Steve Lacy: Conversations

Book Review April 2007

Steve Lacy: Conversations

Edited by Jason Weiss (Duke University Press)

 

I’m always searching for the magic, something different from everything I’ve heard, says avant-garde jazzman Steve Lacy in one of the interviews collected by editor Jason Weiss in Steve Lacy: Conversations. I want to stay alive. It’s the same way in an interview, too, Lacy adds. If it dies, man, we’re all in trouble.

Few musicians few individuals in any field can keep enough magic in interviews to merit a book-length collection, and biography or even memoir are usually better ways to present the story of an artist. But this format seems to work for Lacy, perhaps because the soprano saxophonist and composer, who died in 2004, gave so many thoughtful and articulate interviews.

It also works because his career mirrors the transformation of jazz from popular dance style to art music. Lacy played with such legends as Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman but always went his own way, and through interviews published between 1959 and 2004, we see history unfold, from the early 1950s, when the revolutionary pianist Cecil Taylor plucked Lacy from a Dixieland group, through years of free playing, a return to structure, and multi-media experimentation, to eventual acceptance: he received a MacArthur genius grant in 1997, and returned from Europe in 2002 to a position at the New England Conservatory.

Most likely, though, this book works because Lacy loved language: the driving force behind his compositions was setting texts to music, including work by Samuel Beckett and Robert Duncan as well as Bulgarian and Bengali poets and the Tao Te Ching. His responses appear honest and spontaneous as well as consistent and considered: a combination he was after in music, too.

Like any book about musicians, of course, this collection is enhanced by familiarity with Lacy’s music. Through the lively play of his speech, however, we get an idea how it might sound, and, like listening to the sound of a jazz player, Lacy’s themes gradually becomes familiar. And though he talks mostly about music and the business of making it, he rarely repeats himself, thanks to choices by Weiss, a Lacy confidant and author of The Lights of Home: A Century of Latin American Writers in Paris.

So a discussion of music leads us to the whole world, where the details of craft fade and we’re face to face with an extraordinary person. Not a bad way to tell a life story after all.