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Houston trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy still a messenger for jazz

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 10/16/2020 By Andrew Dansby, Staff writer
a person holding a microphone: Frank Lacy, Houston native and a legendary jazz trombonist who was music director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and a member of the Mingus Big Band. © Courtesy Photo / Courtesy Photo

Frank Lacy, Houston native and a legendary jazz trombonist who was music director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and a member of the Mingus Big Band.

Ku-umba Frank Lacy stands at an interesting point in jazz’s long and growing history. At 62, he is young enough to have learned his trade from such storied mentors as the legendary Art Blakey, who once employed the trombonist as one of his Jazz Messengers. Lacy has also cut a distinctive career over the past 40-plus years and is regarded by younger players with a reverence befitting a storied figure himself.

The Houston native will lead a group dubbed Bu’s Messengers at the festival’s “Message From Bu,” Blakey’s nickname, for a show marking what would have been the drummer and bandleader’s 101st birthday.

“One thing Blakey always did was bring up youngsters,” says Joe Peine with the Houston Jazz Collective, which founded the Houston Jazz Festival. “Frank has done the same thing. He’s taken a lot of young players under his wing.”

Lacy is a fascinating fount of energy, particularly when discussing his life and career. He frequently caps a long bit of discourse with a “this discussion just got very metaphysical.”

“I’m interested in that primordial creative spark,” he says. “I think for many players, it’s something they’re born with. Others, it’s from studying. But those that study, that’s why I’m so gung-ho about this project. It’s in keeping with the tradition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This feels like a 360-degree thing to me. Artists learning to create something. Sorry, this discussion got very metaphysical.”

Shelley Carrol, the great saxophonist from Houston who is also on the festival bill , pipes up: “It’s a classic question: Is it the way we grew up? Or is it who we are? Or is it both?”

‘Music picked me’

Lacy grew up immersed in it. His mother was a singer and his father was an educator who played guitar. He’d often accompany noted saxophonists with Houston ties: Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Lacy recalls all sorts of touring musicians stopping by to play.

“I remember Wes Montgomery came to the crib and played,” he says. “I remember everybody talking about a new young guitarist — they were talking about George Benson before he made it big.”

Lacy started piano around age eight. He picked up the tuba, the euphonium and the trombone at Forest Brook High School. An early hero was Wayne Henderson, trombonist in the Jazz Crusaders. Lacy recalls Forest Brook winning first place in a competition against Conrad Johnson’s storied Kashmere Stage Band in 1976. Lacy went to Texas Southern University, but not to study music. Rather he graduated with a degree in physics. But music continued whispering to him.

“It’s what I mean about the primordial ooze,” he says. “Music picked me. I knew there was talent there. I knew my father had it. But I don’t know what else there is to say about it. It just happened. Music picked me.”

He studied at the Berklee College of Music and later settled in New York.

Lacy quickly found footing with some of the most innovative players in New York at the time, adding trombone on landmark recordings by David Murray, Henry Threadgill and Lester Bowie. He also “went to school,” his description for his tenure in Blakey’s band, a short period that left a lasting impression.

There is no clear delineation between Lacy’s time as a student and as a mentor. His list of credits over the past 40 years is long and varied. He played trombone with elders like McCoy Tyner and those younger than him, like Roy Hargrove. He’d play with artists outside of jazz, taking sessions with Erykah Badu and Elvis Costello. He’s had a decades-spanning tenure in the Mingus Big Band. Three years ago he played on the debut album by singer, Texas native and rising star Jazzmeia Horn.

Lacy has also made several albums as the session leader including “Mingus Sings” in 2015, an album that was a revelation to those who hadn’t heard Lacy sing with the Mingus Big Band. His pool of talents runs deep.

He spends his days playing and composing. “I’ll never stop writing,” he says. “But I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about retiring. Do like Sonny Rollins and hang it up with playing. I think about retiring some . . .”

He laughs and finishes the thought, “. . . maybe in 20, 25 years.”

No live audience

His more immediate future involves prepping for “Message From Bu.” Lacy will be joined by an incredible band of fellow graduates of Blakey’s university: saxophonist Bobby Watson, trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, pianist Michael Palma and bassist Curtis Lundy.

Also on the bill will be Carrol-Simmons-Sparks, a Texas-based ensemble with Carrol on saxophone, keyboardist Bobby Sparks and drummer Mark Simmons, joined by bassist Jay McK. Both Carrol, who spent years performing in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Simmons, who drummed for Al Jarreau, are graduates of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

The festival will take place at Miller Outdoor Theatre as a proper show right down to set design by Jesse Lott. But this year’s festival won’t enjoy a live audience at the theater. Miller’s website will livestream the event, which is also being picked up by NPR’s “Live Sessions.”

So this metaphysical gathering will be virtual.

But Carrol credits Peine for “putting this together and then putting it back together after dates had to change. It’s a stressful thing. But he stayed in the fight to make it happen. It’s nice to be around people who love the music that much.”

And Lacy says Blakey’s students can provide some respite from fraught times, as Blakey did himself.

“He was like a jazz preacher, he might as well have been in some type of religious garb. He would pontificate on the bandstand.”

At this point, Lacy’s voice lowers into an almost cartoonish growl: “Blakey used to say every night, that music washed away the dust of everyday life.”

andrew.dansby@chron.com

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