Accounts of the life of Eli “Lucky” Thompson frequently begin with the observation that no man was ever given a more inappropriate nickname. He played in the shadow of the towering giants of the swing and bop eras, beginning with the unenviable task of succeeding Don Byas as lead tenor sax in the Count Basie Orchestra, then serving as an insurance policy with Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band for those nights when Charlie Parker was (as they used to say euphemistically of refined ladies) indisposed.
Thompson was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1924, and moved to Detroit at an early age. He studied music with Francis Hellstein of the Detroit Symphony, among others, up “to an advanced grade,” in the words of Hugues Panassie and Madeleine Gautier in their Dictionary of Jazz. The first gig that brought him widespread exposure was a tour with the ‘Bama State Collegians, although it appears he was a ringer with this semi-pro student group that was so good it was seamlessly transformed into the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra when the band moved en masse to New York in 1934.
Bassist Leroy Elliot “Slam” Stewart
Thompson worked in New York with Lionel Hampton, Don Redman and Billy Eckstine’s band, and gigged with Lucky Millinder, Slam Stewart and Erroll Garner. He played with Count Basie from 1944 to 1945, then moved to Los Angeles where he became the city’s busiest jazz soloist, heard on records by Dizzy Gillespie and Dinah Washington, among others.
He returned to New York in 1948 and free-lanced for awhile, then had a band of his own that played for two years at the Savoy Ballroom, a dance-oriented club known as “The Home of Happy Feet.” In 1954 he was featured on Miles Davis’ Walkin’ session but, after subbing with Stan Kenton’s band, he moved to France from 1957 to 1962, then again from 1968 to 1971. Like other American jazz expatriates of the time, he found in Europe esthetic appreciation that eluded him in the states, where jazz had yet to shed the stigma of its disreputable birth.
During his second period of exile in Europe Thompson took up the soprano sax shortly before John Coltrane did, becoming the first modern practitioner of that instrument. He took the sound that Sidney Bechet had developed on the instrument and converted it from a streetcar named desire to a smooth-riding sedan; Coltrane turned it into a jet plane.
Thompson seems to have had a difficult and quarrelsome nature that did not endear him to the powers that controlled jazz when it was the nation’s principal popular music; he opens his 1961 Candid release “Lord Am I Ever Gonna Know” with a monologue expressing his personal philosophy, and urging listeners to ignore publicity and follow their individual tastes in deciding whom to follow. Leonard Feather said he was a “greatly frustrated musician” during his time in the U.S.
After returning to the states and teaching at Dartmouth during 1973-74, Thompson dropped out of sight, allegedly exasperated by racist treatment he had received from record labels and jazz clubs. At some point he contracted Alzheimer’s Disease, and little was known of him until his death in Seattle in 2005 at the age of 81.
For a player who seemed to rub others the wrong way, and to take offense at slights that others could ignore, Thompson produced a body of work that is restrained, polished and pleasing. His work is overlooked and difficult to find, but the bad luck now is ours, not his.
Eli “Lucky” Thompson, June 16, 1924-July 30, 2005.
Con Chapman’s biography of Johnny Hodges, “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.