Acclaimed Composer, Producer, Writer and Performer
Transcendental jazz musician Azar Lawrence, has a long and storied musical past having started a professional career at age 17 that has now spanned more than four decades. The prolific saxophonist has worked with some of the music industry’s most notable players, from jazz luminaries like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner to rock, R&B and hip-hop legends like Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire and Busta Rhymes.
Lawrence’s affinity for music, sparked by his mother, a classically trained pianist. That affinity has guided him through an ever-changing professional landscape. From the release of his first several albums before the age of 25 through today, he has found a place of influence, significance and respect through all of the changes in the music industry. Lawrence has used his love of music to not only traverse the up-and-downs of this fickle journey, but also to bring beauty into the lives of others.
Touching Audiences Beneath the Surface
Lawrence takes pride, as he should, in the ability of his music to reach people on more than just a surface level. He believes that music has innate healing powers which all people subconsciously seek to experience. The Azar Lawrence life philosophy, much like that of any great artist, is to do whatever it takes to grow his art form. In a 1st Amendment Exclusive, we sat down with the acclaimed composer, producer, and writer to discuss the current state of the music industry, his thoughts on its fate, and whether or not he foresees any cross-genre collaborations in his future.
1st Amendment Media: Thank’s for sitting down with us today. Your career has spanned nearly 45 years. Would you say that you’ve seen any major changes in the industry since you started?
Azar Lawrence: Yes, it’s continuing to change. I think it’s going to work itself out. I feel it’s going to continue to change! Whatever the condition of the industry is, I feel it’s all going to be conducive for a person to create a good sound. People, whether they realize it or not, need music. I think it depends on how your sound is. The more beautiful your sound the more people listen to and need it, the more they want it to heal themselves. So yes, I’ve seen it changing from an economic and logistics standpoint. It has changed… Some people think it’s for the worst, but it’s just change.
Change, for many, it hasn’t affected them. infact they’ve been able to more than others. For people who haven’t been able to make the transition as easily as others, it’s been adetriment, but to some who have just begun this is all they know. If this is all you know, then you don’t have to adapt. They’re acclimated to it.This is all you know, the way it is now. I think the changes are impacting those who are coming from a previous position in the way it was set up into the way it has evolved and is transitioning. Because perhaps it hasn’t found its final mark. Will it ever? Maybe it will continue to change, even while in appearance it has stopped or is stable.
Music Changes as the Times Change
Because for instance, who would have thought that some of the things like disco that came on the forefront and punk rock and these different time periods, these changes were expressed through the various time periods and energies that were prevalent at the time. Just like some of the different speakers and people bringing light like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, at different periods of time, the industry reflected some the same energies [at that time]. It’s all a reflection.
As rap and hip hop became prevalent, [so did] the thinking that went along and goes along with that, which is also changing. We have people who started up gangsta, they’ve made so much money, Some people, I won’t mention names, they’re selling point was a certain frown or scowl on their face, which was indicative of the gangsta in them. Now they’ve made so much money it’s difficult for them to even get that look. Look at Ice Cube. His whole thing was that frown, that mean mug. He made so much money. Ice Tea. He’s made so much money. They’ve really gotta work hard to put it on now. It’s all changing.
Music Industry Also Changes
On other hand the industry has changed. The-so-called record deal has paved the way and given us room for people to do more of their own type of production. [They’re] creating their own machinery, and utilizing that to promote and sell and to live through the music. Before, when I was first starting out, I caught the middle to tail end of when that[the record deal] was prevalent. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, lets say even though there were record deals in which they got paid, they were of a certain type. In other words, at one period there wasn’t that much money that record companies would put out that was accessible to the artist. Then they got to where record companies were putting more money out in the terms of as advances. That increased until it was a bubble and that popped.
Azar Flows with the Changes
Now, it’s in decline from less advances to no advances. During all of that time there was a certain percentages of money that were being taken from the artist [and a certain percentage] that he was allowed to make on his own work. So, all of that changed too. Now, you can make more or less 100% of your earnings, minus certain expenditures, whereas before the record companies were absorbing that. If you were a major act and got 10 points your were doing good. On a dollar some artist were making one or two pennies on the dollar. Some people were making 10, 15, 20 cents on the dollar; they were big time.
In other words, to answer your questions, I’m flowing with it. I’m going to do good whatever the time is. Right now it has changed, but it’s fine. If that’s what it is, it is. Whatever the industry is at the time, that’s the tool I’m going to utilize to put the music out.
1AM: You mentioned that people channel the energy of their era to incorporate beauty into their music. Your career has spanned a large period of time. What’s your method for incorporating beauty into your music?
Azar Lawrence: One of the tools is what we’re doing right now: Interviews and reviews. Over the period of the last five years or so as I’ve been working with my own group and in the quintet and quartet situations, I’ve been able to have the New York Times do some pretty good half page interviews with pictures of my groups. For instance my last CD, the one that’s out now is called The Seeker, Mr. Herb Hudson is the executive producer on it. I produced it and I have people like; Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Jeff K. Watson on drums and Benito Gonzalez on piano.
We recorded that live at the Jazz Standard. My co-producer was Seth Abramson who is the head of Rabbit Moon Productions, which is the company that books the Jazz Standard, a major jazz club in New York. He also book’s other major events in the park. They’re a major contract buyer. It was recorded live at the Jazz Standard. The New York Times they said that we would have around a quarter page article, but after that every time we moved, we would get pieces and features in the New York Times. We have substantial pieces in the New York Times. Those kinds of things are very helpful in making people aware of live performances and how the top reporting agencies feel about it. It’s one of the tools we use to try and stay at the forefront.
1AM: Do You have any influences outside of music that help shape your sound?
Azar Lawrence: Of course. My mother was very influential, being a school teacher as well as a music teacher, in shaping my sound. She fueled my desire. My parents, both of them, have a lot to do with the initiating or the shaping of the sound. And, I draw a lot from the environment. I do a lot of traveling with the music. The music is my magic carpet. I am able to draw a lot of experiences from my traveling that shape the sound.
1AM: Were you ever discouraged from pursuing music as a young artist? If so, how did you reignite your passion for music?
Azar Lawrence: No, I never got discouraged. I’ve always continued to adapt. At one period after I played with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye and I made quite a few albums with those individuals, I kind of got to the point where I was not satisfied with my sound or the sound of the saxophone. So, I stepped back and took piano lessons. I started playing with McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, So, then I went into writing. I started writing from the keyboard. It gave the horn another perspective. It helped me gain confidence in my writing ability.
I ended up doing well with writing, then I wrote for the Earth Wind and Fire album [Powerlight]. I worked with Maurice White on the Powerlight Album. We cowrote “Spread Your Love”. Then, I did a few songs with the producer Chuck Jackson. I would have four or five songs on an album such as the…Stanley Turrentine album…. I co-wrote songs with Patryce Banks of Graham Central Station. They would ask me to play keyboard in addition to writing.
To purchase Lawrence’s most current album, The Seeker, click here.