June 16, 2010

Not So Lucky at Life

Saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson was born on this date in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1924, and spent his formative years in Detroit. He played tenor in the swing orchestras of Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Billy Eckstine in the mid-1940s. Thompson’s main influences were Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Don Byas. He was also the sax player that Dizzy Gillespie hired at this time to substitute for Charlie Parker, who was an erratic presence due to his drug problems (Parker set fire to his hotel bed one night in 1946 and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for six months). Lucky participated in Parker’s famous Dial sessions from this time.
     In the 1950s, Thompson evolved a more hard bop style and recorded with the likes of Miles Davis (Walkin’), Milt Jackson, and Oscar Pettiford. He recorded his first session as a leader as well, Brown Rose (Xanadu Records). This was also when Thompson began to grow increasingly disenchanted with the business side of music. “Vultures” is what he called club managers and record company executives, who he felt were exploiting the musicians. While many other successful musicians managed to thrive in the music business, Thompson seemed unable to abide it. He was also affected by the racism he encountered while working in the U.S.
New York City, 1964-65     He was an expatriate for long periods in his life - France in the late Fifties and he moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, in the mid-1960s. He recorded several terrific albums there, including the aptly titled A Lucky Songbook in Europe. Other memorable sessions from this time include Lucky Strikes (1964) and Happy Days (1965). After the release of the former album, Thompson did some live dates at New York’s Half Note and Little Theatre, and these recordings, which show him at the top of his game, were just released last year on New York City 1964-65 (Uptown Jazz, 2009).
     He returned to the U.S. in the early 1970s and taught at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, for a couple of years and also did his last recordings. But his distrust of the music business lingered and he abandoned performing completely and vanished. He apparently drifted around the U.S. and Canada, sometimes homeless, even apparently living in the Canadian wilderness for a time, growing his own food. Thompson eventually settled in Seattle, but suffered with Alzheimer’s dementia for years preceding his death in 2005.
     As his life went on, Lucky's nickname became increasingly ironic. While his difficulty with the music business was something he clearly paid a high price for, and may have made him a relatively obscure jazz exile, Lucky Thompson's recorded legacy is worth seeking out.


  1. I had a bookstore in Seattle during the years of Thompson's "residency," if you can call it that--"indifferent presence" might be more accurate. One Jazz fan friend told me he heard/recognized Lucky playing on the streets for whatever coins were tossed in the can. Another actually worked in the home for destitute and ill that Thompson sadly wound up in near the end. My friend said he wouldn't speak, to anyone; whatever his griefs with the white world, by then he was rejecting all contact with black people too. Certainly one of the major ironies in Jazz that this guy's nickname should be "Lucky"--as though a challenge to the Fates that he lost--even if most of his problems were probably inside himself. (I wrote a brief, sort of related blog post a couple of days ago; see it at www.mrebks.blogspot.com if interested.)

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