Lawrence Lucie Obituary

Guitarist and teacher who worked with the cream of America's jazz talent

The guitarist Lawrence Lucie, who has died aged 101, was one of the few remaining jazz musicians whose experience encompassed 1920s informality, organised big band swing in the 1930s and 40s, and postwar R&B. He recorded and performed with many outstanding bandleaders, from Jelly Roll Morton to Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Louis Armstrong. Speaking of his encounters with Lucie, Dan Morgenstern, the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, said: "It's like a whole living history of jazz – he's on so many important records."

Ever the activist, Lucie ran his own Toy record label in later years, hosted a cable jazz television show with his wife, the singer and guitarist Nora Lee King, for 20 years, and taught guitar at Manhattan Community College for three decades, only retiring in 2004. His last solo engagement was at Arturo's in Greenwich Village in 2005.

Lucie was born in Emporia, Virginia, where his father, a barber, ran a family dance band. Having learned the banjo, mandolin and violin, Lucie performed from the age of eight playing "hillbilly music and blues" for country square dances. He moved to New York in 1927, initially to study medicine, but liked the look of the musicians' lifestyle and opted to study banjo with a local teacher, before enrolling at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and converting to guitar, initially paying his way as a barber. When Duke Ellington's guitarist was ill, Lucie substituted for him at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He was called on to play a solo on a broadcast from the club, the key to his subsequent success. "That was the thrill of a lifetime and it really brought me to the attention of everyone in New York," he said, adding, "and I've never been out of work since."

After debuting with the trumpeter June Clark at a Harlem dancing school in 1931, Lucie moved through the best black swing bands, starting with the saxophonist Benny Carter in 1932. This band was the first to appear at Harlem's new Apollo theatre. Having recorded with an all-star New York ensemble organised by the British bassist-composer Spike Hughes, Lucie moved on to the Mills Blue Rhythm Band in 1934 for two years and Fletcher Henderson for three. Recognised as an exemplary rhythm guitarist and working alongside the best jazz creators of the day, Lucie recorded with Billie Holiday, Chu Berry, Red Allen and Teddy Wilson. He also appeared on Morton's final New York session, in 1939.

In 1940, Lucie moved to Armstrong's big band, staying for "close on five" fulfilling years. The band toured extensively, played long engagements at the Apollo, and recorded successfully, bolstered by Armstrong's extraordinary popular appeal. Lucie performed (and acted) with Armstrong in the short film I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You (1932) and the film Jam Session in 1944. He was also Armstrong's best man when the trumpeter married his fourth wife, the former Cotton Club dancer Lucille Wilson, in St Louis in 1942. Lucie admired Armstrong: "Louis always liked to be just one of the guys," he recalled.

After military service, Lucie form- ed his own swing quartet, the Lucienaires, and began a whole new career, usually working in tandem with Nora, who was also known professionally as Susan Lenore. The pair toured and recorded together, and Lucie often backed other singers, staying in the studios, save for a 1959 gig with the Pearl Bailey-Louis Bellson Show and a period on tour with drummer Cozy Cole, who had a hit with Topsy II.

Lucie taught jazz and classical guitar, as well as African-American studies, before returning to live performance when he joined the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, organised and managed by the retired orthodontist Al Vollmer. This lively ensemble of veteran African-American jazz musicians toured Europe and America, appearing at festivals including North Sea, in Holland, and holding down residencies in New York. In later years, Lucie lived at the Kateri residence, a care home in Manhattan, where his 100th birthday was celebrated in great style, a congratulatory message from President George Bush just one of many he received.

Nora died in the 1990s.

• Lawrence "Larry" Lucie, jazz guitarist and teacher, born 18 December 1907; died 14 August 2009


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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