(Apr 21, 2015, 4:42 PM PDT)
“It was 2am to 6am in the morning, after-hours on Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday we got paid fifteen dollars cash and on Thursday he (the owner) would just feed us. “
I drove for nearly two hours to experience Azar Lawrence. He was appearing in Long Beach, California at the Seabird Jazz Lounge with a band of masters; Henry Franklin on bass, Theo Saunders on piano, and Alphonse Mouzon on drums. When I arrived, I was in for a further treat in the person of the iconic New York-based Juinie Booth, who also took to the stage right alongside Henry Franklin. Azar was celebrating the music of McCoy Tyner, who was his mentor for five and a half years. Forty years ago, he, Alphonse Mouzon and bass player Junie Booth were McCoy’s tight, driving band. Tonight, they were back together and as fierce as ever, especially with the addition of Henry Franklin.
Jazz aficionados poured into the club. I saw Los Angeles based drummer and entrepreneur Al Williams walk in. Williams produces the annual Long Beach Jazz Festival and has fought to keep jazz alive in Southern California, owning and operating two jazz clubs over the years. Kamon (Bill Henderson) sauntered over to greet the cats before they took to the bandstand. He’s been Pharoah Saunders’ pianist of choice for decades. I enjoyed him last September at Detroit’s lannual free jazz festival, the largest in the United States. Jeffrey Winston, an active member of the California Jazz Foundation, sat just tables away from me. Chuck Koton was there photographing everyone for ‘All About Jazz’ and sound engineer Brad Clay ordered champagne at the bar. Los Angeles native and exceptional bassist Jeff Littleton was in the house. Yes, the room filled up like a beer poured too fast, bubbling over with expectant energy.
Azar did not disappoint us, playing with combustible force and unbridled innovation. Theo Saunders performed masterfully on an electric keyboard, telling me later the club’s grand piano just could not seem to stay in tune. The two bassists expressively meshed, each exposing a distinctive style of their own and energizing the music. Drummer Alphonse Mouzon is always exciting and amazingly creative. However, it was Azar Lawrence who fueled the fire and made it a night to remember. A few days later, I caught up with Azar for an intimate conversation about his life, his music and the state of jazz.
Dee Dee: So your mom was a music educator, right? Tell me about her and how she inspired you, because you started performing music really early in life.
AZAR: They said in Oklahoma, where she was raised, back then they had live pianists playing behind silent movies and when she came home she could play whatever she heard. She was really gifted. She got her Masters degree and she had found her musical niche, but what happened is that one of her college teachers in Oklahoma told her that if she pursued being a musician, he was going to fail her. So she gave music up. She always wanted one of her kids to be a musician, like she was. She was an educator, but she was also a great pianist.
I became the musician. My brother studied violin, like I did as a child, but he liked to draw. He’s a computer graphics buff. He built the models for the Klingon vessels in the Star Trek movie. He did a lot of the early holographic work on TV and he formed his own major down at UCSD (University of California San Diego).
My mother’s side of the family is from Oklahoma and my father’s side of the family is from Louisiana. From that side, we have Blackfoot Indian in us. Dad was an entrepreneur and made money when they were building the Harbor Freeway. He moved houses. You know how they used to move them on trailers? When they built the freeway, they were just going in and demolishing houses. Dad would get the houses and if you could move them, it was more lucrative ’cause you could buy a lot, put the house on the lot and sell it. He made money doing that. He also owned an avocado ranch. Dad used to tell me about a man that was sitting downtown L.A. where he worked and he spotted him playing dominoes with a plaid shirt on … but that poorly dressed man could put his hands on a hundred thousand dollars any time, day or night. My father was that very man. He was that kind of guy. So that’s how we ended up in Baldwin Hills. My brother was going to Audubon, and we still lived on 47th Street, between Avalon and McKinley; on the East side. The school district discovered that. So rather than change my brother’s school, my father moved us up to Baldwin Hills.
Dee Dee: You were only five years old when you were playing violin with the USC Junior Orchestra. What were you thinking at that age and playing in that setting?
AZAR: Well, I had a good ear and that kind of worked for me and worked against me. When it came to my practicing and reading skills, I was lazy. I would get to the lesson and tell the teacher I had problems with this or that, so he would play it. Once he played it, I had it. Even now I have that ability, just like my mom. I can read, but if I hear it, I’ve got it.
At nineteen, I was working on 54th Street and 8th avenue, at a club somewhere down there off Crenshaw. Our drummer was (Otis) “Candy” Finch, Larry Gales on bass, Woody Shaw, myself and George Cables. It was 2am to 6am in the morning, after-hours on Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday we got paid fifteen dollars cash and on Thursday he (the owner) would just feed us. But I was also playing with Frank Zappa and Charles Wright of the 103rd Street Band at that time. With Frank Zappa, George Duke was on piano and Robert Taylor was on drums. We were just rehearsing in the studio; just recording.
It makes sense that Azar Lawrence would work with Frank Zappa, because like Lawrence, Zappa was constantly in search of a balance between musical genres and pushing the boundaries of both music and society.
AZAR: I played with Eric Burton when he founded War. You know I had just graduated out of high school, so I was being nineteen and dabbling in everything.
I talked to Benny Golson a couple of years ago when we were in New York, and he was validating some of Reggie(Golson)’s stories. Reggie’s passed now, but Reggie Golson was my best friend. He was telling me about all his experiences with Duke Ellington and how he travelled with the band. And Benny was saying, yeah – Reggie knew Duke better than he did. Elvin (Jones) had a set of white Pearl drums and those are the drums he had given Reggie. At that time, I met Elvin through Reggie. Yeah – we went and picked him up from the airport and Reggie told him about me. Dave Liebman had just left the band to go with Miles. Originally, it was Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman and Gene Perla on bass and he (Elvin Jones) offered me a chance to play. I went to a rehearsal for an audition and the rest is history. I lived with Elvin for two and a half years. And then Alphonse Mouzon came down to hear Elvin one week at the Vanguard. They (McCoy’s group) were playing the following weekend and he heard me. He said, oh man – listen to this cat. We need him. I’m gonna tell McCoy about him. That was it. He hired me that night. So of course Miles came down to listen. It was a big controversy when I went out with McCoy. Because he had to let Sonny Fortune go to hire me. And it was like who is this young guy from L.A., this guy from the country? All these horn players were waiting in line, hopefully to get that job with McCoy Tyner.
Dee Dee: So how did you handle that at such a young age?
AZAR: Well, I guess I did OK (laughter). I stayed with him for five and a half years.
Dee Dee: What made you hire two bass players on your gig last Saturday night at the Seabird Jazz Lounge?
AZAR: Well – you know it peaks the interest of reinvention. A lot of people want to know why I hired two bass players (more laughter). You know it was an experimental thing and I was in an experimental mode. … I’m in a contemplating stage, with all my music. You know, after playing with Miles…you know he was an extremist. He had experience dripping off him. There was like a hundred years of experience just being on stage with him. He just had an aura around him of experiences. Aw man, he was like – oo-whee. Yeah, a real genius. He expressed, when we talked on the phone, he gave me the concept of a tonality that was so heavy and so deep that it could have gone over my head but I absorbed it. And every so often, over the years, something that he said comes to me. I’m still experimenting. We didn’t really get a chance to talk at the gig, but I have a single of ‘Thriller’ that John Barnes and I did together.
NOTE: This single release of Michael Jackson’s hit record is available on CDBaby.com and is a smokin’ five minutes of smooth jazz.
Dee Dee: So, who are some of the young lions of jazz today that you’re paying attention to?
AZAR: Well, there’s Nicholas Payton. He’s one of them and he’s on my last CD. Benito Gonzales is a great pianist. Essiet O. Essiet, an African brother, he’s my favorite bass player and he’s playing with me too. He’s based in New York.
Dee Dee: You know, when I listen to you, I feel so much spirit. And that’s what always drew me into your music; the spiritual thing I feel coming from you. When you’re making a decision to play with musicians, does that come into play?
AZAR: Well yes – just like a feeling and ‘like minds’ or ‘birds of a feather flock together’. With McCoy and Elvin too, I was part of that family of spirit. We, over the lifetimes of spirit, we expressed on a certain level and as musicians and as artists we come to heal and bring light.
And bring light, he does! If you haven’t experienced the mastery and spontaneity of Azar Lawrence on stage, you are missing an unforgettable occurrence. Catch him while he’s local. He will be back at the Seabird Jazz Lounge on Saturday, April 25th with a quintet, featuring some of the hottest L.A. jazz players in town. On International Jazz Day, Azar’s group will appear in Phoenix, AZ (April 29 and 30) featuring Nicholas Payton on the 29th and Azar’s quartet on the 30th.