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Tom Lawton: Not Less Than Everything

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Man Ray's work can be very challenging to make sense out of because he was part of the surrealist movement in art where everyday objects could be freely mixed almost at random. How did you begin to make music from it?

TL: I strongly identify with Man Ray because his approach was somewhat like my own way of taking a wide variety of gigs with different kinds of music and musicians. Man Ray did both fine art (I don't like that elitist term, but we all know what it means), and then he did gigs for the money, like fashion photography for Harper's Bazarre. He also dabbled in different styles and media, like photography, paintings, and sculpture. And that's been true throughout my own career, taking some gigs for practical reasons while others expressed my passion for the music and my desire to push the envelope.

He was influenced by Marcel Duchamp. He did listen to vintage jazz, so there's that connection. He grew up in Philadelphia, but he went to New York and then to Paris, where he lived during most of his career. When he was in Paris, he often went to hear Sidney Bechet, which inspired the first movement of my suite, which I entitled "Bechet-Like." The title was suggested by Freddie Hubbard's tune called "Byrd-Like" for fellow trumpeter Donald Byrd.

"Bechet-Like" starts out in vintage creole Bechet style, but after a few bars it goes further out. Man Ray listened to Bechet while he did his art work, so that formed the basis of the first movement.

One of the movements was based on his painting called "End Game." [See YouTube video below article] I was looking for pieces that had contrasting moods, and this painting stimulated one very frenetic piece, an up-tempo neo-bop piece in which, somewhat like Ornette Coleman, you have a head or melody, and then you freely improvise based on the mood of the head.

A famous painting he did is called "Le Beau Temps" or "Fair Weather" which is on display in the Philadelphia Art Museum main building, a colorful and lively painting. To me, it had many layers of meaning: the pre-war vibe in Europe, his conflict about leaving Europe with the specter of war and Nazism looming, So in the next to last movement, I gave each instrument a particular leitmotif, and I set up the improvs to go in and out of the written parts just like the objects in the painting. That's the way I arranged this long, extended movement that dealt with the angst of the "Beau Temps" painting.

AAJ: So there would be conflicts and rapid shifts in mood.

TL: Yes. And towards the end, it does go into a groove, and when we performed it at the Art Museum, Ben Schachter took an amazing saxophone solo.

AAJ: Do you have any new composing projects coming up?

TL: Just during this pandemic I have received two small composition grants: one from an old student, Patrick Fink, to write a short "classical" (all written-out) piece for him to premiere. I've been toying with titles like "Labyrinth 2020 for Piano" or something like that. And I just started working on a Painted Bride Support Grant, for which I am writing jazz pieces as portraits of my favorite collaborators and people who have mentored and inspired me: Larry McKenna, Lee Smith, Matt Parrish, Diane Monroe, Bobby Zankel, and most recently, Odean Pope. I had already written and recorded such a portrait for Ben Schachter years ago. I'm imagining their sound and personality when I write their portrait, even though my aim is not to imitate them.

Summing It Up: Cooperation and Competition Among Jazz Musicians

AAJ: To wrap up the interview, I think people would like to hear some of your observations about your experiences as a musician. Your career has spanned a half century during which huge changes have happened in jazz and life in general. How would you sum it all up? And while you're at it, what would you like to tell the young jazz musicians who have taken it up as a career?

TL: If you want to do jazz as a career, you must feel it as an inner directive. Some musicians do get a different day job because they feel it's the best way to finance their jazz career. For me, it was always better to make all my work have to do with music, because then whatever I did, I'd always be learning things that I could bring to jazz. Teaching music and piano is a good example. I started out teaching to make a living, but I ended up really liking it. I've met so many wonderful people as my students. They are amazing musicians. For example, I first met a number of the musicians I gig with often when they came to my Secondary Piano class at Temple. [A "secondary piano" class is for people who play other instruments who want to learn piano because it is such a useful tool.—Eds.] The great drummer Dan Monaghan came to that class. I met guys like George Burton, Luke Carlos O'Reilly, Lucas Brown, and Tim Brey when they were piano majors at Temple.

As far as advice goes, one thing I would tell people is to try to make it non-competitive. It's very important to remember that we're all different, and each of us can bring something unique to the music. You're going to develop your own voice, and as you get to it, honor it. Sure, each of us can do things the others can't, but after a while it's not about that. It's really about developing your own voice. I don't try to be better than other pianists. I try to be the best Tom Lawton I can be. Orrin Evans tries to be the best Orrin he can be. And so on.

I remember a story about Thelonious Monk. He heard Art Tatum, and he loved and admired him. But he didn't want to one up Art Tatum. He wanted to be himself. I don't think there's enough emphasis on being who you are. I think the band programs that we have today emphasize competition way too much.

AAJ: And there have always been "duels" where musicians try to cut each other on stage!

TL: I think that was more good-natured though. A lot of times that one-upping was fun and very collegial. And we're lucky in Philadelphia. I haven't encountered that attitude of one-upmanship locally. Most everybody respects one another. It's a pleasure to work here because we aren't trying to prove ourselves. We share a common interest in making great music. That's the way is should be everywhere, especially with the young people coming up.

Photo Credit: Fran Lawton

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