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Lawrence Lucie: They Love Lucie

Lawrence Lucie

He recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, opened the Apollo Theater in 1934 (with Benny Carter) and played with Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club. On December 17, the eve of Lawrence Lucie’s 100th birthday, friends, fans and fellow musicians gathered at Musicians’ Local 802 in New York City to help the guitar legend celebrate. Lucie, though in a wheelchair, looks closer to 70 than a hundred. He waved to the audience and enthusiastically applauded the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band (of which he is an alum) and other performers who provided the appropriately swinging music.

Lucie was born in Emporia, Va., on Dec. 18, 1907, into a musical family. His first lessons were on mandolin, through a correspondence course, but after the family moved to New York, he was able to study banjo with Luther Blake and at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. He eventually switched to six strings and became a master of rhythm guitar, and in the 1930s was in demand by leaders like Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Lucky Millinder and Coleman Hawkins. From 1940 to 1944, he toured with Louis Armstrong’s big band. He always considered his eight nights at the Cotton Club with Ellington in 1934, subbing for Freddy Guy, a highlight. (Lucie is the last musician still living who played with Duke at the Club.) His recordings with Morton and Sidney Bechet came in 1939 after the legendary pianist was impressed with Lucie’s accompaniment at a Harlem jam session.

While he had only rare solo opportunities during his big-band odyssey, in the mid-1940s Lucie began to step into the limelight as a soloist, leading his own groups, often featuring his wife, singer Nora Lee King. He absorbed a variety of influences, including the new bebop sounds, citing Barney Kessel and Johnny Smith as influences. His musicianship and versatility enabled him to fulfill a variety of studio assignments in the 1960s and 1970s. He and his wife also hosted a long-running public access cable television show in New York.

Lucie’s greatest legacy may be his work as an educator. He was on the faculty at Manhattan Community College for over three decades and, as late as last year, was still teaching students privately. The author of several guitar method books, Lucie is a natural teacher with a generous spirit. As one of jazz’s last links with its golden past, the observant and articulate Lucie has always given freely of his time to students and scholars of the music. Even at his own celebration, he patiently answered interviewers’ questions, while graciously greeting the legion of admirers who crowded around him.