Spring wafted through the warm Santa Cruz, Calif., night air as soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd took the stage at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on March 17, bowed slightly to each other like two Zen sages and tore into a heated version of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy."
Spring, after all, is the season of rebirth, and after almost four decades, Lacy and Rudd have recreated their legendary Monk repertory band School Days with bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch, both longtime associates of the Paris-based Lacy. The club was filled with an appreciative crowd, which is not, as Lacy recalled, the kind of reception the two leaders were used to in their '60s incarnation.
"We scouted all over Greenwich Village and found places that were willing to let us play left to our own devices doing our own publicity, collecting money at the door, maybe giving them a percentage," he said. "Some nights we made five dollars, some nights we made twenty dollars and some we made nothing."
Times change. Now Lacy and Rudd have a new release on Verve, Monk's Dream, and have completed a tour of major jazz venues across the country. Lacy will return to the states next month to perform with another longstanding collaborator, pianist Mal Waldron, as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center's duet series on May 6 and 7. The two will also play June 2025 at New York's Iridium.
Monk's Dream, which features the title tune (RealAudio excerpt) and "Pannonica," both by Monk, as well as Lacy originals, is the saxophonist's first major-label release in almost a decade, and Rudd's in a quarter century.
Back From Obscurity
A giant of the '60s avant-garde, Rudd had virtually disappeared into academia and obscure dance bands until he resurfaced a few years ago with tenor saxophonist John Tchicai's New York Art Quartet, another barely recorded '60s band that reunited decades after it made its mark.
At 64, the trombonist is still one of the most distinctive players on the scene, with an idiosyncratic bluesy style that combines an expressive vocabulary of honks, buzzes and cries with a lumpy, burbling melodicism.
Lacy, 65, is the man who decades ago resurrected the soprano sax and inspired John Coltrane to pick up that instrument. Like Rudd, he's been scarce on the U.S. jazz scene for decades, but for different reasons. He moved permanently to Europe in 1967 and after three years in Italy settled in Paris.
An amazingly prolific composer, Lacy has created an incredible array of works, from improvised solo recitals to intricate composed pieces for modern dance companies, poets and his own small group. He often collaborates with his wife, Swiss vocalist Irene Aebi, who sings on two tracks of Monk's Dream.
One of the greatest Monk interpreters, he recorded the first album of all-Monk covers in 1958, Reflections, on Prestige's New Jazz label. In the summer of 1960 he spent a galvanizing three months with the pianist at the Five Spot, with bassist John Ore and drummer Roy Haynes.
Recognizing A Neglected Genius
Speaking by phone from Paris, Lacy recalled the Monk dates: "There was never any rehearsal really, we just hit. Some times after the gig we'd have a little run through of certain tunes. He'd play them over and over until we got them, but he would never show us paper. He wanted us to learn it by rote. He didn't trust the paper."
While by the late '50s Monk was starting to gain recognition as one of the great exponents of the bebop revolution, his music went largely unplayed by other musicians except for a few signature tunes such as "'Round Midnight," "Well You Needn't," "Blue Monk" and "Straight No Chaser."
Lacy and Rudd decided to rectify the situation in 1961 by forming the School Days quartet, a band dedicated exclusively to Monk's music. It was a radical concept that treated jazz composition with the same repertoire sensibility that orchestras brought to the performance of European classical music.
"We thought there was so much neglected material in the history of jazz," Lacy said. "We wanted to deal with jazz repertory as a serious language. People thought we were crazy to think in those terms, and of course record companies, producers and impresarios wouldn't give us the time of day. The concept at that time was too far out."
The concept was so far out that during the band's three years it never played a major club or completed an album, though in 1975 Emanem records released "School Days," an LP of a privately taped live performance from 1963, later reissued on CD by Hat Art.
The School Days group usually featured drummer Dennis Charles or Billy Higgins, but money was so tight the band couldn't keep a regular bassist. With virtually no interest from established jazz clubs, they adopted guerrilla tactics, hustling gigs in cafes, coffee shops, ethnic restaurants, and other unlikely venues.
"They wouldn't give us any work so we invented our own work," Lacy said. "What we desired was to be working on some music every night. Not just Saturday or Friday. Every day. Otherwise you don't get anywhere with music."
While both men were associated with the traditional jazz scene early in their careers, they later embraced neglected figures such as Monk and pianists Herbie Nichols and Cecil Taylor. From them they learned vital lessons about the need for perseverance and the price artists pay for being ahead of the curve.
"It took Cecil about 20 years to go from the hall of shame to the hall of fame," Lacy said. "That was an education, to see the courage with which he affronted the powers that be and really just went his own way. Finally people realized that the guy was great. Herbie Nichols didn't live long enough to see that happen to him."
Lacy and Rudd have both survived, and Monk's Dream is the document of visionary improvisers with countless stories to tell.