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Hubert Laws: Flute Virtuoso and NEA Jazz Master

Hubert Laws: Flute Virtuoso and NEA Jazz Master
Greg Thomas By

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After James Moody and Frank Wess established the flute as a solo jazz instrument in the 1950s, and Herbie Mann popularized it in the 1960s, the musician that has become most identified with virtuosic flute performance in jazz is Hubert Laws, who became a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Fellowship in the class of 2011, the penultimate group of honorees before the program closes after the 2012 ceremony.

I've been enamored with Laws' flute and piccolo mastery since the late 1970s, when, for me, music transitioned from a background soundtrack to a passionate obsession. His beautiful sound moved me, his technical ability astounded, and his catholicity and versatility impressed and intrigued me. No matter the style or genre—straight-ahead jazz, funk, pop, fusion, R&B, Latin, gospel, or European classical music—Laws seemed right at home.

I recall my uncle, Curtis Thomas, in Harlem, playing the Romeo & Juliet (CTI, 1976) recording—an adaptation of Tchaikovsky's famous theme with strings and electronic instruments, in a pop vein. I'll always remember the colorful 1970s painting, on that album cover, of Laws playing his instrument with eyes-closed intensity. I heard his version of "Amazing Grace" when viewing the WABC television show Like It Is, hosted by broadcast journalist Gil Noble in New York. "Mean Lene," from Flute By-Laws (Atlantic, 1966), showed his Latin side, and after hearing him swing on Benny Golson's "Killer Joe," Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice"—or, more recently, his date with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs—no one would question his jazz chops.

And since fusion was all the rage back in the late '70s, I heard music featuring his flute in that mixed-genre context on radio station WRVR.

When I asked Laws about what some call the more commercial periods of his career—say in the 1970s with CTI—or his recordings with guitarist Earl Klugh, such as "Piccolo Boogie," or with pianist Bob James, or even his brother Ronnie and sister Eloise Laws, he refused to be boxed into a commercial bag per se.

"You mean music that is palatable to more people," he asked? "Yes," I replied. "All through my career," Laws explained, "I've just played music that reflects my life and experiences."

Makes sense. Growing up across the street from a honky-tonk in his birthplace of Houston, Texas, Laws had a musical family: his mother played gospel piano and her father, his grandad, played harmonica. He began studying European classical music in high school, while also performing gigs with the group that became the Jazz Crusaders. He eventually entered the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied with the renowned flutist, Julius Baker.

We began our discussion, which took place at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 10, 2011—the day before the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony and concert—with his memories of Juilliard, where he met pianist, composer and fellow NEA Jazz Master, Chick Corea.

All About Jazz: Tell us about your experience with Chick Corea at Juilliard.

Hubert Laws: As I look back, I remember how he was a pioneer of what was absent at that school: jazz improvisation. I remember when—this was back in '60 or '61—there was no jazz curriculum there at all. He was the one who put together these jam sessions, late in the afternoon after school was supposed to be over. And he included Spike Lee's dad, Bill Lee, on bass. So we'd be in that practice room, and just jam and jam and jam.

And I remember some of the gigs we used to have. I included him in some of the bands I put together, like at the top of the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where we'd play dances. He was on my very first record, The Laws of Jazz (Atlantic, 1966) and, then, Flute By-Laws (Atlantic, 1966) and Laws' Cause (Atlantic, 1969). All of those were structured by Joel Dorn, who produced those records.

Chick Corea and I, man, go back a long ways, and that relationship, that connection, continues.

AAJ: So how does it feel to be acknowledged as an NEA Jazz Master?

HL: Well, it feels good to be honored among people like these wonderful artists, you know, who have already been selected, and to be in that company. I guess it's like a shock factor—you don't realize something until after it's passed for a while. So, I'm more and more beginning to appreciate the honor that it actually puts upon me.

Stix Hooper, the Jazz Crusader drummer, invited me to dinner the night before I left to come to New York from Los Angeles. And he was the one saying, man, don't you realize that...

AAJ: This is the nation's highest honor for jazz artists!

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