Born: June 16, 1924 | Died: July 30, 2005 Primary Instrument: Saxophone
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. Lucky Thompson connected the swing era to the more cerebral and complex bebop style. His sophisticated, harmonically abstract approach to the tenor saxophone endeared him to the beboppers, but he was also a beautiful balladeer.
Thompson was born in Columbia, South Carolina, but grew up on Detroit's East Side. He saved to buy a saxophone study book, practicing on a simulated instrument carved from a broomstick. He finally acquired a saxophone when he was 15, practiced eight hours a day and, within a month, was playing around town, most notably with the King's Aces big band, among who was vibraphonist Milt Jackson, later a frequent associate. Thompson left Cass high school early to join ex-Lunceford altoist Ted Buckner at Club 666, a top spot in the black section of Detroit.
He left the city in August 1943 with Lionel Hampton's orchestra, touring for four months before settling in New York. He was soon playing for exacting bandleaders such as Don Redman and Lucky Millinder, performing on 52nd street with drummer Big Sid Catlett, and making his recording debut in March 1944 with trumpeter Hot Lips Page.
After a run with Billy Eckstine's big band, then a hotbed of modernism, Thompson spent a fruitful year with the Count Basie orchestra. By October 1945, he was in Los Angeles, and stayed for two years, taking on the mantle of local hero and participating in more than 100 recording sessions, with everyone from Dinah Washington to Boyd Raeburn. When Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker made their legendary visit to Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles, Thompson was retained to cover for the errant Parker. Lucky played on one of Parker's most celebrated recording sessions, for Dial Records on March 28, 1946.
Back in New York by 1948, Thompson began a period of varied activity, fronting groups at the Savoy Ballroom, appearing at the Nice festival, recording with Thelonious Monk and playing on the heralded Miles Davis album, “Walkin'.” In 1956, he toured Europe with Stan Kenton, then chose to live abroad for extended periods, from 1957 to 1962, making a number of recordings with groups while overseas.
His skepticism about the jazz business may have kept him from a broader career recording as a bandleader; but there was “Tricotism,” from 1953, with the Lucky Seven. Then in 1962 Thompson came back to New York, where he signed with Prestige and recorded the sessions for albums “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Plays Jerome Kern and No More,” and “Lucky Strikes,” from 1964, thought to be his highlight album. He did other sides for various labels as in the ’65 joining with Tommy Flanagan “Lucky Meets Tommy.” His last recordings were “Goodbye Yesterday,” (1972) and “I Offer You,” (1973), made for the Groove Merchant label.
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.
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 was hospitalized a number of times in 1994, and finally entered an Assisted Living Center, where he lived from 1994 until his death in July 2005.
Source: James Nadal