Jazz Messiah
Arnie Lawrence shares the music in the Holy Land
Jerusalem, 21 April 1999, NEWSDAY

On the eve of the millennium, while Israel is abuzz with doomsday prophecies and messianic expectations, a saxophonist with green eyes and bushy white eyebrows is spreading a melodic message of peace and love.

Arnie Lawrence, a 60-year-old saxophonist from Brooklyn, is preaching the gospel of jazz in the Holy Land.

At the International Center for Creative Music, which Lawrence founded a year ago in Jerusalem, Lawrence initiates musicians of all ages to the mysteries of jazz. Farther north, in Ramallah, a Palestinian-ruled city still occasionally rocked by violence, Lawrence brings together Jewish and Arab musicians in a spirit of peaceful and playful interaction. And on weekend nights Lawrence and his alto saxophone officiate at the foothills of Jerusalem in a new club called the Village Gate, named after the famous New York club.

The son of a pajama-maker in Brooklyn who could barely play the spoons, Lawrence became a sought-after saxophonist both in the worlds of jazz and entertainment. He recorded with James Brown, Elvis Presley, Blood Sweat and Tears and Liza Minnelli and was hired as a soloist on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" until the show moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 70s.

Lawrence reckons he played with "maybe 90 percent of the encyclopedia of jazz," from giants like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie to avant-garde artists like Archie Shepp.

These days, Lawrence passes on the teachings of his idols to a new generation of jazz students, peppering his instruction with original quotes and anecdotes. "Dizzy once told me, 'Music is not a takie - it's a givie, " he likes to repeat, speaking of his friend, be-bop artist Dizzy Gillepsie.

And these days, Lawrence is giving a lot.

On a recent Sunday night at the center, Lawrence was addressing a group of conservatory students and amateur musicians who had come to practice the art of spontaneous composition. He asked them to get up and march behind him, left foot first, as he played a tune on his saxophone.

His weathered cowboy boots showed the way, circling a few desks and chairs, and soon everybody from a 14-year old clarinetist in orange-laced sneakers to a well-heeled vocalist was playing a single powerful song, based on the march's rhythm.

"It frees you up!" exclaimed Jeffrey Green, a baritone saxophonist in his mid-50s. "You forget your inhibitions and you concentrate on walking."

Green has been playing since age 7 but has not felt this way very often. Omri Mor, a 15-year-old pianist, butted in, "Yeah, and then you start really playing. You don't think about chord and harmony. It's like the Nike system, you just do it."

Lawrence has taught hundreds of master classes in the United States and co-founded in 1986 the prestigious Mannes New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, which quickly became one of the best jazz programs in New York.

The Jerusalem center, however, is a step away from academic jazz tuition. The teaching is personal and intuitive, focusing on rhythm and melody rather than musical theory. Famous musicians, like saxophonist James Moody, are invited to teach seminars whenever possible. There are no diplomas, no fees. Strapped for cash, Lawrence hopes donations "will keep us keepin on."

Lawrence experienced this brand of informal teaching firsthand. A pimply faced kid who used to hang out at the Palladium, the New York home of salsa, he took his cues from the saxophonist of the famous Cuban Machito band.

When Lawrence was 18, playing at the Gay Nineties Club on Long Island, Ben Webster, the great jazz saxophonist, would sometimes walk over from the Nu Way Lounge nearby and listen in. Webster was "a tough man who wasn't nice to everybody" but was capable, in his ballads and in person, of great tenderness, recalls Lawrence. He placed his hand on Lawrence's shoulder and gave the self-trained saxophonist the confidence to achieve his dream. "To have him stand next to me and to hear him play was the greatest lesson I could have," Lawrence said.

The results of Lawrence's own tutelage can be stunning. Mor, the enthusiastic pianist, is a skinny, gregarious teenager of Russian and Iraqi descent, who cannot read music. But during a jam session at the Jerusalem Village Gate, he composed 20 minutes of inspired music after having heard Lawrence briefly play only once the tune of "Three Blind Mice." The audience at the Gate, a new jazz venue created by Lawrence at a roadside inn, was mesmerized. A year ago Mor "couldn't play two blues choruses without getting confused," said Lawrence. "Now he can improvise as if he were Mozart improvising through jazz."

About 200 musicians participate, on and off, in the center's classes. For budding artists, Lawrence provides a living link with the traditions of jazz and a precious contact with the contemporary international jazz scene.

Lawrence thinks the center's success has something to do with the spiritual quality of Jerusalem. It is "such a special place, it almost demands that an artist who comes here, whether he's a master artist or an aspiring one, has to play with more feeling, love and grace."

During a recent student improvisation, Lawrence sang softly, eyes closed, "We praise you." He turned off the lights to put a pianist at ease. He urged a shy trumpeter, "It's not the noise, it's the feeling. Now give it to me." And a big smile lit up his face when a vocalist intoned "Lord thank you for this day. Blues is the best way to pray."

Unlike the fractious city that has been for centuries the object of conflicting desires for Muslims, Jews and Christians, the center is a place of religious tolerance. It reflects Lawrence's longstanding ecumenicism. Over the years Lawrence has composed both Jewish and Christian liturgical music and played in almost every conceivable house of prayer.

"I was born to the Jewish faith but I believe that God is there for everybody," said Lawrence, who moved to Israel with his wife, Lisa, from New York two years ago to be near his 88-year-old mother-in-law.

He now goes out of his way every Thursday to play for a predominantly Muslim and Christian Arab audience in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Ramallah, a city under Palestinian rule near Jerusalem. Most Israeli Jews, who remember the violent clashes of the past decade, rarely set foot there.

The atmosphere is multicultural in the extreme: The melody of drums and ouds (traditional Arab lutes) played by Arab musicians blend with jazz improvisations pouring from the fingers of a Jewish pianist from Tel Aviv. Lawrence has developed a following and created a scene "where people can be together in happy creative ways. That's what music is supposed to do."

Lawrence however does not see his work in the Holy Land as a co-existence project. "It's a project of the heart," he said. "It was never an experiment for me. In Brooklyn there were many cultures and tastes of different foods and lifestyles all melding together. We all inspired each other."

© Flore de Préneuf