, November 18, 2011

Eli “Lucky” Thompson

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Lucky Thompson was a vastly under-acclaimed tenor saxophonist.”
- Doug Ramsey

Eli “Lucky” Thompson was born on June 16, 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina, but grew up in Detroit. From a very young age, Lucky was obsessed by music and long before he owned a horn, he studied instruction books and practiced finger exercises on a broomstick marked with saxophone key patterns. When he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 25, he practiced eight hours a day and within a month he played professionally with neighborhood bands.”
- Joop Visser

“… it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.”
- Bob Porter

"Like Don Byas, whom he most resembles in tone and in his development of solos, he has a slightly oblique and uneasy stance on bop, cleaving to a kind of accelerated swing idiom with a distinctive 'snap' to his softly enunciated phrases and an advanced harmonic language that occasionally moves into areas of surprising freedom."
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“There is the history of the saxophone in Lucky Thompson’s music.”
- David Himmelstein

“Music is the most interesting thing in the world.”
- Lucky Thompson

“You know I lost my interest in music. I had to run from place to place at the mercy of people who manipulated me. I never rejected music; it constitutes a great part of my soul.”
- Lucky Thompson to Mike Hennessey in MusicItalia interview

“Thompson's disappearance from the jazz scene in the 1970's was only the latest (but apparently the last) of a strangely contoured career. A highly philosophical, almost mystical man, he reacted against the values of the music industry and in the end turned his back on it without seeming regret. The beginning was garlanded with promise.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.


I lived and worked in Seattle, WA for a while.

Given the city’s notorious commuter traffic, fortunately for me, it was easy to access my office at the downtown corner of Fourth and Pike Streets as it was a clear shot into town on the Aurora Highway [Hwy 99] from my home in the Green Lake area of the city.

It was a point in my work-life that often found me toiling late at the office.

Because of the manner in which one-way streets configured downtown traffic, I often exited the city along Second Street which is also the home of Tula’s, a great Jazz club that primarily features the work of local Jazz artists.

One rainy night - now there’s a surprise in Seattle! - I had worked so late that I decided to catch a set at the club and treat myself to a dinner of its excellent dolmathes and souvlaki before going home.

Jay Thomas, who plays both superb trumpet and tenor saxophone, was Tula’s headliner.

Besides the great music and tasty Greek food, I also met up that night with a couple of Jazz buddies who lived in the nearby Belltown part of the city [a downtown waterfront neighborhood that overlooks a portion of Elliott Bay].

We shared a bottle of red plunk while thoroughly enjoying the music on offer by Jay’s quartet.

All of us still smoked during those days and, as a result of the club’s ban on partaking of lit nicotine within the walls of its premises, we found ourselves merrily chatting and puffing away outside the club’s entrance during the first intermission.

Thankfully the rain had abated, or a least scaled down to a soft drizzle. While the three of us were standing and smoking by the curbside, we were approached by a street person who asked if he could bum a smoke.

After we obliged him and he had continued on his way, one of my friends asked me if I’d recognized the damp denizen of the night?

I thought I was making a wisecrack when I answered that “… he looked vaguely familiar.” “He should,” remarked one of my friends: “That was Lucky Thompson!”

Obviously, my Belltown buddies had met him before, under similar circumstances.

All of us became very subdued after Lucky left.

Each quietly puffed their cigarette which gave us time to adjust to the sense of sadness that had come over us following the sight we had just witnessed.

Needless to say, the evening wasn’t the same after that; no more frivolity and jocularity, only a deep and abiding hurt.


When I returned home with that chance meeting still on my mind, it occurred to that while I had heard Lucky’s tenor saxophone sound with Count Basie’s band [my Dad had some V-Discs by the band with Lucky], on Miles Davis’ famous Walkin’ LP and as part of Stan Kenton’s sterling Cuban Fire album [his solo beginning at around the 4:00 minute mark of the opening track – Fuego Cubano - always touches my heart], most of his recorded music had passed-me-by.

For whatever reasons, I had missed much of Lucky’s discography when he was a force on the Jazz scene, primarily from 1945-1965.

The following day, I decided to put that omission right and I began seeking out Lucky’s recordings which, to my surprise were plentiful, and still readily available.

As is often the case with chance meetings, it was the beginning of a love affair as Lucky’s music was engaging, full of marvelous twists and turns, and alive with an almost effortless swing.

Although it is a later recording in the Thompson canon, one of my first purchases of Lucky’s music under his own name was Tricotism [Impulse/GRP GRD-135].

The insert notes to this CD are by Bob Porter and they contained the following overview and commentary of Thompson’s career which was very helpful to me as a guide for further purchases of Lucky’s music.

If you are like me and not a member of the Lucky cognoscenti, perhaps it can serve a similar purpose for you.

“The career of Eli Thompson (6/16/24), musician, is one of the most enigmatic in all jazz. It is an odyssey involving four cities, two instruments, big bands, small bands, popularity, poverty, stylistic changes, associations with major names, (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton), and long peri­ods of inactivity.

Detroit is his home town. A grad­uate of Cass Tech, Lucky was among a number of remarkably talented saxophonists who were active in the Motor City during the early '40s. Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards, Yusef Lateef, and Sonny Stitt would lead the list and it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.


Lucky entered the ranks of pro­fessional musicians when he left Detroit with the Treniers in 1943. An unhappy six months with Lionel Hampton followed, ending in New York. Shortly thereafter Lucky went into the brand new Billy Eckstine Band. The Eckstine association was brief, and Lucky first began to achieve prominence during his year with Count Basic. The war-time Basic band was a fine organization, and Lucky had considerable solo space. The V-Disc of "High Tide" is especially impressive.

Lucky left Basic in late 1945, set­tling in Los Angeles. One of his first gigs in L. A. was as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Rebop Six. Actually he was the odd man out in a group that featured Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Stan Levey, and the leader. Lucky was hired because of the erratic habits of the co-star, Charlie Parker. Yet that engagement acted as a springboard for Lucky.

During 1946 and '47 Lucky was the most requested tenorman in the L. A. area. He worked frequently with Boyd Raeburn, but he also made over 100 recordings as a sideman during those years. He had recorded for Excelsior and Down Beat and in 1947 he made four famous sides for RCA, including his masterpiece "Just One More Chance." He won the Esquire New Star award in 1947. In 1948 Lucky migrated across coun­try. New York would be his home for the next eight years.
Lucky worked frequently at the Savoy Ballroom during the early '50s, but the recording slows had set in.

A couple of obscure small label ses­sions were Lucky's only recordings from 1947 to late 1953, when he did a date for Decca. Two dates in 1954 under his own name presaged anoth­er masterpiece: his "Walkin"' solo with Miles Davis.

During the 1950s Lucky was a close associate of light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore. Moore liked to warm up and work out while Lucky and company pro­vided the music.

Lucky and Milt Jackson have been close associates since their days in Detroit. In 1956, just prior to the recording of the music heard on this CD, Jackson and Thompson record­ed five LPs together, under Milt's name for Savoy and Atlantic.
I suspect that it was no accident that the trio session here included no drummer. If there has been one aspect of Lucky's playing that has been criticized through the years it is his relationship with drummers. The hard swinging sessions of the 1940s and early '50s were giving way to an almost ascetic rhythmic approach. I also suspect that some critics, in writing about the Jimmy Giuffre Three, (which had the iden­tical instrumentation as Lucky's group), may have forgotten these per­formances, which predated Giuffre by 10 months.


Paris in the spring of 1956 was, for Lucky, a period of tremendous activ­ity. He recorded five LPs for various French labels. Also while in France, he sat in with Stan Ken ton. This led to Lucky's participation in one of the most famous Kenton LPs of the' 50s, Cuban Fire. Before returning to France for an extended stay, Lucky worked again with Oscar Pettiford and recorded with him.

Lucky was the first major jazzman since Sidney Bechet to adopt the soprano saxophone. He predated John Coltrane by at least 18 months; but Lucky has never been given any credit for ushering the return to popularity of the straight saxophone. In the mid-'60s Lucky returned to the U.S.A., recording for Prestige and Rivoli. He had been back and forth to Europe several times since and did several interesting LPs for Groove Merchant in the early '70s. He also taught at Dartmouth for a year[1973-74].

When Will Powers interviewed him for Different Drummer, Lucky was completing his academic work and thinking of a new city. This time it might be Toronto or Montreal. Always the drifter, ever the search.

It is not my opinion, but consen­sus, that says the music on these LPs is the finest extended playing that Lucky Thompson has produced on record. As noted earlier, the sessions came at a period where Lucky had been recording frequently. He and Pettiford were a mutual admiration society and the rapport, even inti­macy, they achieve in the trio tracks is nothing short of remarkable.

This is not to take anything away from the quintet sides where Jimmy Cleveland shines so brightly. The presence of Hank Jones reunites a close partnership dating to Detroit days. Yet it is Lucky, with the warmth, the inner feeling, the depth, the mastery that permeates every groove on these LPs.

That this music is able to appear again after years of neglect is cause for celebration. Let's hope that this release is able to shed new light on the talent of Lucky Thompson.”

—Bob Porter, Contributor—Radio Free Jazz1975 (original edited liner notes from Dancing Sunbeam, Imp ASH-9307-2)

A few years after this meeting, I learned that Lucky had passed away in Seattle in 2005.

With everything he had gone through, including apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease during the later years of his life, somehow he had luckily [?] managed to live to be 81-years of age.

Here’s a video tribute to Lucky that features him at his beautiful, breathy and majestic sounding best.

The tune is A Lady’s Vanity on which he is accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. It’s from the Tricotism CD.

And if you are looking for a comprehensive discography of Lucky’s recordings, you can’t do better than the one that Noal Cohen has compiled.