Jimmy Lyons (December 1, 1931 – May 19, 1986) was an alto saxophone player. He is best known for his long tenure in the Cecil Taylor Unit, being the only constant member of the pianist’s group from the mid-1960s to his death, after which Taylor never worked with another musician as frequently.
Lyons’s playing, which usually retained a strong influence from bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, helped keep Tayor’s often wildly avant garde music tethered to the jazz tradition.
He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and brought up firstly there for his first 9 years, before his mother moved the family to Harlem and then the Bronx. He obtained his first saxophone in the mid-1940s and had lessons from Buster Bailey.
After high school, Lyons was drafted into the United States Army and spent 21 months on infantry duty in Korea, before spending around a year playing in army bands. On discharge, he attended New York University. By the end of the 1950s he was supporting his interest in music with day jobs in the Postal Service.
In 1961 he followed Archie Shepp into the saxophone role in the Cecil Taylor Unit. His post-Parker sound and strong melodic sense became a defining part of the sound of that group, from the classic 1962 Cafe Montmartre sessions onwards.
During the 1970s Lyons also ran his own group with bassoonist Karen Borca and percussionist Paul Murphy, taking performance opportunities at the loft jazz movement around Studio Rivbea.
His group and the Unit continued a parallel development through the 1970s and 1980s, often involving the same musicians, such as trumpeter Raphe Malik, bassist William Parker and percussionist Paul Murphy.
Lyons died from lung cancer in 1986. The recording legacy of his own group was relatively sparse, though that situation has been rectified by a 5 CD boxed set of archive recordings from 1972 to 1985, released on Ayler Records.