Legendary bebop tenor saxophonist Eli "Lucky" Thompson, who scaled the heights of the jazz world, then gave up his instrument altogether...

Share story

Legendary bebop tenor saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson, who scaled the heights of the jazz world, then gave up his instrument altogether, died last Saturday in Seattle. He was 81.

Mr. Thompson performed and recorded with jazz giants including Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

“Lucky Thompson is recognized as one of the great tenor saxophonists in jazz,” said fellow musician John Sanders. “I would say he’s comparable to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Don Byas.” Sanders played trombone in Mr. Thompson’s octet in the early ’50s and later played with Duke Ellington.

In three decades, Mr. Thompson made more than 100 recordings. Some of the standouts include “Lucky Strikes,” released on the Prestige label; “Lucky Thompson Plays Jerome Kern and No More”; and “Tricotism.”

Born June 16, 1924, in Columbia, S.C., Mr. Thompson grew up in Detroit.

A master of improvisation with a unique musical style, Mr. Thompson was also a talented songwriter. He started out as a sideman in various swing bands. A move to New York in 1943 led him to play in Billy Eckstine’s band and the Count Basie Orchestra.

“He was just very exceptional when it came to harmony, plus he had that big, warm tone of the saxophonist of the ’30s and ’40s,” said friend and jazz historian Kenny Washington. “He was so harmonically sophisticated and equipped that when the new music they called be-bop, which was just a little more challenging than the music of the swing era, came along, he was able to fit right in,” Washington said. “Lucky Thompson was able to play in any key, to play fast just like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker — he had it all.”

During the ’40s, Mr. Thompson recorded with Parker and Gillespie in Los Angeles. In the early ’50s, he returned to New York to form his own band.

Sanders recalls the octet’s opening at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and the pleasure of going to work every night. “I can only say that Lucky Thompson was respected and admired not only by jazz and dance ballroom fans but also by the musicians themselves,” he said. “He was a gentleman — he was a professional musician of the first order.”

In 1954, one of Mr. Thompson’s most memorable performances was in a tune called “Walkin'” recorded on Miles Davis’ record of the same name. “The way he starts from nothing and builds a solo from a whisper to a scream, that tenor-saxophone solo was a big influence on a lot of musicians,” Washington said.

The artist moved to Europe twice — once in the late ’50s to early ’60s, when he began to play the soprano saxophone, and again between the late ’60s and early ’70s. He taught at Dartmouth from 1973 to 1974 — and then he was silent.

“He just stopped playing and dropped out of sight,” Washington said. “He was seen in a lot of remote places, and it got to the point that he didn’t really want to be bothered by society.”

Mr. Thompson was the kind of person who didn’t trust a lot of people, Washington said. “He called promoters parasites.”

He saw the producers and record companies as “vultures,” said friend and music aficionado Lola Pedrini. By the time Mr. Thompson arrived in Seattle, he had lost his car and all of his belongings, she said.

Mr. Thompson was homeless, first living in the Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market areas, then spending time in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, Pedrini said. Since August 1994, he resided in Columbia City Assisted Living. In the late ’90s he was moved to the Washington Center for Comprehensive Rehabilitation, where he died.

When Washington first met Mr. Thompson in the early ’90s, the musician “basically just lived off the land.”

Mr. Thompson would walk to Jazz Alley to see old friends like Johnny Griffin and Tommy Flanagan when they came to play. “He was a strong but sensitive cat,” Washington said. “He was like a gentle bear, and society and the music business, it just took him out.”

Mr. Thompson expected excellence from fellow musicians, Pedrini said.

“Members of his band would sit waiting for him to make a mistake when he played. He didn’t make a mistake,” Pedrini said. “But he demanded that from the rest of the musicians that worked with him.”

“He was paranoid,” Pedrini said, “and it wasn’t just something that happened in later life; he was always saying that people were taping him and that mics were hanging down.”

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Thompson became “a hermit,” Pedrini said. “He was a great human being. He was the most cordial, gracious, articulate, intelligent musician. He just had a paranoid part to him that kept him from being like the rest of the musicians in this world.”

Judy Chia Hui Hsu: 206-464-3315 or jhsu@seattletimes.com