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Michael Lauren: Give My Regards To Portugal

Jim Worsley By

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My dad used to take me to the drum battle concerts that featured Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. Then one day you hear Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Your ears start to turn and you realize there is more than one way to do this. —Michael Lauren
From Broadway to jazz to Portugal. A circuitous route for sure. One that has, however, served international musician Michael Lauren well. The now seventy-year- old multi-styled drummer came out of the womb with a kick pedal and has been holding down a symphony of beats ever since. Over the years he has played or recorded with Chuck Berry, Tom Jones, Mike Stern, Paul Anka, Bill Frisell, Darlene Love, Tom Harrell, Jerry Jemmott, Bob Mintzer, and many more. Along the way he co-founded the famed Drummer's Collective in New York City. Indeed, teaching and giving back is as much of his story as the many diversified gigs and genres Lauren has navigated in a drummer's life.

But how does a man meant to play jazz end up with a career in Broadway that ultimately leads to jazz and, oh yeah, winds up in Portugal? Let's let Lauren, who spoke with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age, tell the story.

All About Jazz: Are you from New York City originally or like so many did you migrate there pursuing the dream?

Michael Lauren: I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and spent most of my working life there. In the early 1970's I went to Boston for three years to study with the great Alan Dawson at Berklee. There are certain advantages to growing up in New York City with the musicians you meet, both legends and up and coming players. It's both humbling and inspiring. The instruction level just can't be beat. My teacher was the drummer for West Side Story. He was handpicked by Leonard Bernstein when the show first came to Broadway.

AAJ: Was he your first teacher?

ML: Yes, his name was Nat Foodman. He played with Harry Belafonte and went to Julliard. He was a musician's musician. I was ten years old when I started studying under him in 1960. If you were a reading musician there was so much work available in New York City at the time. I was trained to be a Broadway drummer young. Foodman passed away at a young age due to cancer. So, I then continued with his best student, who was also a Broadway guy.

AAJ: So, you went on to play Broadway?

ML: Yes, it was my destiny. I've had a very versatile career and consider myself a multi-stylist. For Broadway your reading skills need to be very high and you, of course, are working with a conductor. You have to be able to work with dancers and to be able to jump in and learn the job quickly. It was normal for many of us to do several things within the course of a day. By that I mean gigging separately at a jazz club in the evening and doing something else over here or there to learn and develop other skills. Broadway eventually burned out for me as it didn't allow me to be creative enough. It just wasn't what I wanted to be doing. Basically, with Broadway you are an actor. They have a script for you, and they aren't looking to change anything up. When you are a sub, you have to be able to come in and play the other drummer's book right there on the spot. Lots of pressure, no rehearsal, no second chances, it's a tough job. Fortunately, I was good at it. But it was the hardest job I ever had.

AAJ: How long did you do that before pursuing jazz and other opportunities?

ML: I believe it was the early 90's when I was doing Guys and Dolls when I decided to move on. Some of the best melodies ever written were for Broadway shows. The American Songbook is made up of many tunes for Broadway shows. So, I will say that the actual experience of working in theater was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

AAJ: Starting out at ten years old learning music with the complexities that required strong reading skills, perfection, and working with a conductor, did you find it to be a good training ground that set you up well to ultimately learn and incorporate other genres of music?

ML: Yes. Now during the Broadway years, I had started to learn and play jazz. The first jazz tune I ever learned was "Mack the Knife." I learned it on brushes, not with sticks. Early on the music of artists like Horace Silver and Frank Sinatra got me into it.

AAJ: Do you come from a musical family?

ML: My mother was a classical pianist at a professional music school in New York City. My grandmother was a ragtime pianist. So, yeah there was music in my home. It was encouraged. I was playing a recorder by the time I was five or six. Music was very much encouraged in school and in our communities. Music was a priority in schools and society more so on the east coast and the Midwest regions. You know, when you think about the history of jazz and its strong development in New Orleans, one of the reasons is that it was a staging area for the Union Army. The army had many many bands. When they left at the end of the Civil War, they left all the instruments. Those band traditions were powerful and carried on.

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