For avid fans of jazz, the music of Ronnie Laws elicits broad smiles and enthusiastic responses. No surprise, given the talent of Laws. After all, that’s what more than 50 years of constant artistry will garner.
Laws is a musical sponge whose styles range from blues to funk to R&B to smooth jazz. Growing up in Houston, he launched his professional career at 12 and grew up on the musical influences of the 1950s and 1960s.
“I grew up with the Jazz Crusaders (Wayne Henderson, Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, Wilton Felder),” he recalled. “Those are the guys who set the tone for me growing up.”
As Laws grew in his artistry, he also came to appreciate other artists from Texas such as fellow saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman and Arnett Cobb.
Laws comes from a musical family. His mother, Miola, was a choir director in his church. His brother Hubert is an outstanding and influential jazz flutist in New York, and sisters Debra and Eloise both sing. (Debra has toured with such acts as Kool and the Gang and the Commodores, while Eloise is better known for her work on Broadway.) The Laws siblings are frequent recording and producing collaborators.
Laws is proficient on both saxophone and flute. His brother influenced his choice of instruments. “I started on saxophone,” said Laws, “but later on, my brother encouraged me to pick up the flute. He was my sole teacher. When I went to college, he insisted that I have flute as my major for technical reasons. It’s really served me well because flute is a very precise instrument as it relates to fingering and technique. It really enhanced my ability on saxophone.”
Still, saxophone remains his first love. Noting its broad appeal, Laws observed that “saxophone has been labeled as an instrument that is closest to the human voice.”
The gifted musican had multiple college scholarship offers after graduating from high school, but he decided to stay in-state and go to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“I was impressed with the dean of the music department, Dr. Hall,” said Laws, “a very elderly saxophone artist in his own right.” He adds with a chuckle, “I was his one and only student.”
Laws eventually moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and launched his career with such notables as producer Quincy Jones and the jazz rock group Earth, Wind and Fire.
As he recalled: “One of my first professional gigs, I was doing a substitute for the Quincy Jones Orchestra and Roberta Flack at the Greek Theater. That was my first debut in Los Angeles on that level.”
Eventually he hooked up with Walter Bishop Jr., a jazz pianist who had been one of Charlie Parker’s accompanists. Laws released his first solo album, Pressure Sensitive, in 1975.
Laws cites many different influences on his playing, including John Coltrane, whom he had the chance to meet. “One of the most memorable visits with my brother in New York, he introduced me to John Coltrane. He played the album One Giant Step. When I heard that, I was never the same. It was so inspiring.”
When you listen to Laws’ music, you can catch the strong headwinds of the 1960s, especially Motown and funk. “All of those were elements in my growing up and the culture that I grew up with,” he asserts. “Motown and Memphis contributed to my whole musical concept.”
Even after nearly five decades of music making, he still likes to push the envelope. His latest single, “Settle Down,” released last spring, has funk guitar undergirding his melodic saxophone and flute. Think Earth, Wind and Fire, the Temptations and George Benson.
“I like doing that,” said Laws. “From a music standpoint, I don’t like being predictable. Music is a constantly evolving art form. You have to want to be on that train.”
Those who want to join Laws for that journey can catch him at Oxnard College this weekend, where he performs as the first featured artist for the recently launched Signature Jazz Series, intended to bring audiences “meaningful music for your discriminating lifestyle.” Local jazz musician Fundi Legohn will emcee, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Community Advocacy Coalition and community radio station Rhythm of the Coast. Escape into an evening of cool jazz, with a legendary sax master as your guide.
Ronnie Laws performs on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m. at the Oxnard College Performing Arts Building, 4000 S. Rose Ave., Oxnard. For tickets and more information, visit www.jazzshows.live.