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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.

AAJ: That's interesting. I had never really perceived or thought of that aspect. What artists and styles of music were you mostly exposed to?

ML: Well, back in the sixties I was playing rock n roll. Learning to play the The Rolling Stones for school dances. Mostly in the summer, up in the Catskills in northern New York, there were many resorts and chances to play. So, I got my union card and went up to play a gig with some older guys. It was my first and last gig. My parents decided I was too young to be doing that and didn't want me in that environment when I was only fifteen. So that was the end of that career. But many musicians thrived up there. Are you familiar with that whole deal with the Catskills?

AAJ: I've never been up there, but I always think of the movie Dirty Dancing as a reference point.

ML: Oh, well that is exactly it. That's exactly it. In junior high I was playing in big bands and went to summer music camps. I was also being trained as an orchestral musician. So, I feel fortunate to having been exposed to all the great many styles of music. As you know, the sixties was an incredibly vibrant period of time for music. As a drummer you had to play everything. If someone wanted a Latin rock drummer you said yes, whether you knew it or not. You figured it out, you learned it. It was that kind of world.

AAJ: Which drummers influenced you the most early on and throughout your career?

ML: Louis Hayes is the first and for me most important name I would mention. I grew up playing "Blowin' The Blues Away." In my swing, it was definitely Louis Hayes. Sonny Payne is another. What I learned young is that there is greatness that comes in many shapes and forms. You have to find your own voice. Many of my colleagues slowed down because they knew they could never play like Buddy Rich. Well, I knew I could never play like him either, but was still very inspired by him. My dad used to take me to the drum battle concerts that featured Rich and Gene Krupa. Then one day you hear Elvin Jones and you hear Tony Williams. Your ears start to turn around and you realize there is more than one way to do this. I have always loved Billy Higgins. Then there are the rock drummers. The first time I heard John Bonham it just blew my mind. The first time I heard Interstellar Space(John Coltrane) I thought that there must be two drummers. Rashied Ali was amazing on that record. I have a wide palette of influences. Being a teacher, I have always felt that if you are going to teach something that you better be able to play it.

AAJ: Tell us about your teaching career.

ML: I became involved in the Drummer's Collective. It was a main gig for me for some twenty-five years, in addition to playing band gigs. I've always thought strongly about teaching. Some colleagues think I should have spent more time trying to make a name for myself. I was never about that. I am happy to have shared my knowledge with my students. I have no regrets. The Drummer's Collective was a great opportunity for sharing with other faculty members and students. It was never a sense of competition. Everyone wanted to help each other be a better player.

AAJ: What led you to Portugal?

ML: A great opportunity to teach that was just too good to turn down. I had a number of Portuguese students in New York City that encouraged me to go to Portugal. They thought I would really like it there. I do enjoy the European culture. One of the top drummers in Portugal was my student and he invited my wife and I to come over for a visit. We really loved it and thought about retiring there, but it just didn't seem practical as far as job security and all that. We visited a couple of more times, did some workshops and resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn't meant to be. Then shortly after going back home I received a call that offered me a great position to teach at the Escola Superior de Musica e Artes do Espectaculo (ESMAE) in Porto. I've had a wonderful time being part of the growth in jazz culture in Portugal. We have now lived in Porto for seventeen years.

AAJ: How did the formation of the All-Star band happen?

ML: I knew there were many musicians here that like playing American jazz. I was fortunate to meet a few when I first came over to Portugal. My All-Star band consists of some of the finest and most experienced musicians and composers in Portugal. They are bassist Carlos Barretto, pianist Diogo Vida, trumpeter Hugo Alves, vibraphonist Jeffrey Davis, guitarist Nuno Ferreira, and saxophonist Jose Menezes. They all have played with many international and Portuguese artists. They also have extensive recording careers as both leaders and sidemen. I'm now seventy years old and, at first, I didn't really have the time nor inclination to take on the work of putting together, managing, and booking a band. If I did, I wanted to be able to play a harder style of swing, jazz funk, and hard bop than what they were used to playing here. I created this group so that I could play the music that gives me the most pleasure. We started playing a number gigs and people were digging it. I wasn't even thinking about recording at that point. I probably should have been. We had some knockout sessions. I am very proud of the work that we have created.

AAJ: Your first record, Once Upon A Time in Portugal, has a couple of beautifully arranged standards but is mostly new material from various members of the band, including yourself. How important is it that there is a collective to these contributions?

ML: That first record was more of a hard bop deal. We did our take on the "Nearness of You."

AAJ: I must say I loved your arrangement on that.

ML: Thank you very much. I was proud of that. We also did a Bobby Timmons song that very few people play called "Minor Strain." This tune to me really represents New York. It is New York. I love that tune. Yes, the rest were all originals. One thing that is great about Portugal is the level of writing. These guys are all high-level writers. It's important to have quality material throughout the record, not just for one or two songs. The guys in my band bring out a lot of different colors and textures and attitudes. I wanted the world to know about the high-level of composers here in Portugal. I'm fortunate that a lot of those guys are in my band.

AAJ: Your recently released second offering, Old School/Fresh Ideas, continues and perhaps swells that collective process. Tell us about your new record. You must be excited about it.

ML: Yes, I really am. I wanted a bit more room on this record. To keep the hard bop, but to mix in a blues tune, a funk tune, and just expand it a little within the same feel.

AAJ: Your concept of having short yet fertile duets interspersed between songs on this record has an impact on how your music is heard and received. What was the intent of this approach?

ML: On the first record I had separators. Solos that not only gave the guys their own space but that became a bridge to the next tune. Not on every song, but still throughout. It was also thematic in that I had the guys play contemporary solos that set a mood for the next song. For the second record I didn't want to do the same thing. I instead came up with several drum grooves and played them at a session with no rehearsal and just waited to see who wanted to jump in on each one. So, six grooves and who wants to play 'em? Then we just started to lay them down. Some were the first take. They are all fresh and contemporary sounding. It's like cleaning your palette before the next tune.

AAJ: You would seem to have developed a comfortable and accessible sound. Are your plans to do more with your All-Stars and continue to share with and educate eager young minds?

ML: I want to play more. I love this band. I'm very happy with and know we have made a great record here. I really want to reach younger people with jazz. My students play jazz, but often its not swinging jazz. Certainly not hard swinging jazz. This isn't just here in Portugal. Old School/Fresh Ideas is an eclectic record that is not just for jazz fans but also designed to draw in younger listeners who might here something they can relate to it. My tune "Lisboa Boogaloo" is an example that many younger fans have founding something in. My students like the swing feel and the sound, we just have trouble getting them to focus long enough to listen to a solo no matter how good it is. But it will all come around. I'm very much an optimist.

AAJ: You must sometimes miss the chance to gig out with some of the jazz elite in New York City.

ML: Of course. Especially the studio work and the opportunity to play R&B, funk, and Roots American music. But many of the moments and opportunities that have come along here have been very sweet. Portugal, however, motivated me to record my first jazz albums as a leader. Also, I have been able to give more master classes and clinics. I was the artistic director for four years of a performance and lecture series on jazz sponsored by the University of Porto. The series included two history of jazz concerts. A concert contrasting big band styles and a concert performing Oliver Nelson's classic album Blues and the Abstract Truth. Amazingly, I recently got to work with Benny Golson, performing his big band arrangements of his classic tunes. It was incredible! At ninety years of age, Benny is completely engaged and gave a wonderful concert both playing and telling stories about his career. The audience loved it. He is truly a jazz historian of the post bebop era. It was both inspiring and at times surreal to play his compositions with him. Working with Benny Golson is definitely a highlight of my career.
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