Who is Hubert Laws?

As far as flute players go, Hubert Laws does it all. A virtuoso in the classical world, in the jazz idiom he glides through challenging repertoire effortlessly. I had the pleasure of seeing Hubert play with Chick Corea and a band of all-stars at the Jazz Alley in Seattle, and was able to appreciate in person his passion and conviction to his art. He agreed to meet with me and talk about his story, music and life in general, and I met up with him at his sister-in law’s in north Seattle. We hit it off immediately and connected on many levels. His recording of “Windows” with Chick Corea had a huge influence on me as a flute player and I asked him about it.

Our Interview

Tom Keenlyside: I was asking you about “Windows”, because it was a great influence on me as a flute player…how did that recording come about?
Hubert Laws: You’ve got to realize that the relationship I have with Chick Corea is woven in and out over the years since Julliard 1961, when I met Chick. We were both enrolled in Julliard, and when I finally got an offer to record my first album, “The Laws of Jazz”, he was one of the first ones I called, along with Richard Davis on bass. Also, I had Bobby Thomas on drums and, on a couple of tracks, Jimmy Cobb, who was playing with Miles. My first records with Atlantic were “The Laws of Jazz”, “Flute ByLaws”, and “Law’s Cause”… Chick wrote “Windows” for me on that one.
I learned later that they included that tune on a compilation of Chick’s, which also included “Tones for Joan’s Bones” and “Litha”. I was always awed by his tremendous talent, even at that point, forty years ago. I mean, this guy had so much clarity to his playing as he does today, and all the technique. He’s very lyrically involved, and evolving what he is today.

“Windows”, and all of Chick’s music is a challenge to me. I look at this music like classical music. I would work for days and days on a Mozart flute concerto or a Bach Sonata or whatever. Often I took for granted what I could do on improvised music, but now it’s much more challenging to me. To play lines and make these chord changes meaningful…

This brings me to another question. You so effortlessly blend classical technique and the jazz language. Is that a problem for you?
I’ve never really thought about it.

Well, you know… others have said it is…
I did some clinics with James Galway on a seminar in the 70’s and he was not at all interested in playing any jazz or improvisation, but most of the students that were there were just asking for me to play some jazz.
I did a big concert with Jean–Pierre Rampal at the Hollywood Bowl in ’78, sold out, “an historic meeting” and played the “Claude Bolling Suite” which was turned out to be a big record. Claude told me he was a big fan of Duke Ellington’s. It wasn’t the kind of modern jazz that we hear today, but it was still something we related to, especially in the classical idiom.
Your question to me about playing classical music and jazz…I never really thought about it. It was a natural transformation to me because I actually played improvised music first. I learned from going to Baptist church Rythmn and Blues, that part, and went from there into classical music, due to the fact I played the flute — a staple in the classical setting.

Did you start on flute?
No, I started on piano. My mother said when I was four or five years old, I could pick out melodies. My first wind instrument was a melophone and from there I got attracted to the alto saxophone. I had a newspaper route and I was able to pay for my first alto sax with income from that. From there I went to the only high school band in Houston that had the best musical program, and my mother made sure that I got to go to that school. It was way across town and was a segregated situation. I could have gone to other schools if I had been the right colour. I’m glad it happened that way, because as it turns out, that’s what introduced me to the flute. The high school band was playing for a commencement exercise downtown, and the bandmaster chose to play the “William Tell Overture”. At that time there was nobody playing flute in the band, and there’s a big flute solo. At that strategic time a friend of mine gave me a flute that was up in his attic. I learned to play the flute to play that solo, and that was my introduction to the flute. I latched on to it right away, it was like an instant marriage. It was also a relief from finding reeds for the saxophone and the clarinet, which I was trying to play at that time.

(joking) A miserable instrument
Yeah, the “Cane of Pain”
(laughter all around)

Anyway, what was the music like that you heard growing up around Houston back when you were a kid. That must have had an influence on you.
Yes, it did. As a matter of fact, you could hear a lot of pop, but to hear jazz, you had to be introduced to it, probably from some obscure source. In this case the band director, Sammy Harris, would play records for us in our classroom. I was introduced to Cannonball and many others, but I didn’t get to hear Miles and Coltrane until I got to LA.

That was when you went with the Crusaders.
That’s right, but they weren’t called the Crusaders when I was with them

Did you play flute with them?
Yes, here’s what happened. I heard a group called the Australian Jazz Quartet that consisted of flute, bassoon, bass and drums, that was it. The group had such a unique sound, that was the inspiration for the band. I played the flute and Wilton Felder, who plays with the Crusaders, bought a bassoon. That was an alternate sound for that group. When I got a scholarship to study at Julliard in 1960 I left the band, and they did some more gigs and Dick Bach of Pacific Jazz Records offered them a contract, and they did their first record.

Wow,that’s pretty neat. Wilton Felder is a great bass player and also a great sax player.
Yeah,well before I left for New York the bass player in the band quit, so I switched from alto to tenor and Wilton switched from tenor to bass. Wayne was on trombone, Joe Sample on piano and Stix on drums. We were playing commercial gigs to survive at that time, we weren’t really playing jazz. Stix is going to be here Saturday night…he lives here.

In Seattle?
Yeah, as a matter of fact I played with him about three months ago at the first jazz festival in Solvang, you know where that is?

Yeah, it’s that Dutch town in California.
I helped him put the band together, I got Freddie Hubbard, Brian Bromburg on bass, Patrice Rushin on piano, Airto was there. Stix pioneered that, just like he pioneered the Crusaders group in high school.

I saw the Crusaders in Vancouver in maybe 1971 or ‘72.
Oh, that was when they had the whole band together. I was in New York playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and so I wasn’t really traveling or anything like that.

Tell me, what was it like studying with Julius Baker.
Very interesting. I used to go to his place every Saturday morning and he’d assign three etudes to memorize every week. Man, obviously it means you’d have to practice a whole lot. Anderson, Karg-Elert , pages filled with notes.

The Gradus Ad Parnassum of the flute, that Karg Elert’s hard stuff.
That’s it. Every week! But if I went in there and complained about it, well, he’d say “…all the other guys are doing it”. But what capped it off, I was shocked when I went to see him play a recital, and he’s got all this sheet music in front of him! I thought to myself “…Man, this guy…” But it was good that he made me do that because it made me practice a whole, whole lot. I think that’s a good legacy to have, and especially with the high level of performers at that school.
He was a great player, he was my favourite. I mean, I hear Galway and Rampal and I hear them play and I think , how do they have a bigger name than him.

Yeah, he’s got that big fat American tone.
Yeah, big tone…you’d hear him live and his technique, you’d never hear anybody play with as much authority.

My teacher was Conrad Crocker, who studied with William Kincaid who had that same huge sound, same kind of lineage.
Yeah, Baker studied with Kincaid at the Curtis Institute, so did my first teacher, Clemente Barone. I got on a train all the way to Philadelphia to audition with Kincaid myself, only to find out I had been turned down . I didn’t mind the rejection, because people all over the country were applying for only one open position at Curtis with him, including his own students. At the time, I was depressed, but I didn’t know there were other things to come. I looked in the “Overture” magazine of local 47 and saw that there was one scholarship available for the Julliard School. There were all kinds of instrumentalists vying for that one spot, pianists, violinists and it was some kind of miracle I got that scholarship! I never planned any of that stuff, but it’s all good fortune. I got close to the best flute player in the world.

I think a lot of people would agree…he was sensational.
Yes, I got to know him and his wife Ruthie well and would phone him at least once a month before he died in 2004. I’ve got his recordings on my iPod right now!

One thing that strikes me about your music, which I love, is that it’s so varied…all the orchestral things with CTI and the small group things. That’s a great way to go, isn’t it?
Yeah, and I love that…that’s the way my life’s been, too! I’ve played with Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Quincy, Chick Corea…that’s what my life’s all about, variety.

How do you stay in shape on the road, playing wise?
I just enjoy staying in the hotel room relaxing and practicing…I don’t go sightseeing as a tourist or anything. My old lady wants to travel with me everywhere, she wants to go shopping and like that. All I want to do is stay in my room and practice. Man, I stay in my room and watch a tennis match, play my long tones, improvise on tunes. Man, I still feel like I’m getting better.

Well, for me it’s easy to hear you’re always in shape, it’s clear as a bell, you can hear the attack and it’s perfectly executed.
Well, thanks. I still practice some of the basics…long tones, scales. Now, I feel you have to practice much of what you’re going to play. I practice through these changes in these Chick tunes and I realize you’ve got to practice what you’re going to perform. That’s why I’m not such a believer in practicing these alternative things. This one flute player friend of mine in New York took breathing lessons. I mean, we’ve been breathing all our lives which is only natural!

I’d like to ask you about Rudy Van Gelder, all those great sessions you did with him and various techniques he used in the recording world.
An excellent engineer! As a matter of fact, he’s my good friend more than just musically and recording-wise. He’s unique, and he’s produced the best sounds I’ve ever recorded. He used to cover up the mikes so we couldn’t read what kind he was using! You asked me about that recording “In The Beginning” . I remember that Steve Gadd was on that thing and I know that Ron Carter was on it, and Bob James, I believe. He was on most of those recordings. Claire Fisher also wrote a suite for that date.

That was an amazing period in American jazz…bold, splashy covers and great big sounding music.
Yeah, Creed Taylor was a high quality guy…in fact, I didn’t make a lot of money out of that period, but his company set the stage for all our careers. The big companies scooped us all up, and it spent a lot of money for all those signings. I went with CBS, George Benson with Warner Bros., Stanley Turrentine with Fantasy, Freddie Hubbard and Bob James with CBS.

Didn’t Creed Taylor work with A&M before that?
Yes, that’s how he started the company. He produced a successful record for Quincy Jones called “Walking in Space”.

You actually played a cut on tenor on that album…”Love and Peace”
That’s one of the last times I played tenor. I also played it on a movie he produced. (Color Purple) I’ve still got my saxophone, but I don’t play it any more.

I’d like to hear about the kind of things you’re up to now…you have your own band as well, don’t you?
I’d love people to hear my band…it’s a great band! I’ve got David Budway on acoustic piano, Rob Mullins on keyboard, John Leftwich on bass, and Ralph Penland on drums. The last time we played together was in Syracuse New York in July because everyone wants to book me as a soloist. Unless I know the rhythm section I’m going to play with is first class, I always want to play with my own group!
I’ve got a website that I use for business: www.hubertlaws.com. I’ve got some transcriptions, solos posted there. I just got an email before you called… a guy by the name of Doug is trying to recreate the CTI mystique by having a series of concerts in Denmark and other parts of Europe…he wants Creed Taylor, Don Sebesky, Ron Carter, Airto and others including myself to do a jazz tour in June of 2008. We already did a similar thing years ago with Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and played in Seattle, San Francisco Los Angeles and other cities.

You came to Vancouver, too! I remember because I was gigging that night and couldn’t see the show. At this point, I’d like to ask you about the way you think jazz is going. It’s kind of an obvious question, but the music business has really changed.
Well, I think the Internet has clearly made a huge impact on the big record companies, and I think it makes the artist more accessible to the public. I have people from all over the world contacting me…that’s how you contacted me! It’s good because it bypasses the big giant that controls your life, the record company. It allows people like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea to reach people directly. People recognize high quality artists like that.
I just got an email from a guy, Steve. Steve is trying to introduce music to young people at a very early age, which I think is very important. I mean, like six years old.

Kids at that age are an open book…they haven’t been fed anything yet.
That’s right, if you reach them at that age…The music world has been saturated by superficial stuff, so I told him I’d like to participate vigorously in this project, because he’s reaching them on a level where they’re innocent and can absorb. Do you remember Leonard Bernstein who used to present music for young audiences? Well, I would love to do something like that…it’s so valuable.

No kidding. It’s the kind of thing that could make or break the future of jazz.
Yeah, I want to present good music to the kids. I’d love it, and I also love playing with Chick Corea! (Laughs)