Written by The Jazz Gypsy
Playboy Jazz Festival
Sat. & Sun., June 11 & 12, 2011
Good seats still available - Call today!!
2301 North Highland Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90068
In our "new world" where music greats are marketed as having been born overnight we sometimes don't appreciate those music giants and icons that were the pioneers and trail blazers in their respective areas of music. So, it was my extreme pleasure to speak with a true legend, Mr. Ronnie Laws.
During the interview, I was both a fan and journalist and happy to blur the lines between the two. What a joy it was to hear Ronnie talk about how he began, the influence his mother had on him becoming a saxophonist and providing him with the musical toolbox from where he would draw his unique sound from.
Laws also talks about the power of being exposed, even accidentally, to music at a young age, his thirst to learn, the courage to take risks, how to achieve goals and the importance of being principled, adaptable and focused.
It was quite a revealing interview with a lot of sound advice for musicians and people in general.
The Jazz Gypsy: Good morning. I've seen you play and enjoyed your performances many times. I still have your first album in my garage.
Laws: "Pressure Sensitive?"
The Jazz Gypsy: Yes.
Laws: Well, hold on to it.
The Jazz Gypsy: Well, I can get rid of a lot of stuff, but that's not one of them.
Laws: Well vinyl is coming back.
The Jazz Gypsy: Is that right?
The Jazz Gypsy: That's a good thing.
Laws: Yes it is because the quality can't really be matched with digital stuff. It just doesn't sound like vinyl.
The Jazz Gypsy: Well, I've read your background and your musical career started when you when you were relatively young...how did you know you wanted to play the saxophone?
Laws: It wasn't an issue about whether I wanted to play or not, it was a gift that I appreciated at a very young age. Being around in a musical environment sort of propelled me as well. My mother, being very instrumental in directing us musically, exposed us to a lot of different genres of music, gospel, classical, jazz, the whole gamut, blues. So that helped me a lot. Having older brothers and sisters involved in the musical realm, that was inspiring as well.
Jazz Gypsy: Was the saxophone the first instrument that you picked up, because what if you weren't good at that?
Laws: Yes. I remember that my mom was expressing to me her wish when she was in school. She wished that she had taken up saxophone and so in my own way I was saying, "I'll play it for you". So, I just sort of picked it up. My brother-in-law was instrumental in me picking up the saxophone because he played saxophone, not really for self gratification. He wasn't really an accomplished player or musicians. He just did it as a hobby. I used to follow him around and hang out with him because my older brother Hubert was off studying at Julliard and my brother Johnny was in the military so my brother-in -law was sort of like a surrogate brother. I used to hang around him and occasionally he would pick up the saxophone. When I was very young, around 10 years old, I used to watch him, and I was fascinated by him. And, I loved the sound of the instrument. Even though he wasn't that good. [laughter] But one day, I remember him taking a little break from playing and putting the horn on the bed and he went off and was having lunch or something and I picked it up and tried to figure out the keys and how they worked. And the next thing he knew, he heard me playing a scale and he was blown away because he said that with all the time he spent playing the instrument he didn't have that immediate grasp of being able to play a scale, particularly when he first started. So, he was really amazed and he encouraged me. He said, "Wow, you seem to have a good ear for this". So he encouraged me and I asked him if I could keep it and he let me do that. then, I just got an elementary method book and I learned how to play the scales and learned the complete fingering on the instrument and sort of taught myself. Then when I entered junior high and high school I got more formal training. And, the rest is history.
Jazz Gypsy: When did you decide you wanted to make it a career?
Laws: I knew at a very young age that that was what I wanted to do. As a kid you have multiple interests. I played a lot of baseball and I loved it but the saxophone was my first love. I felt complete playing that instrument. Even at 12 years old, I had become pretty accomplished on the instrument. In fact, I think, one of the first professional engagements I was asked to perform was with Kenny Rogers, the country singer who is a native Houstonian. My sister was performing as a background singer with him and she was telling him about her younger brother who played saxophone and so he said, "Bring him, bring him to the club, let's check him out". And, that's exactly what happened and I went up there and started playing and he was blown away. So, I got a chance to perform with him and my sister for a couple of weeks. That was an incredible debut for a youngster playing with someone like Kenny Rogers.
Jazz Gypsy: Absolutely.
Laws: [laughter] From that point on, I became more established in the circuitry, the music circuit in Houston and then eventually in all of Texas. Then, I went to college in East Texas, Stephen F. Austin State University then Texas Southern University. But the depth of my musical education and exposure was when I was featured and playing with older musicians. That was really my training ground because I learned so much from people who were much farther advanced than I was. It was like on the job training and I learned fast. I was really inspired by the way that they performed. I had some great mentors growing up with the guys that became The Jazz Crusaders. I used to watch them practice and rehearse when they were teenagers. I used to sit in the corner after school and run over to where they were rehearsing and just sit in the corner and listen.
Jazz Gypsy: That is amazing. And what about Hugh Masekela?
Laws: I joined up with Hugh Masekela after I left Earth, Wind and Fire. I got married around 20 years old and my wife and I moved to Los Angeles and that was like I was almost starting all over again. I had pretty much accomplished quite a bit of a status in Texas and was established and had gotten some write ups in DownBeat from Leonard Feather. And when I used to compete in college in some of the states where they had jazz festivals across the country I got some national recognition. But then, I left college as a junior and got married and moved to Los Angeles and started developing a reputation here and I got a call to audition for Earth, Wind and Fire. They had just left Warner Brothers and they were getting ready to sign with CBS and Maurice had me audition. I was thinking I was going to be part of a horn section and much to my surprise, Maurice just said, "No, I think we'll just go ahead with the one horn". [laughter] Which was pretty unique.
Jazz Gypsy: Exactly.
Laws: So, I was a part of the original group before they signed with CBS and it was a great experience. It was very interesting because even when I was with them, I always had the goal of being a solo artist but I had to work and because I had a family, a wife, to support and a baby coming so I tried to garner as much work as I could. It was a good call to be a part of that group where I developed some very close friendships while being in the group. Larry Dunn, the keyboard player, is one of my best friends and Phillip Bailey, Maurice, all the guys...it was like a family situation. Before signing with CBS, I had decided I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to commit to indefinitely being a part of a group situation so I left and decided not to sign, which was a big, big decision because it was a crossroad of my career and because we were expecting a baby and at that point I hadn't established myself very well financially. So,it was a bold decision to walk off from a group situation because I knew they were going to be epic....a huge, huge group. But I stuck to my guns and decided that if I wanted to be a solo artist I had to direct my efforts towards that so I left and eventually joined up with Hugh Masekela and worked with him for about a 1 1/2 years. After leaving Hugh, I put together all the elements, with the help from the Creator, to sign with my first solo contract with Blue Note Records and the rest is history. [laughter]
The Jazz Gypsy: Well, you've made some great intuitive choices like when your brother-in-law left the sax sitting there and you picked it up, [laughter] , then you deciding you didn't want to be in a group and you struck out on your own. That was a bold decision at that time.
Laws: I enjoyed the experience. Those guys were like family but once you set a goal you have to stick to that, to working towards that goal. I had no guarantee as to how that was going to work out. All I just knew was that I needed to put all my effort and energy into accomplishing that. And, again with grace and help from the Creator it all worked out and I'm very grateful as to how it all turned out for me because it's not always a guarantee that it's going to always work out the way you plan it.
The Jazz Gypsy: Exactly. With so many sax players out there, how is it that you have your own unique sound? How do you distinguish your playing from others?
Laws: [hearty laughter] That's a good point. I get asked that a lot...all the time actually throughout my career I've always been asked that question. I can only attribute it to expressing, through the instrument, my personality, your personality, who you are. The instrument is only what it is. It's just a tool to express yourself. Whether it's the human voice, the violin, the guitar, the drums or whatever, it's just a tool or a channel in which you can express your personality, and your feelings and who you are. Also, I've always appreciated..well I came along during an era and it was paramount that that you have your own unique style and your own signature as an artist. Not necessarily sounding like someone else. You know we are all influenced by other artists or our environment but for the most part I've always wanted to be unique and express how I felt through the instrument...so it just comes out that way.
The Jazz Gypsy: So, not being a musician myself, all I understand is that there are notes on a page and you line up four saxophonists and they have the same notes to play but when you play it it's different.
Laws: [hearty laughter]
The Jazz Gypsy: How do you do that? That's like magic to people that are not musicians. [hearty laughter from both]
Laws: Well, you know, ask Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder ...why is it that they are unique.
The Jazz Gypsy: But that's a voice. That's different. How do you do that with your instrument?
Laws: Well, I guess you can say I am singing through my instrument. I'm projecting....I've gotten that comment from some of my peers who are musicians. They say, "Ronnie, actually you are singing through your instrument". Even when I sing vocally, the phrasing and the way I enunciate is similar to the way I play, so maybe that has a lot to do with it.
The Jazz Gypsy: Okay, so I'll accept that. [laughter by both] Also, I was reading on your website where you received a lot of flack for the type of music that you were doing. How would you look back on that now seeing how music has evolved?
Laws: Well, I didn't receive a whole lot of criticism. I received very little criticism but the criticism I did receive was mainly by people that really didn't know or appreciate my complete background. They had this vision of me following in the footsteps of my brother who was known as a straight ahead, classical musician. And, I've had classical training as well. But the point is I come from different genres of music as my musical experience....when you play with Earth, Wind and Fire, Hugh Masekela, you know. I grew up listening to blues frequently, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, and then you had the Motown era during the 60's. So I grew up in that. So when I play, it's genuine, it's not pretentious it's not just doing something to be popular. I'm just trying to express my musical experience and I drew from all different genres of music and different eras of music. So you're going to hear blues and some r&b, you're going to hear some jazz and a little classical in what I do because that was all a part of the music culture that I grew up in.
The Jazz Gypsy: You know, I think that's what explains your sound. It's a blend of all of that. And some times certain things are emphasized a little more than others.
Laws: That's very, very true. Actually, I'm very thankful for that...to be diverse and to have that versatility. I've always said...well, I equate it to almost being bilingual where you can communicate on all different levels.
The Jazz Gypsy: Yes! [every excitedly] Yes, that's what it is. [laughter] I think you explained "your sax voice" in a way that I can understand it a lot better because we hear it but we just didn't know where that was coming from, how you did it. [laughter from both]
Laws: It's just a gift, like I said. You're right when you talk about the human voice. I look at different singers and then there are musicians, you listen to... John Coltrane and you immediately know who that is. B.B. King can play one or two notes on his guitar and you say, "That's B.B. King". [laughter] It's a very unique gift and not many musicians or artists have that. That's why I look at it as a gift and I consider myself to be very blessed to have that.
The Jazz Gypsy: Also, you've been able to build and sustain a life-long career in the industry. How do you stay balanced and what advice do you have for young musicians?
Laws: Being adaptable doesn't equate or necessarily mean compromise. It means that you are selective as well as you are progressive in your thinking. You are progressive and you are open for other ideas that are offered to you or what you see or hear. So you sort of decipher how you want to incorporate that with what you do. We are all influenced by something, outside elements. Its about how we want to incorporate it into who we are, how do you want to fit it into what you do. So that's the way I Iook at it. And, there's a discipline involved and a social responsibility you should have as an artist. You just don't do anything to be popular. I really feel you have to be a principled person and understand that your music carries some weight because it impacts people and you should use that in a responsible way not to encourage stupidity and being irresponsible. So I try to put into my music some value, something positive and constructive. Something that's not good. For young people you have to prepare yourself and to set goals about what you want to do. You can't have a goal and walk through life aimlessly. So if you set a goal, work towards that goal and stay focused then 9 times out of 10 you're going to accomplish it.
The Jazz Gypsy: I love, love, love your answer to that. It really applies, not to just young people, and not just musicians but to people in general. That's excellent what you said.
Laws: Well, that's straight from the heart and having done this for a long time. Everyday is a challenge though, every day. Because you have elements out there that are counter to what you are trying to maintain and achieve. So you have to stay focused.
The Jazz Gypsy: So, I have two more questions for you. You will be performing at he upcoming Playboy Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 12th with Harmony 3 that includes Walter Beasley and Stanley Jordan. Have you played with them before and what can we expect?
Laws: I've played with them before. In fact, Stanley and I, back in the 70's and 80's, we've done several concerts together and have been featured at the same festivals. And Walter and I, over the last 15 years, developed a good relationship as fellow artists. You know he's one of the younger saxophonist that I really have a lot of respect for because of the way that he carries himself and the way he's maintained his career. He's a music professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston. But beside from that, when we first met, we sort of hit it off and I'm a lot older than he is [laughter] but we have similar approaches to what we do musically. So it's going to be great working with them as a package because I came up with the name Harmony 3. It's a package that's won't just feature Walter Beasley and Stanley [Jordan]. In the future, it may alternate with other people that I've worked with over the years that I want to include as part of that package.
The Jazz Gypsy: That will be great.
Laws: So if Stanley or Walter, because of scheduling, won't be able to perform on the package, there will be other people I will bring in as an alternate. So Harmony 3 is inclusive of my friends, those I have a great deal of respect and admiration for that I've worked with over the years. And, it may even include some new and upcoming people that I have a great deal of respect for. It's a formula for presenting some of the iconic people that I have worked with over the years that for some reason or another don't get the type of exposure or respect that they deserve. That was the concept of putting this package together.
The Jazz Gypsy: I love that. That is excellent. Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about?
Laws: That's about it. [laughter by both] Well, I have a young son that's a very accomplished saxophonist. My goal is to be more active in promoting some of the younger artists and musicians and to try and be a mentor to some of the young musicians that are coming up, and share my experience with them and hopefuly help to direct them in the right way.
The Jazz Gypsy: I think I saw your son perform with you. Is his name Javone.
The Jazz Gypsy: Yes, I think it was at the Inglewood Jazz Festival.
Laws: Yes, he was just a teenager then. But he has really matured so I'm trying to help get his situation moving. So he's forming a group and has a CD project in the works and I want to be as much encouragement to him as I can as well as to other young guys that are coming up like that.
The Jazz Gypsy: Well, Ronnie, thank you so much for your time and all that you said.
Laws: My pleasure.