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Meet Laura Simone-Martin

Meet Laura Simone-Martin

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Studying under John Clayton at the Vail Jazz Workshop was life changing. He’s one of the nicest and most supportive teachers I ever had.
—Laura Simone-Martin
This article first appeared in Jersey Jazz Magazine.

As a fifth grader at Lawrence Intermediate School in Lawrenceville, NJ, Laura-Simone Martin was planning to play the cello. But her mother, Dr. Trineice Robinson-Martin 2, who teaches Vocal Jazz at Princeton University, showed her a video of bassist Esperanza Spalding performing at the White House. "I saw her in her Afro, playing and singing. I just saw myself and thought that I could be like her."

After that, Simone-Martin's mother signed her up for private lessons with Art Stefano, a teacher at Music & Arts, a Lawrence Township music store. "We started focusing on orchestra," she recalled, "and I didn't get into jazz until the summer between eighth and ninth grade when I went to the Litchfield Jazz Camp for the first time." At the Connecticut camp, she met and learned from such instructors as pianist Avery Sharpe, baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, and the camp's Director, tenor saxophonist/flutist Don Braden.

During her freshman year at Lawrenceville High School, Simone-Martin became a member of the New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra, where she studied under the Director Julius Tolentino and pianist Shamie Royston. She said Royston "was a huge influence in my life. She really inspired me as a Black woman who played piano and was a bandleader and composer. I also met her younger sister (alto saxophonist) Tia Fuller. They're both like my aunties." Simone-Martin also played with the Lawrenceville High School Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, and Jazz Band. In 2020, she was named to the National Association for Music Education All-National Honor Jazz Ensemble, and she currently performs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra, directed by trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt.

This summer, Simone-Martin is one of two New Jersey students accepted into the Carnegie Hall NYO Jazz orchestra. While at NJYSJO, she met drummer Benjamin Schwartz, the other NYO student musician from New Jersey. She also met bassist Ryoma Takenaga and drummer Koleby Royston, Shamie Royston's son, both of whom were in the 2021 Carnegie Hall NYO program (Jersey Jazz, May 2021). It's connections like this that make Simone-Martin realize "how small the jazz world actually is."

Last summer, she attended the Vail Jazz Workshop (which Schwartz is attending this summer), and "three other students there are also a part of NYO Jazz this year." Last fall, she performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, part of the 2021 Next Generation Women in Jazz Combo, a very selective sextet featuring one student on each instrument. "It's amazing," she said. "A lot of the people that I met at Monterey are also going to be a part of NYO this year." Applying for the Monterey Festival, she said, was a daunting experience. "I was a bit nervous and having a lot of self-doubt. My teacher, Matthew Parrish (who also teaches at Princeton), pushed me to audition and said, 'even if you don't make it, it's a great opportunity to practice, which is something you'll have to do for college.' The experience was really eye-opening. I saw a lot of the elite players."

In the fall of 2021, Simone-Martin created the Queen Amina program for the Lawrenceville Intermediate School. It's named after the African warrior queen and designed to educate fourth through sixth grade female instrumentalists. "I teach them about women composers and women instrumentalists, and the history of the music. Also, I've invited guest speakers such as Tia Fuller and (bassist) Katie Thiroux. This past year I had 28 girls. Next year, I want to expand and include middle schoolers because some of the sixth graders moving on to a new school have expressed their dismay at not having Queen Amina." In her sophomore year, Simone-Martin created her high school's first Black Student Union. "I am also Vice President of Students for Social Activism," she said. "We do a lot of fundraisers and hold discussions. One of our fund drives was a cold weather coat drive for Martin Luther King Day, and we got about 400 coats and 339 hats. We also hosted a Zoom community discussion where we read Martin Luther King's speech and invited councilmen, school administrators, and teachers. And the Mayor came."

As she enters her senior year of high school, Simone-Martin is, of course, thinking about college. Among possibilities: Michigan State, Johns Hopkins' Peabody Institute, The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music, and Spelman College. And, although Esperanza Spalding sparked her initial interest in jazz bass, her list of bassist heroes has expanded considerably. It includes:Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, Israel Crosby, and John Clayton. "Studying under John Clayton at the Vail Jazz Workshop," she said, "was life changing. He's one of the nicest and most supportive teachers I ever had."

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