Tabackin started learning flute at age 12, followed by tenor saxophone at age 15. He has cited Al Cohnand Coleman Hawkins as influences on saxophone, while his flute role models include classical players such as William Kincaid, Julius Baker, and Jean-Pierre Rampal. Tabackin studied flute at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and also studied music with composer Vincent Persichetti. In 1962 he graduated from the Conservatory and after serving with the U.S. Army worked with Tal Farlow. He also worked with Chuck Israels in New York City and a band that included Elvin Jones, Donald Byrd, and Roland Hanna. Later he was a member of The Dick Cavett Show band and The Tonight Show Band with Doc Severinsen. He moved from New York to California with The Tonight Show in 1972. During this time he played with Shelly Manne and Billy Higgins.
Tabackin met Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1967 while he was playing in Clark Terry‘s band and she was invited to sit in for Don Friedman. They formed a quartet in the late 1960s, married in 1969, and in 1973 co-founded the Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band in Los Angeles, which later became the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin, playing bebop in Duke Ellington-influenced arrangements and compositions by Akiyoshi. Tabackin was principal soloist for the band from 1973 through 2003.