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.