Steve Lacy, one of the greatest soprano saxophonists of all time and a New England Conservatory faculty member since fall 2002, died Friday [June 4th, 2004] at New England Baptist Hospital. The jazz master who once defined his profession as “combination orator, singer, dancer, diplomat, poet, dialectician, mathematician, athlete, entertainer, educator, student, comedian, artist, seducer and general all around good fellow” was 69. He leaves his wife and collaborator, the Swiss singer Irene Aebi.
Born Steven Norman Lackritz in New York City, Lacy was the first avant garde jazz musician to make a specialty of the soprano saxophone--an instrument that had become almost completely neglected during the Bop era. Indeed, he is credited with single-handedly bringing the instrument back from obscurity into modern music of all types. He regularly received awards from DownBeat Magazine as the premier soprano saxophonist and in 1992 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. In 2002, he was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. A prolific recording artist, Lacy is represented on many labels including Universal, Senators, RCA, Verve, Label Bleu, Greats of Jazz, EMI, CBS/Columbia, and Denon.
Throughout his career, Lacy was widely admired for the beauty and purity of his tone, for his incisive melodic sense, for keeping his music uncompromising and fresh, and for his eagerness to play with a wide variety of musicians while retaining long-term musical relationships. For example, since 1998, he performed often with Panamanian pianist and NEC faculty member Danilo Perez, but he also played regularly with Mal Waldron, a pianist he had worked with since the fifties. He was esteemed for his productivity, and for the consistently high quality of his art. As a teacher, a role he took on in the last two years of his life, he was revered for his intense focus and generosity.