Don Byas and Lucky Thompson

I’ll be playing Benny Golson’s 1962 quartet recording Free in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, a complement to last week’s golden anniversary feature on Benny’s Jazztet partner Art Farmer. Golson always brings Lucky Thompson to mind, and LT conjures Don Byas, who, having come to prominence in the early 40’s, is at the top of this three-tenor lineage. Like Lester Young, the man he succeeded with Count Basie in 1941, Byas was a mature 27-year-old stylist by the time he began appearing on records. His debut with Basie, “Harvard Blues,” contains one of the Swing Era’s greatest solos in the blues idiom.

Don Byas in cap; Dizzy Gillespie at left; Sarah Vaughan, lower right, Paris, late ’40’s.

Like Byas, Thompson had an impressive harmonic command that was fully-formed by the mid-40’s when he was in his early 20’s. Check him out on this 1945 recording of “Cherokee” by George’s Dukes and Duchess.

While both tenors had extensive big band experience and were rhythmically in tune with Swing Era values, they were highly regarded by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Byas was in Dizzy’s groundbreaking bebop band with Oscar Pettiford, George Wallington, and Max Roach at the Onyx Club in 1944; Thompson recorded with Charlie Parker’s Septet in 1946, Thelonious Monk’s Sextet in ’52, and shared the front line with Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s classic recordings of “Walkin’” and “Blue’n’Boogie” in 1954.

Byas may have become a more celebrated figure had he remained in the States, but he joined the band that Don Redman brought to Europe in 1946 and never returned. After living in Paris for many years, he moved to Holland where he married, had a family, and died in 1972 at age 59. He recorded extensively during his first decade in Paris, and sounded great on a session that Cannonball Adderley produced on him and Bud Powell in 1961. But he was apparently embittered by his lack of acclaim, and felt slighted at not having been offered a job by Duke Ellington when Ben Webster left the band in 1943. (In looking over some notes of a conversation I had with Archie Shepp 30 years ago for last week’s blog entry on Archie, I came upon a reference he made to sharing a place with Byas in the late 60’s in Paris, and of a memorable night when the two tenors sat in with the Ellington orchestra on “C-Jam Blues.”)

Lucky Thompson, 1969, Bologna; photo by Roberto Polillo

Perhaps it was his youthful command of sophisticated musical materials that earned Eli “Lucky” Thompson his nickname, but as his career unfolded it proved to be a misnomer. Despite the beauty and brilliance of his style, Thompson enjoyed little commercial success, and he became wary of the music business. As Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary, “Fiercely intelligent, Mr. Thompson was outspoken in his feelings about what he considered the unfair control of the jazz business by record companies, music publishers and booking agents.”

Thompson lived in France between 1956 and ’62, then in Switzerland in the late ‘60’s. In between these European sojourns, he made a couple of outstanding sessions for Prestige, including Lucky Strikes, and Happy Days Are Here Again. He taught at Dartmouth College in the early ‘70’s, but by 1974 he began withdrawing from the music scene and from society at large. When I met Milt Jackson at a Modern Jazz Quartet concert at UMass in 1985, I immediately asked him about Lucky, whom he’d recorded with 30 years earlier for Savoy and Atlantic. Bags referred me to John Lewis, who said that he’d encountered Lucky in Seattle but that he was despondent and no longer interested in playing music. By the time of his death in 2005 at age 81, the Times reported that he’d spent the preceding decades “mostly living in the woods or in shelter offered by friends. He did not own a saxophone. He walked long distances, and was reported to have been in excellent, muscular shape.” The caption in the clip below mentions Alzheimer’s.

In 2009, Uptown Records brought out of pair of dates on Lucky Thompson, New York City, 1964-65, the first a Little Theater concert featuring LT’s compositions and arrangements for an octet; the latter an aircheck from the Half Note with a version of Tadd Dameron’s “Lady Bird” that makes for essential listening. Yesterday I found this footage of Lucky playing “I’ll Remember April,” and noted that it was posted to YouTube a year ago and so far only 586 people have viewed it. Then in the right-hand column I spotted a YouTube of Nina Simone singing “Love Me or Leave Me,” which has been viewed over a million times. Not to take anything away from Nina, who like Lucky was a troubled soul, but the disparity in viewership struck me as consistent with the profoundly unlucky life of Lucky Thompson.



  1. Anonymous says

    Another fine column by Tom Reney on two players that have been largely overlooked by the greater jazz community. I’ve seen Byas’ name mentioned a number of times over the years but I’m not all that familiar with his playing. Lucky Thompson was a terrific tenor player who also was accomplished on soprano. In addition to what is probably his most well known recording “Lucky Strikes” his album on Prestige, “Happy Days” is well done as well. Thompson was yet another in the long line of tragic figures in jazz who never got his due. His career as Tom points never really took off & he became quite bitter and disenchanted with the music business & eventually life in general or so it sounds. Super article with good musical clips & photos. I need to learn more about Byas. Thanks Tom.

    Frank Wilner, Concord, N.H.



  2. Anonymous says

    First, Tom, I’m wondering if you or your readers and listeners have ideas about the rhythm section players on the “I’ll Remember April” YouTube video.  Thanks for the prompt on that remarkable footage.

    Also want to mention that Lucky Thompson became one of my favorite tenor players in the late 50s because of a couple of ABC Paramount LPs–“Lucky Thompson featuring Oscar Pettiford,” volumes I (ABC-111) and II (ABC-171), with detailed, informative notes on the first by Burt Korall, on the second by Nat Hentoff.  I’m looking at both sides as I write–treasured items, believe me. There are quintets and trios on each album–in the quintets Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Oscar Pettiford (bass), and Osie Johnson (drums), with Hank Jones (I) and Don Abney (II)  on piano.   The trios again have OP on bass, with Skeeter Best on guitar (one trio track has Don Abney on piano).  The command and vibrant musicality of Lucky Thompson are evident throughout, not least since 13 of the 16 tracks (eight per album) are Thompson compositions, two others involving shared credits with OP and Abney.  The only non-LT composition is OP’s celebrated “Tricrotism” on Vol. I.  Two wonderful albums, underscoring the deeply poignant later life of Lucky Thompson.

    These albums seem to be available on CD as follows (I don’t own the CD):

    Thanks again, Tom!

    Rick Simpson     Olean, New York


  3. Anonymous says

    Beautiful here on Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, and further thanks, Tom, for the superb column recently on Art Farmer.   Benny Golson’s wonderful remark about Farmer as a ballad player was one I hadn’t heard.  Couldn’t agree more.  Thanks again, Tom.


    Rick Simpson

    Olean, New York 

  4. Tom Reney says

    That rhythm section includes Kenny Clarke, drums, Martial Solal, piano, and that looks like Pierre Michelot on bass.

    I’ve loved those sessions with OP for years, and picked them up on CD when Impulse reissued them in the early ’90’s.  I’ll play a few on Friday, June 15 for Lucky’s birthday anniversary (June 16, 1924).  Tonight I’m playing the glorious “Lady Bird” referred to above.


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