Eli "Lucky" Thompson, 81, a jazz tenor saxophonist of extraordinary range and command who turned reclusive in the 1970s and spent long periods living in his car and foraging for food, died July 30 at an assisted living facility in Seattle. He had dementia.
Although not considered an innovator, Mr. Thompson had a warm, voluptuous sound and showed great dexterity and adaptability in his music. One of his favorite recordings, a 1947 cut of the ballad "Just One More Chance," exemplified what jazz historian Dan Morgenstern called a "wonderful, very personal" sound.
Mr. Thompson played with the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie as well as with the masters of the rapid-fire bebop movement: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa.
He went on to work with bassist Charles Mingus, pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis, all of whom had distinctive sounds. On Davis's lively hard-bop album "Walkin' " (1954), a recording that also featured pianist Horace Silver, trombonist J.J. Johnson and drummer Kenny Clarke, Mr. Thompson's "Blue 'n' Boogie" solo was regarded as a highlight.
In contrast to the musical delicacy he showed on such albums as "Lucky Strikes" (1964), Mr. Thompson had a brash, combative personality. He angered some on the commercial side of the music industry, calling them vultures, parasites and barracudas.
In the mid-1950s, he reportedly clashed with Joe Glaser, manager of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, over the order in which Mr. Thompson and Armstrong were to disembark from an airplane.
Magnanimous with musicians, he held no grudge against Armstrong. He addressed the trumpet legend as "Mr. Armstrong" and could not abide those who spoke in familiar terms of "Louis."
Eli Thompson Jr. was born in Columbia, S.C., on June 16, 1924. He moved to Detroit after his mother's death and was raised by his father, a meatpacker. He got his nickname because of a dirty, old sweat shirt he always wore that bore the word "Lucky."
He developed an interest in music after hearing saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on the radio. His high school music instructor, a saxophonist, showed him how to finger the notes on the horn.
Mr. Thompson could not afford an instrument of his own, so he carved a broom handle to mimic the keys. "His father got fed up seeing this kid fingering this piece of wood and bought him a cheap, pawnshop kind of saxophone," said a son, Daryl Thompson, a guitarist.
In late 1944, Mr. Thompson joined the Basie band, taking a chair previously occupied by sax giants Lester Young and Don Byas.
He was determined not to be intimidated. The jazz saxophonist and scholar Loren Schoenberg once wrote: "When it was Thompson's turn in that same chair, he went out of his way to assert his preference for a more macho approach."
Having befriended Gillespie and Parker in Eckstine's band, Mr. Thompson was invited in 1945 to join their small, influential bop band. It was more Gillespie's idea -- insurance against the erratic Parker, who had to be institutionalized, Schoenberg wrote.
In the late 1940s, Mr. Thompson recorded with his wife, singer Thelma Lowe (billed as Thelma Love), and was featured as a musician in the film "New Orleans" (1947).
After a failed attempt at music publishing, he left for Paris in the mid-1950s and began a long association with European musicians.
His personal misfortunes cascaded. His marriage deteriorated, and his wife died in 1963 from an aneurysm. His in-laws never forgave him and tried to take away his children.
Shaken by the deaths in the late 1960s of guitarist Wes Montgomery, composer Billy Strayhorn and Martin Luther King Jr., he whisked his children to Switzerland, which he made his base of operation as he played and recorded in Europe.
In the early 1970s, he took teaching posts at Dartmouth College and Yale University but winced at the scholarly approach to music. Combined with mounting family pressures and a general disillusionment with show business, he abandoned playing about that time and sought a simpler life, driving alone across the United States.
He once bartered a saxophone for dental care. He also suffered a terrible beating in Atlanta.
Some reports had him building a shelter in Canadian woods, camping out and eating roots. He ended up in Seattle and for a time was homeless until he was taken in by strangers aware of his artistic legacy. That did not last long. Shortly afterward, he received a diagnosis of dementia and sank gradually into deep paranoia.
Survivors include two children from his marriage and a son from a relationship in Switzerland. Another son from his marriage died in 1977.