Born: December 1, 1933 | Died: May 19, 1986 Primary Instrument: Sax, alto
Imagine what Sonny Stitt might have sounded like had he embraced free jazz after mastering bebop, and one can probably conjure a pretty good mental impression of Jimmy Lyons. Like Stitt, Lyons was enamoured of Charlie Parker's style, particularly in terms of phrasing. Lyons' slippery, bop-derived rhythms and melodic contours lent his improvisations a Charlie Bird Parker-like cast, even as his performance contexts were more harmonically free. Lyons made his reputation playing with pianist Cecil Taylor, with whom he became inextricably linked. He was a near-constant presence in Taylor's bands from 1960 until the saxophonist's death in 1986. Lyons always lent an explicitly swinging element to the pianist's music, helping remind the listener most emphatically that regardless of how much Taylor may have been influenced by European art music this was unquestionably jazz.
A teenaged Lyons was given an alto sax by the clarinetist Buster Bailey, an important member of Fletcher Henderson's band in the '20s and '30s. Lyons studied with veteran big band saxophonist Rudy Rutherford, and at a young age made friends with such jazz luminaries as Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk. Lyons came into his own as a professional upon his association with Taylor in 1960. With Taylor, Lyons recorded a number of landmark albums, including Cecil Taylor Live at Café Montmartre (1962), in a trio with drummer Sunny Murray; and Unit Structures (1966), in a larger band who included, significantly, drummer Andrew Cyrille. Lyons took his own bands into the studio infrequently. In 1969, he led his first session, an album entitled Other Afternoons, which was issued on the now-defunct BYG label. Beginning in 1978, he began leading record dates more often. In the years to come he would release several albums on the Hat Hut and Black Saint labels.
Like many jazz musicians, Lyons was compelled by circumstance to augment his performance income by teaching. In 1970-1971 he taught music at Narcotic Addiction Control, a drug treatment center in New York City. From 1971-1973 he served with Taylor and Cyrille as the artist in residence at Antioch College, and in 1975 he directed the Black Music Ensemble at Bennington College. Perhaps Lyons' stature as a musician is best illustrated by the fact that Taylor essentially found him irreplaceable. After Lyons, Taylor never established a similar long-standing relationship with another musician. Jimmy Lyons' premature death at the age of 52 robbed Taylor and avant-garde jazz in general of a vital, swinging, eminently creative voice.