Friday, July 11, 2014

Arnie Lawrence

Here's a shocking revelation for jazz fans: those guys you're listening to, who seem to be playing as one, aren't listening to each other. Almost nobody listens to each other. Players mostly just go about their jazzy business, mechanically fulfilling their roles. The drummer keeps a beat, the bassist walks, the pianist plays chords, and horn players take turns showering notes atop it all, ala karaoke. They have on their "game faces", but, underneath, they're nearly as bored as you are.

They're proffering a skill set rather than creating beauty or conjuring miracles of spontaneity. In fact, words like "beauty" or "spontaneity" are foreign to jazz musicians (at least when they're not giving interviews). They ply their trade, like plumbers or dry wall specialists. They're rarely surprised or surprising.

One might blame Miles Davis, who dressed sharp and acted cocky, yet played trumpet with the raw plaintive honesty of a vulnerable little girl. The contrast was compelling, and won him stardom. Ever since, musicians have emulated the easier piece - acting cocky - but, when it comes to emotional honesty, well, they can stick a mute in their horn and play long willowy notes just like Miles. That's the same thing, no?

Jazz musicians at some point became a tribe of posers, phoning it in, barely listening to each other, playing the same drilled-in patterns over and over, and faking their emotions. Watch the faux-impassioned faces in this video, as a long procession of them try to sell the same hoary old "lick":

There was a musician who tried to go the other way, who only played what he honestly felt, who was spontaneous, and who listened so hard that his ears became more than just passive receivers, nearly attaining the power to pull from the air music which was not there to begin with. He was, I'm proud to say, my mentor. A saxophonist named Arnie Lawrence, whose 76th birthday would have been yesterday if he hadn't died much too soon.

I met Arnie at the impressionable age of 14, attending one of his legendary master classes. At this one, he spent hours getting a room of hot shot high school-aged musicians to play the swing-era standard "Lady Be Good" - just the melody - over and over like a sacred chant until we all played as one; until it swung. He played along with us, concentrating so fiercely, his bushy eyebrows knit together with such intensity, that I had the uncanny feeling that his ears were actually drawing music out of me. Naturally, I assumed this was what the music business must be like. This was was the big leagues; this was jazz. I instantly resolved to become a musician, and to always swing, and to never not listen.

The other teachers at the seminar treated Arnie with great deference. He'd been a hot player in town during the 60's and 70's, when Johnny Carson (a big music fan with exquisite taste) taped his show in New York and would return from commercials with the big band's alto saxophonist wailing his heart out for a brief second or two until Johnny tapped his pencil to bring the music to a sudden halt. "Arnie Lawrence, ladies and gentleman," Johnny would sometimes cry, clapping wildly himself.

I stayed in touch with Arnie, who would later mentor swarms of other 15-year olds, including some who went on to great success (e.g. John Popper of Blues Traveler). I popped in on as many of his classes as I could, where I loved to watch him confuse the bejesus out of students by challenging them to swing so hard they'd make the lights go out, or to play a happy blues, or to play the one note they'd play if they only had one note left in them.

Arnie had released a record way back in the 1960's where his group made disjointed, frankly sort of noisy sounds in a recording studio while his toddler son traipsed around banging on things and giggling. The band was called "The Children of All Ages", and the idea was typically profound yet over-earnest: try following the musical instincts of children rather than reigning them in. But while he was at the bleeding edge of the avante garde, Arnie also was totally comfortable accompanying torch singers and playing straight-ahead jazz and blues. He was a chameleon, deeply integrating with whatever was happening around him.

He didn't think of himself that way, of course. In his mind, it was all the same. In any context, he was committed to finding the most beautiful, honest, soulful note to play after whatever just happened; the note that might be the perfect cure for the ills of the moment, or the cherry on the sundae when swing had already fully ignited. The music never ended. Ears were always open, and saxophone was close at-hand, leaving him ready to resume his contribution at any moment, under whatever circumstances the universe might present. It wasn't that Arnie was versatile, it was that he was completely responsive, come what may.

When I turned professional, I started hearing stories about him. For example, at the height of her post-Cabaret stardom, Liza Minnelli toured with what was surely one one of the greatest bands ever assembled. Her show began with a solo sax wailing, a capella, in the darkness before she was introduced; Arnie consistently left audiences mesmerized. He didn't read music, and so couldn't participate much in the rest of the show. Arnie was simply the secret weapon bands would roll out when they needed a home run.

In the midst of this high-paying, ultra-prestigious tour with the hottest act in show biz, where he was featured and given free reign, legend has it that Arnie went up to Liza and told her, without venom, "You don't swing," (pretty much the only mortal sin in Arnie Lawrence's universe), "and I quit."

Arnie never really got his career back on track. He floundered for years. The Johnny/Liza generation, which recognized and respected the cantorial magic of an Arnie Lawrence, was fading, and Walkman culture had arrived. Jazz became simply another flavor of sonic wallpaper. Unless you had a big name with the general public - carefully-fashioned by expensive publicity professionals - bandleaders expected you to keep your head down and to blend in; to play merely competently and not attract undue attention. This, obviously, wasn't Arnie's specialty. And it was harder and harder for him to lead his own band, as fewer and fewer people were around who remembered his heyday.

But right around then Arnie had a brainstorm. He'd start a new kind of jazz school; one run like a mentorship, rather than via the model of classical music conservatories. And he did it! He launched Jazz at The New School, and it was, for a while, like one long Arnie Lawrence master class, complete with metaphysical challenges and trippy group incantations. I was a professional by this time, having already matriculated through a more informal Arnie University, but I hung out there when I could. A few early students went on to become big names.

At the time, they complained about the chaos and ambiguity, but today they all look back with vast gratitude. It goes without saying that the program eventually snapped back to a more traditional format and Arnie was forced out. But a great deal of good was done. A minor miracle, this program changed the course of jazz in small but important ways.

I'd drive around the tristate area catching every Arnie gig I could, and often sat in. He frequently found himself in strange or even ridiculous situations - hired to play in a supper club alongside a non-musician owner who fancied himself a jazz drummer...or playing with dodgy rock bands at the invitation of one of his students (Arnie somehow became known as a mentor to rock and rollers, too). Every gig Arnie ever had - and I went to a ton of them - forced him to play into a stiff headwind. I never once saw Arnie fully comfortable, but I came to so enjoy watching him navigate obstacle courses, that I finally decided this was Arnie at his best. If he ever played with a proper group in a proper setting in front of a proper crowd, he'd probably have had a heart attack. I really can't even visualize it.

Playing terrible music in terrible places with terrible crowds for terrible money, Arnie would nonetheless play like his life depended on each note. He'd sanctify the room. And he never stopped listening. He listened with Buddha depth to musicians who had absolutely nothing to offer, and it was contagious; you'd find yourself listening to that non-drummer owner, your ears somehow locating his primal humanity, the pure soul behind those regrettable movements of hands and feet. You'd find the place where it was music.

Arnie's ears processed it all and made it all okay. Even chatty customers sometimes found themselves caught in Arnie's deep listening, and shit would transform to pearls. Sometimes. Mostly, though, shit remained shit. Yet Arnie never flinched, never closed his ears, not even for a moment. Jesus may have died to redeem our sins, but Arnie spent 66 years keenly listening, with much the same intent.

I once stood with him in the back of a suburban jazz club where a crowd of local musicians held forth with the gravitas typical of big fish in small ponds. It was a special event, and all the "names" were there, posturing their way through standards in tribute to the birth or death of some so-and-so. Arnie and I sat there, waiting to go on, and nary an honest note had been played all night, despite the crowd's whoops and cheers.

This, in the end, was the music business. This was jazz. Yet Arnie stood there, like Diogenes with his lamp, eyes tightly shut and head nodding intently, trying, as always, through the sheer power of his superhuman attention and concentration, to pull something profound from the din. Not me. Dejected by the empty bluster and discoordination on the distant stage, I peered over at Arnie, and said, with a sneer, "You know, Arnie, I'm sorry I ever met you." Arnie (known for his great sense of humor), froze for an instant, but then his eyes twinkled, a grin started spreading wider and wider, and he began laughing in great guffaws, nearly choking himself. I think, for a brief moment, he might have even stopped listening.

Late in his flock mentoring period, just before he moved to Israel to launch a series of projects bringing together Jewish and Palestinian musicians in dangerous basement rooms in occupied territories (where I have no doubt Arnie wove the sounds of shells and sirens into his solos as if they were musical gifts from angels), every gig of Arnie's was beginning to include a great many of his current followers, each of them invited to play (as I was, back in the day). You'd need to wait a very long time to hear Arnie blow. Again, every Arnie gig had a headwind, and some of the problems - e.g. audiences forced to listen to kid after long-winded kid - were self-inflicted.

The really distressing thing is these flocks of students - who followed Arnie everywhere and appeared to appreciate his magic - didn't listen, or swing, or play any more honestly than anyone else. To be sure, they all acted the part. Like mini-Arnies, they'd furrow their brows and make a theatrical display of deep seriousness. But it was always all about them, rather than the music. They had absorbed only the most superficial layer. To this day, I never attend Arnie tributes, because I know I'll be hearing exactly the sort of playing Arnie urged against. I feel his friction and frustration even years after his death.

I know very well that I ought to attend anyway, and use my ears to hear my way back into the divinity of each musician, transmogrifying careless notes into something deeper and more touching. I can do it, too, but I lack the stamina, the concentration, the open-heartedness to keep it up for long. I am, alas, not Arnie Lawrence, either.

The last time Arnie ever heard me "play" was at a public jam session in a Manhattan club. It was my turn to solo, so I stepped up to the microphone. The rhythm section was scrambling. The pianist and bassist were in their own worlds, not hearing a thing, and the drummer was playing so densely and show-offishly that it sounded like a non-stop drum solo. I brought my trombone to my mouth, and listened, patiently, for a point of entry....for the drummer to calm down and for the others to notice something was missing - the very thing I myself might then contribute. I waited and waited, but space never opened. It was like entering a crowded freeway; sometimes, no matter how sensitively one moves up the ramp, there's just no way to gracefully merge without bashing other cars.

I waited longer still, but no one aside from the baffled audience seemed to notice my non-solo. Finally, I lowered my horn, shrugged, and quietly walked off the stage. Not with any anger or embarrassment, though; there was simply no call for a trombone solo; nowhere to actually put one. Another horn player might have bashed through, muscling his way in. I could have done the same, but it would have disrespected the music. And respect for the music - even bad music - comes first. Sometimes the most musical thing one can play is silence.

I knew I'd "played" well. But I'd violated a taboo. One doesn't walk off stage during one's allotted time. To the other horn players, and to the audience, I seemed to have contracted some sort of stage fright. Spooked and confused, they gently leaned away, en masse, as I strolled back toward the bar. Finally, I passed Arnie, who looked over, grinning mischievously, and said "nice solo!" And I knew he meant it.

Here he is (the sax player with the beard) playing with Dizzy Gillespie, soloing near the beginning, and again, later, on a different song (and playing a little better), at 18':30':

Consider buying "Renewal", one of his best straight-ahead records.

The Middle-Eastern funky trance jazz of Arnie's group "Treasure Island" is long out of print, but a couple tracks are up on YouTube:

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