Arnie Lawrence, a veteran alto saxophonist and influential jazz educator who moved to Israel in 1997 to found a jazz center teaching Jewish and Arab musicians, died April 22 in Jerusalem from lung and liver cancer. He was 66. This article first appeared in The Jewish Week in January 2001, when Lawrence was in New York to be honored by The New School’s jazz program, which he helped found.
Israel didn’t get a mention in Ken Burns’ much-talked-about PBS documentary "Jazz" airing this month, but if it did Arnie Lawrence would have been in the camera’s eye. The Brooklyn-born alto saxophonist, who co-founded the prestigious jazz program at The New School in 1986 and has played with jazz greats from Dizzy Gillespie to drummer Chico Hamilton, is the man who brought swing to the sabras.
Lawrence, who moved to Jerusalem with his Israeli-born wife in 1997 and a year later founded the International Center for Creative Music, was in town last week for a big jazz educators’ conference. And he was spreading the gospel of jazz as a uniter of cultures, bringing with him Jewish and Arab musicians from his center for a Beacon Theater concert. "I’m looking for a new kind of music," Lawrence, 62, said at a fund-raiser for The New School jazz program, where he was warmly cheered for his pioneering role. "I don’t know if it’s Israeli, but I’m working with Arabic instruments, the oud [lute] and the darbukka [Arabic drum]. And we’re trying to leave the Arabic rhythms as pure as we can and take excursions from there. But we’re looking at the music through a jazz eye."
Lawrence likened the approach to Bronx-born Jewish saxophonist Stan Getz’s wildly popular blending of jazz and Brazilian samba and bossa nova rhythms in the 1950s.
His center in Ein Kerem, which just turned 3, now has more than 200 musicians participating in its classes. Some of Lawrence’s proteges are part of a wave of Israeli jazz musicians flooding New York recently. Bassists Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital and trumpeter Avishai Cohen (the Cohens are not related) all spent time soaking up Lawrence’s emotional sound and his message of jazz as a universal music.
"I try to take musicians and turn them into artists," he said.
"My goal is to enlarge the jazz scene in Israel," said Lawrence, who spent a decade as a featured soloist in "The Tonight Show" band. "I’d like to see the day when there’s a real jazz club in Jerusalem."
But he’s also after something more elusive in a country gripped by a new intifada.
"I want the center to be a cell of peace where people can come together in a happy way," said Lawrence, who regularly performs and teaches in Ramallah in the West Bank, bringing Jewish and Arab musicians together.
Before he went onstage at The New School benefit to reunite with his old mentor, Hamilton, and his son Erik, who plays alto sax in Hamilton’s band, Lawrence told a story that seemed to capture his sense that jazz cuts across cultures. A year ago at the Flamingo Club in Ramallah, an official in the Palestinian Authority’s culture ministry approached Lawrence. The official asked if the band took requests, and when Lawrence said yes, the Palestinian was ready.
"Know any Benny Goodman?" he asked.
With that Arnie Lawrence – wearing a multicolored, knitted kipa on his head and a medallion with Charlie Parker’s likeness around his neck – picked up his horn and did what he’s been doing since he was 13 at his first gig in the Catskills. He closed his eyes, settled on a bluesy riff and transported a crowd to a place where race and religion slip away, and all that’s left is swing.