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Arnie Lawrence

Born: July 10, 1938 in Brooklyn, NY
Died: April 22, 2005 in Jerusalem, Israel

Saxophonist, educator, peacemaker

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins

Arnie Lawrence was one of the most tragically underappreciated saxophonists to ever come out of New York. Seemingly aware that he would never achieve the kind of attention that his formidable talents deserved, he threw himself into teaching in the mid-1980s, becoming one of the world’s foremost innovators in jazz education. Eight years ago he moved from New York to Jerusalem, Israel, where he successfully used jazz as a tool for bridging the Israeli-Palestinian culture gap. He died there of lung and liver cancer on April 22, 2005, at the age of 66.

Arnold Lawrence Finkelstein was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn on July 10, 1938. He initially studied clarinet in school, then switched to tenor sax before making the alto sax his principal instrument. At seventeen he began leading the “Jazz Unlimited” series at Birdland, where he came in contact with giants like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He spent time in Chicago, then worked with Les McCann in Los Angeles before returning to New York for a gig in the Catskills. He composed music for the funerals of both Senator Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Father John Gensel’s jazz-friendly Riverside Church. In the mid-1960s Lawrence logged work with the likes of Clark Terry, Budd Johnson and Doc Severinsen, who pulled the saxophonist into his “Tonight Show” band in 1967. He stayed until 1972, choosing to remain in New York when the show packed up and moved to Burbank.

Lawrence’s first recordings were Chico Hamilton’s The Dealer (Impulse, 1966) and Johnny Richards’ Aqui se Habla Español (Roulette, 1966). Hamilton was a regular employer for several years (Peregrinations, 1975), and the altoman also worked for Frank Foster, Helen Humes, Roland Hanna and Duke Pearson in the late 1960s. Lawrence’s resumé became more eclectic in the 1970s: besides jazz gigs with Hamilton, Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Willie Bobo, Beaver Harris, Teresa Brewer and Chuck Israels, he waxed sides for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (under Urbie Green’s direction), Blood, Sweat and Tears, punk pioneer Genya Ravan, Liza Minnelli, James Brown, and British rocker Ian Hunter.

Lawrence led his own groups as well. Treasure Island (self-titled, 1979, Dr. Jazz Records) was a forward-looking band featuring trumpeter Tom Harrell, percussionist Badal Roy, and ex-Ellington violinist and trumpeter Ray Nance. Over the years the more flexible ensemble Children of All Ages counted among its members Bob Dorough, bassist Richard Davis, pianist Dick Hyman (Inside a Looking Glass, Embryo/Atlantic, 1977) and the Brecker brothers. Among his best recordings under his own name are Look Toward a Dream (1968, with Larry Coryell, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes) and Renewal (1981, with Hamilton, Hilton Ruiz and Billy Hart). His symphony “Red, White and Blues” was debuted by the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra in 1985 with Lawrence, Gillespie and Julius Hemphill as featured soloists.

In the early 1980s Lawrence served academic residencies in Kentucky and Kansas, perking his interest in jazz education. In 1986 he co-founded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, which has grown to become one of New York City’s most respected schools for the arts. One of the New School’s hallmarks was exposing students to live music outside the confines of the classroom, a result of Lawrence’s firm belief that jazz had to be lived in order to be taught and learned. Among his more familiar New School pupils were pianist Brad Mehldau, Blues Traveler harmonica player/singer John Popper, organist Larry Goldings and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

In 1997 Lawrence carried those principles with him to Jerusalem, where he set up his home and the International Center for Creative Music. ICCM quickly became much more than a music school, uniting Palestinians and Israelis through their mutual love of the arts. Arnie Lawrence and his school became a force for peace in one of the world’s most troubled regions. Its open-door policy encouraged cooperation and mutual understanding beyond the mechanics of musical art. For a time he ran a Jerusalem club, Arnie’s Jazz Underground, and performed with both Jewish and Arab musicians in the political hotbed of Ramallah for a time.

In 2002 Lawrence was honored by an “A Team” award from the Jazz Journalists Association, lauding him for his contributions to world peace and unity through jazz. He actively supported two world charities, God Bless the Child and Blues for Peace.

Arnie Lawrence is survived by his wife, Liza, of Jerusalem; sons, Erik of Putney, Vermont; Scott of Ellicott City, Maryland, and Danny of Jerusalem; daughters, Marya of Manhattan, and Jana of Shreveport, Louisiana; brother, Howard Finkelstein of New York; and seven grandchildren.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.

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