Eli Thompson, 16 June 1924, Columbia, South Carolina, USA, d. 30 July 2005, Seattle, Washington, USA. Thompsons professional career began in the early 40s as a sideman in territory bands. After moving to New York in 1943 he played tenor saxophone in the bands of Lionel Hampton, Don Redman, Billy Eckstine, Lucky Millinder and in 1944 joined Count Basie. On the west coast he recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, being hired by Gillespie for the famous engagement at Billy Bergs to help make up the numbers when Parker failed to turn up or was late. Indeed, Parker failed to show up for a record session with Ross Russells Dial label and Thompson sat in. When Parker eventually made a date for Russell, this time with Miles Davis, Thompson was again present.
Thompson played briefly with Boyd Raeburn and was also active in the studios. In 1946 he was a member of the Stars Of Swing, a co-operative band masterminded by Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette and which also featured Britt Woodman and John Anderson. This band lasted less than two months and unfortunately was never recorded. Back in New York at the end of the 40s, Thompson formed his own band and in the early 50s headlined at the Savoy Ballroom. After dabbling briefly in R&B he made several jazz albums with Oscar Pettiford, Milt Jackson and, notably, with Miles Davis on the famous Prestige session for which Davis hired Thompson, J.J. Johnson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Art Blakey and which resulted in superb performances of Walkin and Blue N Boogie.
In 1956 Thompson visited Europe, recording prodigiously in France under his own name and also touring with Stan Kenton. He took a liking to Europe and resided there for several years in the late 50s/early 60s and again at the end of the 60s. Between these two sojourns he played little, preferring life on a small farm in Michigan, and after his latest return from Europe in 1973 he taught for a while before retiring from music. In the early 90s, he was found on the streets in the Seattle, Washington area. Some local residents who knew of his former reputation arranged for him to enter a nursing home. Thompson subsequently refused to speak about his past life as a jazz musician.
Thompsons playing on tenor and soprano saxophone ably straddled the main strands favoured by musicians of his generation. Although identifiably influenced by Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, he had absorbed the stylistic departures of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. However, he possessed a fertile imagination and the characteristics of his playing were very much his own; indeed, Thompson proved to be one of the most original and inventive saxophonists working in the post-bebop mainstream and his early retirement was a grievous loss to jazz. His departure from music was prompted by his growing dissatisfaction with the way in which musicians were treated by record companies, club owners, promoters and others in the business. He was especially dismayed by discriminatory practices he encountered from bigoted whites who were in positions of power and could control the careers of black musicians. His own relatively small legacy of recordings is probably not unconnected with the fact that he was never afraid to speak out when he felt injustice was being done.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.