Lacy is one of the great jazz innovators of the last half-century. He was the first modern exponent of the now-ubiquitous soprano saxophone, and one of the earliest and most effective champions of the music of Thelonious Monk. His playing is utterly distinctive, with a full, rounded sound and an endlessly inventive approach. He often appears in solo settings, high-wire performances that command attention with riveting improvisations created spontaneously from the structures of the composed themes.
His expressive genius on the instrument is credited with enticing John Coltrane to start playing soprano sax and ultimately making it one of the most popular instruments in the genre.
"I don't really know what I am going to do in Richmond," Lacy says. "I usually play one or two sets of about 40 minutes each, dividing the compositions between some of Monk's and some of my own."
Lacy first gained fame while playing in Cecil Taylor's breakthrough quartet. "New York in the '50s was sort of a golden age to me, not only music but also painting, writing, movies, dance were really happening," he recalls. "Of course people older than me said that the real golden age was earlier. That's always the way, since the Garden of Eden, the best time was the one you just missed."
It was then that Lacy got his life-changing exposure to iconoclastic pianist Thelonious Monk. "I went to hear Monk when he was playing in a small nightclub with Ernie Henry, Wilbur Ware, and Shadow Wilson," Lacy says. "His music was beautiful, precise, swinging and fresh. I immediately started collecting any of his records I could find and learning all the pieces on soprano."
Monk's idiosyncratic music was a natural match for Lacy's then-unusual instrument. "It was a nice surprise how well Monk's music fit on the soprano. The right-hand parts on piano were exactly the right range. And I had the field to myself. No one else was playing soprano sax, and no one else was playing Monk.
"I made the first all-Monk record ever made ["Reflections" in 1958]," Lacy says. "He was aware of it and approved. Two years later, he hired me and his quartet became a quintet. We played for six weeks in a club and doubled at the Apollo. I also played in the big band recorded at Philharmonic Hall."
Since then, Lacy has earned a reputation both as a premiere Monk interpreter and as a composer in his own right. He married singer Irene Aebi and moved to Europe in the late '60s. "We've worked on a lot of things together, operas, cantatas." In an upcoming project they've set a collection of '50s beat poems, by the likes of Burroughs and Keroac, to music.
As for the Richmond performance, the event's organizer, VCU Director of Jazz Studies Antonio Garcia says: "He can play as long as he wants, however he wants." It was Garcia who set up Lacy's appearance, although he credits the rest of the program to sponsor Bill Singleton.
"He handpicked almost everyone on the program," says Garcia. "He is a big fan of Bob Hallihan and company, as well as Rene Marie and Tom Saunders, and the Wild Bill Davidson Legacy Band. He produced Jimmy Black and Steve Bassett's CD."
The lineup, including event speakers, the VCU Jazz Band and a promised program-ending jam session will result in an expansive night of music. "It may be over by 11, but it could go longer," Garcia says. "That's OK, Singleton is underwriting the entire cost, and he wanted the evening to stretch out."
With the participation of master musician Lacy, as well as the appearance of local favorites, the program is intended to launch a new musical era for VCU and Richmond. (In an appropriate coincidence it leads into two unrelated area concerts in little more than a week; the Carpenter Center hosts an all-star Dizzy Gillespie concert on the 30th, and a joint appearance by Mose Allison and Leon Redbone Nov. 4.)
"This kind of event spurs everyone to perform at a high level," Garcia says. "Students will be feeling the electricity for some time." S
The "W.E. Singleton Performing Arts Center" Naming Celebration takes place Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall within the Singleton Center, VCU. Admission is free. The minifestival features performances by guest artists Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone), René Marie (vocals), Joe Kennedy Jr. (violin), The Jimmy Black Trio featuring vocalist Steve Bassett, The Wild Bill Davison Legacy Band (New Orleans Jazz), the VCU Jazz Orchestra I (Antonio Garcia, director), faculty Skip Gailes (saxophone), Antonio Garcia (trombone), Bob Hallahan (piano), Victor Dvoskin (bass), Howard Curtis (drums).
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