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Bebop tenor and soprano saxophonistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
Lucky Thompson’s nickname may have stuck with him since childhood, but it wasn’t always accurate. The tenor saxophonist’s luck held up at times: when his first saxophone arrived by a quirk of fate, when he replaced Ben Webster in a posh early gig, when he replaced Bird in Dizzy’s band. That luck turned sour when his mom died in his fifth year, when his frustration with the music business drove him from New York to Paris, when he ticked off an influential manager, when his wife died and left him to raise their kids alone, when he found himself homeless and sinking into dementia.
Eli Thompson was born in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16, 1924, but spent most of his childhood in Detroit. After his mother’s passing, the task of raising his siblings while his father worked fell upon Lucky’s shoulders. The nickname allegedly came from the embroidery on a jersey given to young Eli by his father. The boy loved music but had little hope of ever affording an instrument of his own. Nonetheless, he saved up enough errand money to buy a saxophone instruction book. In the absence of a real horn, Thompson carved some lines and key markers into a broom handle and imagined his way through the rudiments of sax fingering patterns and reading music. Legend has it that fate fulfilled Thompson’s destiny when a delivery company erroneously brought a saxophone to the family home along with some furniture.
His destined tool finally in hand, Thompson continued to study music while he finished high school and spent some time working as a barber. When Erskine Hawkins brought the ‘Bama State Collegians to town in the early 1940s, Lucky auditioned for the band and won a chair. He toured with Hawkins until 1943, when he was hired by Lionel Hampton. New York City became his new home, and Thompson loved being in the cauldron of jazz. Although he suffered nagging self-doubt all his life, Thompson’s elegant yet strong style on the saxophone guaranteed that he would make some waves.
Tenorman Ben Webster held a gig at the Three Deuces at the time, and Thompson was asked to sub for the older man one night. Despite his perpetual self-denigration and the pressure of having sax greats like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Webster himself in the audience, Thompson made his name that night and soon found himself working steadily. He performed with bassist Slam Stewart before rejoining Hampton for a tour, then worked in Billy Eckstine’s big band with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and other bastions of the nascent bebop movement. Thompson worked with the envelope-pushing bandleaders Tom Talbert and Boyd Raeburn, spent a year with Count Basie, and another year in the clubs of Los Angeles where he played in the Stars of Swing alongside Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus.
Thompson returned to touring in 1946 when he replaced Parker in Gillespie’s combo, another illustrious move(Groovin’ High, Savoy). The tenorman also took part in Bird’s classic dates for the Dial label before landing a job as bandleader at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. In 1948 he played the Nice Jazz Festival and recorded with Thelonious Monk (Genius of Modern Music) and Miles Davis (Walkin’, Prestige). His first session as a leader did not come until 1953, when he recorded Tricotism with the Lucky Seven.
Vibraphonist Milt Jackson was one of Thompson’s regular employers during the 1950s (Jackson-ville, Skyline, Meet Milt Jackson, all on Savoy), a period when the saxophonist got in trouble for his outspokenness about the music industry’s iniquities. In 1956 he had had enough, and packed his family off to Paris. He toured briefly with Stan Kenton, an unlikely pairing for a black bebop pioneer, and encountered more trouble when Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, had Thompson blacklisted over a stupid personal dispute. Thompson continued to live and play in Paris, working with producer Eddie Barclay into the early 1960s. Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know? (Candid), recorded in Paris with Kenny Clarke and Martial Solal, finds him in excellent form on tenor and soprano saxes, performing his own compositions.
In 1962 Thompson came back to New York, where he signed with Prestige and cut some solid albums (Happy Days Are Here Again; Plays Jerome Kern and No More; Lucky Strikes) in the company of friends like pianists Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay. Not long after his return, Thompson’s wife died and the ghosts of his former business disputes reemerged. He lived for a time in Lausanne, Switzerland, but returned to the U.S. in the early 70s to teach music at Dartmouth. His last recordings were Goodbye Yesterday (1972) and I Offer You (1973), made for the Groove Merchant label. From that point he descended slowly into despair, homelessness and dementia. Thompson lived for a while on a Canadian island, moved down to Savannah, Georgia, and eventually found himself on the streets of Seattle. Several musicians over the years reported finding a dissolute, half-coherent Thompson wandering the city. He finally found a place at the Columbia City Assisted Living Center, where he lived from 1994 until his death.
After a rollercoaster lifetime, Eli “Lucky” Thompson died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease on July 30, 2005, at the age of 81. Survivors include his son, Darryl.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.