Doug Lawrence Interview

Thursday, March 19, 2015 


Over the last 35 years Doug Lawrence has performed and recorded with an astonishing list of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie.


As the lead tenor for the Count Basie Orchestra he carries on the playing tradition handed down to him by players like Lester Young and Illinois Jacquet who came before him. Big shoes to fill but Doug does takes it in his stride.


I caught up with Doug recently for a chat about his career and how he got he started in the big band world.


NM:  So Doug, tell me a bit about your background and how you got started in music.


DL:  Well I grew up in a musical family. My father was a musician and was my primary teacher. He started me on clarinet. My Dad actually played clarinet with [trombonist and big band leader] Jack Teagarden.
I’m originally from Louisiana and when Jack Teagarden was in New Orleans, which was quite often, he used my father to play clarinet. So, I had a pretty good teacher!
My older brothers played trombone and trumpet and they went on to play with Frank Sinatra, Louis Bellson and Elvis. They were a bit older than me, ( I’m actually the youngest of 6 children) and when I was growing up I got to watch them perform on TV. So there was always music in our house.
I really got into clarinet and saxophone. When I was in high school I went along to the National Association of Jazz Educators competition. It’s now called the
International Association of Jazz Educators ( IAJE) and at the time it was a competition that all the schools went to.
I actually got the best soloist award which included a full scholarship to North Texas State University, which at the time was the number one jazz and big band college in America.
NM:  Wow! And there are so many great players who have come through that school.


DL:  Yeah. We had 15 big bands - it was a big school. But as a kid growing up with musician parents we never really had a whole lot of money and during my first semester of study I was offered a chance to audition for a band job.
Doug Lawrence Blue Note Tokyo
It was a really great paying gig but I had to compete with a bunch of guys from Woody Herman’s band who had also come to North Texas to get their degrees.
Somehow I won that audition and I took the job because I had never seen that kind of money before. I thought that I could take a few semesters off and then come back to school.


Well, one thing led to another and I never did go back!


I’ve been lucky that way, going from one gig to the next, and before I knew it I was in New York City working with guys like Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton and Dizzy Gillespie.


NM:  And that probably ended up being the best education you could have wished for.


DL:  It really was. It’s a funny thing because the saxophone teacher at North Texas for many years was Jim Riggs. I did an IAJE conference in New York city probably 30 years later and he came up to me afterwards and asked if he could take me out to dinner. We talked for a long time and I started to apologise to him for never coming back to school. He said, “Are you kidding? You got the best education you could ever get and now you’re the tenor player with the Count Basie Orchestra! What better gig is there?”.


NM:  Tell me about your experience with the Count Basie Orchestra.


DL:  This year is the 80th anniversary of the band. It started in 1935 and it’s the longest running band in the history of jazz. This band has never broke up and guys just pass down to the new players. Actually it’s a band where once you get the gig, hardly anyone ever leaves. The book is excellent - it’s still all the original charts.



NM:  It must be amazing sitting in the band knowing all the guys that have come before you. Some absolute legends have sat in your Lead Tenor chair.


DL:  That’s right and I don’t take that lightly. Whenever the Basie Band came on the TV when I was a kid, my father would turn it up as loud as it would go and we would sit about 2 feet away and watch. He would point to guys like Eddie Lockjaw Davis or Frank Foster and say “son, that’s the way the tenor is supposed to sound”. I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that I would actually be in the band. So it is a great honour.


NM:  So how did the Basie gig came about?


DL:  Well, I was in New York city working, and Kenny Hing who was in the band at the time wanted to leave and try his hand as a freelance artist in New York. So I got the call to go play. This was around 1981.


I did three gigs in a row in Long Island and afterwards Grover Mitchell who was the band’s “straw boss” said “Alright, the Chief likes you, are you ready to go?”(The Straw Boss is the guy that does the hiring and firing with the band.)


At that point I had joined the Army West Point Band.


About 45 minutes north of New York the Army had what they called the “Special Band”. I had auditioned and got the job with the “Jazz Knights,” which is a big band within the Army band system. A lot of the guys were great musicians in that band and you could easily get into New York from there. It was a great steady gig.


So, when I was offered the Basie band I had only just joined the Army and no one knew. So I said “I would love to, but I’m in the Army” and they said “What?!!”. They couldn’t believe it.


But they never forgot about me. So a few years later when I got out of the Army and started working a lot in New York City, the Basie band began calling me again. And the guys that were responsible for getting me back in the band were Frank Wess who was considered one of the greatest flautists of all time, and Grover Mitchell who was the trombonist and Straw Boss.


“Alright, the Chief likes you, are you ready to go?”


I was also working with lots of other bands around that time too. I was playing with Frank Foster and his band, and other Basie guys like Buck Clayton and his band, which was a huge thrill for me. Buck and Lester Young were in the original Basie band.


NM:  So Doug you have done some of the best big band work in the world. What would you suggest to an up-and-coming sax player is the most important thing to focus on, if they want to do big band playing also?


DL:  Well that’s a great question. You know Mel Lewis got me on an all-star band that had Phil Woods, Jerry Dodgion, Frank Wess and Pepper Adams. So I get to this rehearsal and see these guys and I’m so scared I probably couldn’t play “Mary had a Little Lamb”! These guys were all my idols. I didn’t want to solo, I just wanted to blend into that section. On that particular section I was sat next to Jerry Dodgion.


All I did was play exactly what was written. I was like “white on rice”! I later found out that people generally regard Jerry Dodgion as the world’s best second alto player, because he can make the first alto sound so great (who in this case was Phil Woods!).


So, I would try to phrase exactly like Jerry, who was phrasing exactly like Phil Woods. Because Jerry was right next to me I could hear him the best, but I could also hear Phil on lead alto. I would try to play exactly like they were but not loud. My volume level had to always be under the lead player so I could blend in the section.
"I just didn’t want to stick out"


Different bands have different sax sections. For instance, when I was playing with Benny Goodman, I would never really play very loud because Benny didn’t like that type of sax section. His section was always subdued but very musical. As a matter of fact Benny used to make the section play by itself and rehearse soli sections over and over so you really had to blend. That was always a challenge with that section because for one thing, I didn’t want to get yelled at by Benny Goodman!


The other thing was I just didn’t want to stick out.


Looking at the Basie section it’s like going from one extreme to the other. The first time I played with the Basie saxophone section I realised that when it got time to play forte, double forte, triple forte, I couldn’t hear myself!


I had never been in a saxophone section that really roared like that. And that could also play triple piano softer than I had ever played. So it was really an unbelievable challenge for me. I studied the records and I studied Marshal Royal [lead alto for the Basie Band]. I had already been playing with Frank Wess and Jerry Dodgion, the guys that had been influenced by Marshall for years. I would spend 8 to 10 hours a day just listening to section playing and studying how the great sax players from the Basie band played. The main challenge for me was how I was going to get that volume.


So I had to work very hard on that and ended up changing my mouthpiece, and eventually I got it.


NM:  What sort of exercises did you do to develop your dynamic range?


DL:  I did lots of work on playing whole notes or long tones from a subtone triple p all the way to triple f and then back again. I would do this in one breath. Not only does that build your embouchure and your tone, it also helps your breathing, particularly if you can hold those notes for a minute or so each.


So I just did that for hours, really trying to get the volume with a good tone. It took me a while - it doesn’t happen overnight. Definitely a lot of the control needed for this comes from a strong embouchure.


I was lucky that my Father started me on clarinet and by the time I was 10 years old I was playing with a size 5 reed! Before I knew it, he had me playing a Kaspar mouthpiece and a Buffet clarinet in elementary school. When you’re a kid you don’t know any different, you just go for it.


That was a great foundation and so when I moved to saxophone as a teenager, I was able to make the transition because my muscles were built up. Even to this day the foundation my Father gave is the key thing behind my sound.
Marshall Royal with band

Regarded as one of the greatest big band lead alto players, Marshall Royal led the Count Basie sax section for nearly 20 years.

NM:  As well as sound and dynamic control I’ll bet understanding style has been important in all the different scenarios you have worked in.


DL:  Absolutely. When you’re playing in a section you have to be following the lead alto player. I remember when I finally got the chance to work with Marshal Royal, I got there about an hour early. I was so excited and nervous to finally get to play with this great lead alto player. I was surprised that he didn’t really play that loud.


I had worked with other guys that had played under him who actually played louder than he did. Marshall didn’t play loud but his sound engulfed the whole section. It was an amazing thing. And his style was so amazing and one of the greatest points of my playing life.


I was never really thinking of being a soloist with any of these bands. They already had great players like Frank Wess and Frank Foster, Billy Mitchell. I didn’t think about competing with them, I just wanted to blend in the section. So I ended up getting a lot of work because of that.


Eventually they did make me solo and luckily I ended up being a pretty good soloist. But really all I ever wanted to do was be in the section. I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to these guys, it’s all I ever wanted to do.


NM:  I think anybody who is a fan of Big Band music would see the guys you have played with as idols. It must have been so amazing to experience playing with them. 


DL:  Sure! The great thing about big bands is that if you’re doing it right, you are always listening. The lead alto is listening to the lead trumpet and lead trombone players. That’s why they are all lined up in the middle. To do it right you just have to have your ears open all the time. A really great big band is playing together, phrasing together, playing dynamics together and swinging together. And that’s because all those players are listening.


The same goes for the guys that people don’t always notice so much, like the second alto or second tenor, or third trumpet. Those players are just as important to making a great ensemble. It only works if everyone is listening together.


NM:  So you are on tour at the moment with another project?
DL:  Yes. I’m down in Texas at the moment leading the Eddie Durham Celebration at the Texas State University. I come down to do this every year with Butch Miles on drums [from the Basie band]. We always have some great guests on the show. This year we have tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen plus we have the great jazz historian Dan Morgenstern.


NM:  I really enjoyed your “New Album Trio” album. Tell me how that came about.


DL:  That trio recording was so much fun. We had just done a jazz festival show, and the next day we drove about 6 hours to the studio for this session. We only had about 4 hours before we had to get on a plane at the Denver airport. So we really only had about 3 hours to record!



Doug Lawrence New Organ Band
We did all the tracks in 1 or 2 takes and I let George Fludas the drummer, or Dan Trudell on organ, call the tunes. I had been reading how one of my idols Gene Ammons would get to the recording dates and they would say “So, Gene, what do you want to play?” and he would say “ I don’t know, what do you want to play?”


What I found out is that your music comes out pretty fresh when you approach it this way. For instance the ballad “You Go To My Head”, I asked the guys “ what ballad should we do?” and George said “Hey, let’s play You Go To My Head”. I hadn’t played that ballad for probably 20 years and that track was a one taker and it turns out a lot of people liked that one.


The real thing about jazz is that when you’re doing too many takes it’s not improvising anymore. All the great masters, Thelonious Monk, Basie, everybody, they never did more than a couple takes.


NM:  Well it really does sound like you guys are having a great time on that recording. 


DL:  I’m glad you feel that way!
Doug’s Equipment
Reeds: I'm a D’Addario artist and play Rico Jazz Select unfiled or filed 3 medium.
Mouthpiece: Recently I've changed to a 1940s Dukoff Stubby 7*, but for 14 years I played a 1960’s hard rubber Berg mouthpiece refaced by the late Jon Van Wie. I was playing a gig with Aretha Franklin and Keilwerth had sent me an instrument to play.


I couldn’t get enough sound out of that instrument and when I mentioned this to Jon, he sent me up this Berg mouthpiece. He said “ You've never played a mouthpiece like this, keep an open mind!” I put it on the Keilwerth and it just lit it up.


I stayed on that Berg until 3 months ago. I started experimenting with some pieces by Ted Klum and then I came across the Dukoff Stubby which is a very rare mouthpiece.


I’m also working with Theo Wanne to come up with a mouthpiece design similar to the traditional pieces I love like the Florida Link, and the Dukoff Stubby.
Horn: I play a T M Custom horn by Randy Jones at Tenor Madness in Waterloo Iowa. Randy is perhaps the greatest saxophone technician in the USA. He started building these horns a while back. It has rolled tone holes like the Conn 10m but the action is like a Mark VI Selmer. It plays great!


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About the blog:

I created this blog to share my experience touring and performing over the last 30 years all over the world with big bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras and touring shows. I've pretty much worked in every part of the music business from soloist to band leader, musical director, studio musician and even managing an orchestra in London's west end. I love talking about saxophone and helping others to reach their saxophone goals. Most importantly though, I want to hear about your progress, challenges and victories on the road to learning sax. Leave me a comment to start the conversation! Nigel McGill
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