Lucky ThompsonLucky Thompson:
Full Interview

Recorded 3/05. Please be patient as media loads.

Alex: So we just wanted to kind of listen to your experiences. And your personal kind of take on the uhhh scene as its has developed in the last, well throughout your uhh lifetime, basically.

Lucky: Okay.

Alex: So I guess uhh, the first question is how did you start out as a musician?

Lucky: All right, I started playing when I was umm actually five. I started playing professionally when I turned eight years old. I was born and raised in South Philadelphia. So I am a native Philadelphian.

Laughter from Alex, Jacquelyn, and Remmie.

Lucky: And I started playing in church and umm neighborhood dances and recreational centers and stuff like that. But I did my first gig, my first professional gig, at this place called, umm, oh man, I tell this story so much I done forgot the name of the place: Tallie’s Paradise. Umm, it’s no longer there no more. It’s in South Philly. It was on umm, 15th or 16th and Mold Street. And they used to have umm a guy by the name of Chico Booth. He’s an organ player. And he had a group called Chico Booth and the Furies. And they used to play there on like Saturday’s. So my father took me down there a couple times. And he’d let me sit in and play. And the funny thing about it was that I was so short, I couldn’t reach the bass drum. You know, so I could kick it with my foot.

Laughter from Alex, Jaquelyn, and Remmie.

Lucky: And then so, but I started playing for them and then they got used to me coming, I was like a little novelty act. So they would let me sit in with the band, and the next thing they started paying me for doing it, so, when you get paid I guess your professional.

Alex: Yeah, that’s cool.

Jaquelyn: Umm, what led you to specifically to jazz, not classical music or any other form?

Lucky: Umm, well, I like all types of music. But I like jazz because it allows you much more freedom with your music as far as umm musical expression, a lot of more improvisation happening, a lot more communication between the musicians. Where some music is a little bit umm still restricted, let me get something.... Yeah, so umm, yeah I liked a lot of jazz, I like. I had a musical family. My mother was a gospel singer. And my father used to pick-o-pick-o on the guitar a little bit. But umm, as I said I like jazz because it leaves a lot more room for improvisation and stuff like that. Where you don’t get as much as that freedom like in classical music. Where you find most to be in the ... [rest of sentence is lost on recording]

Alex: Was there uhh a lot of classical influence in your childhood was there did you hear it all or was it...

Lucky: Yeah but I didn’t you know I mean we were forced to listen to that in junior high and high umm [laughter] my music teacher in umm high school was a classical music freak. But ummm I mean, he would come in and just put the put the album on and then leave the room and come back a half an hour later and say, “What did you just hear?” And you had to explain you know what you just heard and everything so it kinda got like boring you know. Half the time I fell asleep. [Laughter] Not paying any attention to it. It really wasn’t what I wanted to play. But when he put Miles Davis on, it got my attention.

Alex: Any particular albums that stand out in your childhood as being very influential?

Lucky: I liked a lot of James Brown ummm uh ummm let me see a lot of Tower Power. But I really started listening to Jazz really heavy, I loved Art Blakely, Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers. .... [First part of sentence unclear] drummer that leads his own band.

Remmie: So he was a drummer that led his own band.

Lucky: Yes he is. He’s an African American drummer that led his own band

Jacqueline: Umm, umm, who influenced you the most?

Lucky: Drums?

Jacqueline: Yeah, or just anyone.

Lucky: I got so many. I try to learn something from everybody. Try to learn something... Art Blakely is my favorite.

Jacqueline: Okay

Lucky: But I try to learn from everybody. Elvin Jones, umm, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, all of ‘em. Always looked at, always looked at drumming as self-expression which you can always pick up things from different, different drummers. But you always try to develop your own style. By doing that from learning from other ones.

Remmie: Umm, what are the cultural ramifications of jazz when you started, and what do you think they are now?

Lucky: Mmm. Well, there was a heavy influence in the African-American community. Umm, cause really that’s really like the little juke joints, what they used to call juke joints, like the little, the little small corner bars, somewhat like this where it really all got started. You know, and as, not until, it got, what they say Uptown, to the suburbanites, that’s when they got the exposure. But really they got it from going down to the little juke joints, and hearing the musicians play and then they carried it out there and the that’s when it go... You know a long time ago, a lot of the black musicians couldn’t play in big bands because mostly all the big bands were mostly all white. They wouldn’t allow them to play. So, but, what used to happen you had some of these black musicians that would that would get that would travel you know would hook up with some of the white musicians and then bring them down to some of the juke joints and they would be influenced you know by a lot of this music. And so, what the black musicians would do they would break off into smaller units, that what we call quartets, quintets, and take a lot of the big band arrangements that they would hear a lot of the white bands do, and they would do their own thing. And what we call, umm, changing the head, which is the melody and come up with their own melody and play it over the same type of chord changes. And that kind of change, kind of made it their own thing. Really that what gave it the name really jazz ‘cause it started out as umm J-A-S-S. It’s like a derogatory statement toward musicians that couldn’t read music. But umm, part you know, culturally, it’s still really a great African-American classical music. You know.

Remmie: Umm, what was the Philly jazz scene like socially and racially and musically. And, what is Philly famous for in jazz?

Lucky: Well Philly, there’s about all the jazz musicians come out of Ph-, I mean, the whole, I mean, there’s are more jazz musicians that come out of Philadelphia. Very popular ones than I think about in any other city. And not just Philadelphia out of the Pennsylvania area. I mean and all of them are super stars. You know, like John Coltrane comes out of Philly and Grover Washington’s, you have the Hank Mogley’s, the Bobby Timmon’s, you have Lee Morgan’s:

Alex: Jimmy Smith, didn’t he come out of...?

Lucky: Jimmy, now, Jimmy Smith he started out in Codeville, parts of... [asks bartender] Where’s Jimmy Smith from?

Bartender: Narstown

Lucky: Narstown, so right in the Pennsylvania area, you see. So mostly all of the bigger name Jazz musicians come out of Pennsylvania. And really, the majority of them come out of Philly. Benny Golson, you know, a lot of them go on and make a real strong, made a real strong impact on the Jazz music.

Remmie: Ummm.. What was with the—What was the Philly scene like? Was it, or would you go to the bar and what was it like when you walked into a room, what was it like socially, racially?

Lucky: Ummm... Well, some gonna go say like, um, jazz really starting in the African American community, Most of the time you would go in and it would be mostly all, basically African Americans. But once it had—once it started getting more of a mass appeal, then you start seeing some of the clubs becoming kinda diverse, especially when you had the—the younger, like, college kids come. And they would listen, and they started digging it, they started dancing to the music, so it really started opening up more then, you know, and—and that’s what I think gave it more of a mass appeal. That’s why now jazz is really starting to make a little turn around because you get more of a mass appeal than it did before. ‘Cuz for a while it was getting kinda—not everybody was listening to it but the tunes started getting more to the—to the ma—to the masses, to the college kids, and everybody started digging it. They start dancing to it and everything, and started reviving itself, and it’s going to have more of a mass appeal now.

Alex: Um, it seems as though, like, in the last 25 years the, uhh, the mainstream music has shifted to more of an urban, uh, hip-hop sound. Do you see any connections between jazz music influencing that at all?

Lucky: Uhh, yeah! Yeah, because it’s all improvisation. Like what they do, they call a rap, a rap is nothing new. Rappers, well, they was doing that back in the forties. That’s not, you know, that’s not new, that’s not new. That used to be a hip talk back then. You know, skeealeebop skeetaleebop babop la-deh-da, you know, that’s old. That’s not—that’s new to them, you know, but it’s not nothing new. It’s been out—it’s been here for a while, and they just called it scatting or talking jive—they would call it talking jive. So that’s, you know, and then cuz like, you can use it—they like now, you see, they using a lot of—they go to Europe, they take a lot of the traditional jazz music and put hip hop beats and everything right over the top of it. And they dance to it, you know, I was really—I was really shocked when I heard it when I went to Europe I was like, “Wow, they playing [Col]trane?” And they got them dancing you know, but it had like a hip hop—a hip hop beat, you know. But it was deep, it was deep, I swear it was deep.

Alex: Do you know what that music is called? Is it called acid jazz or something?

Lucky: Umm, yeah might not... Some of it is, some of it is. But it basically there, the—there they call it house, house music because they’s dancing, but they just use that element, using jazz over the top because the like so much what the jazz cats was playing that they just tried it, you know, and it works, it works. Really interesting, you know, they had [Col]trane blowing over the top of a hip hop beat, it’s different, it’s really different.

Remmie: Um, which Philly artists stand out in your mind with whom you worked?

Lucky: Oh, in Philadelphia?

Remmie: Uh huh.

Lucky: I like working with a lot of people from Philly. Patti LaBelle, umm, Billy Paul, Kyle Melvin and the Blue Notes, uhhh... some uh... did I say Nina Simone? Uh, Nina Simone.

Remmie: She’s from Philadelphia?

Lucky: Yeah, Nina’s originally from.. Well, she’s actually originally from down south, but I believe it’s South Carolina, but she migrated here to Philly—she stayed in Philly for a good period of here life. She taught classical piano here, so, umm... oh yeah, she came out of the Philly—what they call the “Philly sound” of the 70’s, the sound of Philadelphia. That’s when, um, you had The Tramps... all of them, so I played a lot of, a lot of R&B, and then I started hooking up with a lot of older jazz artists coming out of Philly and they gave me more of a chance to play with a lot of jazz artists, like Grover [Washington], you know, and Sonny Stick, so many of them.

Jacquelyn: Can you describe your experience with Patti LaBelle?

Lucky: Yeah, I played with Patti for a minute.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, what was it like playing with her?

Lucky: It was good, it was good. Yeah, it was really good to play with—matter of fact, one of her first bands, we were all from South Philadelphia, and it came out of, umm... It was two different groups. One group was named Turbine LaFunk and the other group was named Gypsy Lane, and it was mostly cats that was from South Philly. Now, Gypsy Lane, they originally turned into a group called Instant Funk, and they had a tune out, um um um, a while back called “I got my mind made up, come on you can get it, get it girl, any time tonight is fine.” Well anyway, that was a big hit for them. So, um, most of the musicians out of that band became—Patti got a lot of them out of that band. We all played together, and we’re all from South Philly.

Remmie: What was it like playing with Nina Simone?

Lucky: Great, great. I like so much playing with Nina. She was an icon and a legend, and very, very, very deep person.

Remmie: What did you learn from her?

Lucky: Personally, I learned about being—always being professional. She was always saying, “you’re always a professional, no matter when you’re on or either off stage, you always have to be professional. And plus, we’d have all these deep conversations like when we weren’t playing, you know. She’d talk about all types of things and, uh, cuz you know she was a strong leader in the, um, the movement—civil rights movement. So we would talk about a lot of things, you know, I mean I mean, I mean anything you could think of, you know, we even down to hair texture, you know I mean, she was—she was deep. I owe a lot to Nina and I really—she really influenced me a lot. And even though she had, you know, a reputation for being a little, you know, kind of out there at times, but it was that she was a person that you just have to understand her and where she was coming from. And a lot of things that she’d say to you, you’d have to think about what she saying would be right! You know, a lot of times in the audience would be, would be—would be talking, and she’s playing a—a real romantic ballad, you know I mean, you really feel they should shut up.

Remmie: Did you have a lot of respect for her?

Lucky: Yea, a lot of respect...

Remmie: Did you remain friends with her beyond when you where working...

Lucky: Yea, and I worked with her from 1980 till about 83, I was living up in Montreal Canada at that time; so I lived up there for about 3 and a half, four years. And during that whole time, I worked with her and I also worked at this club called the Rising Sun, and I was like one of the house drummers. And uh, a guy by the name of Doo Doo Precel, he was Nigerian, he had seven wives.

Alex: He had seven wives?

Lucky: MMM HMMMM. Just about from every ethnic background you can imagine...

Alex: Wow!

Remmie: Each wife was from a different ethnic background? Like African-Ethnic background?

Lucky: He had a French wife, he had a British wife, he had a Nigerian wife, he had a Somalian wife...

Alex: Sounds like a Pimp!

Lucky: Well you know... that’s... that’s the culture... you know.

Alex: I guess so...

Lucky: He had like about almost twenty-something kids, you know...

Remmie: [GASP]

Alex: Wow!

Lucky: Well anyway he was like um, a producer, and he owned a couple clubs up there. So um he had – and Nina was staying here in Philly, and that’s how I hooked up with her, but eventually um, she went up there and was doing some work so I just moved up there with her. And um myself and a friend of mine, a guy named Tony Jones a bass player- we both moved up there and stayed up there, when she was gone we just picked up the house band including the house band gig at uh his club, matter of fact they had two clubs, one was called um the Rock Hedge and the other one was called the Rising Sun. So we would go back and forth to the two different clubs, backing up all the different people. That’s how I got to play with a lot of people like Sunny Spit, Eddy Cleany Adventions, so um, you know, I got to play with a lot of people up there... mm hmm.

Alex: So... Nina Simone was really active within the uh Civil Rights Movement, and used her music to communicate a lot of the uh... you know... the sentiments uh, connected with that. Do you feel like any jazz, in west Philly in particular, had similar effects and similar like vibrations within a National Spectrum like that, on a political level.

Lucky: Umm... Well a lot umm, I’m trying to think of someone in particular. Ok one guy, that he’s no longer here, his name was Mo Pointer, he was a violinist, he was very active in a lot of um black causes and another guy from Philly, his name is Mtumi, you might see his name around...

Alex: Oh, yea... juicy and stuff... juicy fruit!

Lucky: Yeah, Mtumi, yeah, he’s from Philly. He’s from Philly. And um he was involved in a lot of stuff- there’s a lot of – there’s more well known artists and then there are some that are not that well known, but umm... like Grover. You know Grover did a lot to influence the music in the African-American community. And a lot of what’s interesting, a lot of them would um set up like, different types of um organizations and stuff like that so the children could come how to play instruments. Grover was very famous for that, going around doing what you call Workshops, Going to different High Schools, Colleges, stuff like that and make an available way for a lot of younger kids that were interested in playing the music, he was very influenced in um, actually this started a while ago because he’s not- this um save the music thing for VH1- but Grover was one of the ones that really to initiate that, as far as getting having um people donating instruments so they could go to some of the schools, you know like a lot of the public schools, they disbanded a lot of um extra curricular activities...

Remmie: Music Programs?

Lucky: ...Yeah, like you don’t see that music programs so much, but Grover was one of the main ones to help to influence that, to try to get all that going, to get the music and everything back into the schools.

Remmie: What advice do you have for young musicians?

Lucky: Umm... make sure its what’s you want to do, cause your not always gone get rich, and do it for the love of the art, and not always for the compassion or the wealth, cause you not always gonna be rich. You know... but if you do it for the love of the music, you’ll be wealthy. You know. But um and I tell my students that all the time, I say just make sure this is what you wanna do, and I mean like if you just wanna get rich, go be a banker or something. You know. Cause you might not make a lot of money but if you love what you’re doing it’ll be quite fulfilling.

Alex: A lot of...uhh... like...Jazz music... umm kind of start out as free jazz, that movement with like...

Lucky: Henry Gard, yeah.

Alex: Umm. Do you see any, like, spiritual expression that comes out of jazz? Any like...

Lucky: Not like that.

Alex: Not like that?

Lucky: Not with that music, I can’t stand it.

Remmie: [laughs]

Alex: Really?

Lucky: I don’t really think it is music. I just think it is a bunch of self-indulgence.

Remmie: What music is this?

Lucky: Happy Thoughts.

Remmie: Oh

Alex: Big free jazz band.

Lucky: Yeah. I just think its self indulgence, because I look at a true musician keeps the listener while what he or she is doing. When you loose the there is an audience for that, but its very small. So I mean It was, I was going to quote Art Blakey he said if their feet ain’t tappen and their head ain’t rockin, you ain’t swinging. You know? So. Man, all that, Its just you know you can do all that at home, make noise, you know. It’s just, its just self indulgence when the average person can’t come down and sit there and go like... and actually understand what you are doing. You know? So it’s too self indulgent and I really don’t care...

Alex: What... do you feel any spiritual expression yourself when you play?

Lucky: Oh definitely, definitely, definitely. I think the whole music thing is spiritual because music is something you cannot touch and something you cannot see, you can only hear it and feel it. It has to be spiritual. Can’t see God, can’t touch him, but you know that he is there. And I think that it is definitely, definitely spiritual. And it is really interesting because sometimes when you’re playing, when you have that... umm... the musician that you are playing with thinking the same thing at exactly the same time. It’s just like when you’re talking and two people say the same thing at the exact same time sometimes that’s like wow and you look at each other and it shows that you’re umm you’re up there and something’s got to be happening beyond you. I wouldn’t know that you was going to do that. Because when that moment happens it’s like real... you look at each other and you just like laugh and keep on goin. And once you like do it its out there, man you can’t do it again. It never sounds the same way twice no matter how many times you play it. Take one song and play it a thousand times and each time you play it its gonna sound different because that’s the way it is and the way its suppose to be. And that’s the difference going back to the thing about classical, that’s the difference between jazz and classical they strive to make it sound the same every time. But see with jazz you don’t, you want it to be different every time. Cause I think it’s a little more interesting to be able something that someone improvised and play something that you haven’t heard yet. And I really rather play that way yet, than to duplicate something that someone already done three four hundred years ago and want to play it exactly the way that they did it then. You know where is the adventure? You know I mean, Beethoven did it his way. You know? Why you trying to do the exact same thing he did? Do it differently. That’s what makes jazz totally different than classical.

Alex: I guess, umm, one last thought is uhh, Natalie’s is one of the longest lasting centers, establishments that still has jazz in the West Philly community, and...umm...I was just curious on your thoughts about where jazz with in West Philadelphia is heading with these upcoming years with Natalie’s. What part it might play? What you think the West Philly scene is going to be like in the future?

Lucky: Well hopefully... well it is nothing like it used to be. There use to be a lot more clubs than this. One block there used to be five clubs and they all had live music. Like between here and 41st street. Years ago this used to be known as the strip and the strip would go from about... 40th street and go all the way up to 57th and there way clubs all up and down, and you could park here and get out and walk down the street and walk into two or three different clubs. You know so... and that’s when the “L” used to come up in the on 30th street and it wasn’t underground it used to come up 30 feet up in the air up and down there, but that was years ago and they tore it down. But it used to be called the strip and a lot of musicians... and you could walk on up and down here and meet a lot of them. And with Natalie’s is they still hold on to the tradition, that’s why, umm, Natalie’s was voted number one jazz house in, umm, Philadelphia Magazine in the August addition... August 2004. It was voted number one because it still hangs with the tradition. And I hope Natalie’s will be in the forefront. And some other clubs that are popping up but its [unclear] to bring back the World Café, and there’s Jive [unclear] and still a couple of little small places. But it’s not like having the intimacy. There are more bigger venues there more fear that type city instead of the intimacy like, you know like Natalie’s is, which they’re right up there where the musicians is where they can come right up there and talk to you. See but its good that they, I mean it’s good that they are trying to bring the music back. But it’s not... It’s different when it’s more intimate than when there is more of a setting where there ... say like Zanzibar Blue, That’s more of, like a dinner type venue. You know it’s not really based around the music even though they have music there. It’s based around, like a restaurant type of thing. You know, see here everything is based around the music, and you get the musicians right up on you. You know you are right there with them. You know so... Hopefully Natalie’s will lead, and I hope West Philly... more places pop up. You know any where in Philadelphia really. You go back to the way it used to be. I mean, sad [unclear]. I mean that’s all you had was live music. And right along 52nd street, there was a club called the Aqua Man, it used to bring a lot of famous musicians through there, like Miles, Max [unclear], and I mean they would come out and stand in one of the corners smoking a cigarette, and Billy Joe Jones, and umm, a lot of Shirley Scott, a lot of famous musicians. Called the Aqua Man. That was one of the clubs known for being on the strip.

Alex: Really?

Lucky: Yeah but Natalie’s outlived them all. And it wasn’t always called Natalie’s neither. I can’t remember the order but I know it was called Elmo’s Elbow Room at one time. And next... right after that it was called The Cross Roads. So I don’t know what order but I think, I think Elmo’s Elbow Room was first and then I think it was called uhh the Cross Roads second and now that the new owner has it and he’s had it ever since... I think it’s 80... in the 80s or something like that. Now it’s been called Natalie’s now. But it’s always had jazz, always had jazz, always.

Alex: Do you guys have any more questions?

Jacquelyn: Thank you.

Lucky: I have a website too. You want to go to my website?

Remmie: Ok, yeah.

Lucky: It’s Alright? Now I have another website for my music label. It’s The whole word through.

Remmie: Oh I have it right here.