I first met drummer Rudy Lawless in the summer of 2007 with his partner in crime, the drummer Wade Barnes. Wade, may he rest in peace, passed away in 2012. Wade and Rudy would visit me in the office frequently, and we would talk about music, musicians, New York City and drummers in particular. Rudy would tell a story about being on the road with Eddie Durham or Rex Stewart. I, with my recently acquired master’s degree in jazz history, would offer my comments from a bookish, historical perspective. And Wade would explain how I knew nothing about jazz and correct my mistakes. Rudy would laugh. Wade would laugh.
We all would laugh.
That’s how I first met him.
Rudy was enlightened. He seemed to be at peace, and this extended from his deep love of music but may have more accurately been rooted in his deep love of people. Rudy could talk to anyone. And the man could talk. He used a lot of hip expressions. He said, “Bish” a lot when he was happy – a cymbal sound. Bish.
He loved to make connections with people.
There was something special about the way Rudy told his colorful stories about his childhood, his parents, his career as a musician. Even though he was always the central character in the narrative, the stories weren’t really about him. They were his observations, and they were always about something bigger. They were often about growing up in the Depression, about life on the streets as a kid working as a numbers runner, about learning how to tap and ballroom dance when he was “still in short pants,” with his “major partner,” as he called her, Streemy Webb. And about dipping her to “Stairway to the Stars.” About watching baseball games at the Polo Grounds from atop an apartment building, 555 Edgecombe Avenue. And about going over to the ballpark after the games to collect Coca Cola bottles to redeem them. About sitting behind his first drum kit, even before he was six years old, “a green sparkle,” as he called it.
About how much reverence he had for his mother, Lucia Louise Sherriff.
There was music and fire and much life in Rudy, and it came out in his laughter, in his dogged determination to get up and get out of the house every day, no matter what was happening in the world or how he might have been feeling.
He was sometimes quick tempered and very proud. I remember some years ago when a musician arrived at the Jazz Foundation of America’s Monday night jam session at Local 802. This man was combative and later proved to be mentally unstable. He was disrespectful and disruptive and regularly made threats to people who disagreed with him. Rudy would have none of this. He told the man what was what. The man pushed back. And Rudy was ready to throw down! All 110 pounds of him. At age 77. And the man took the message and backed off.
Rudy had boxed in his youth. A light flyweight. And he told me his win loss record was 8-1. It was that ninth fight, he said, that got him. Rudy told me when I interviewed him in 2009, “I was one of those little mean guys in the ring,” he said, “But that last fighter was taller than me and had a longer reach. And every time I tried to go inside on him: Pop! Biff! Bish! He hit me again and again. I was so mad,” he said, “I wanted to bite him!”
He witnessed a lot.
He came up with people like Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins and had his mentors in Eddie Durham of the Bennie Moten and Count Basie bands – and Jimmy Crawford of the Lunceford organization. He hung out on the street outside of Minton’s Playhouse, listening through the open front door, when he was too young to get in. He knew the Manhattan – and especially the Harlem – of the 1940s and 1950s. The Harlem of Sugar Ray Robinson and Charlie Parker and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. But he knew the whole city. And he knew its people.
Outside of music he worked at a variety of jobs, but he always kept the music alive. And the music took him places. To Japan. To Africa. To Germany. To Turkey.
He was a devoted union member. He was active on the local’s Jazz Advisory Committee, and was a constant presence at Justice for Jazz Artists demonstrations. He believed in what was right and what was fair. He had great integrity and moral clarity. He understood what was important: people. People were important. Not balance sheets. People and music.
In that same 2009 interview, he put it like this: “Hey, you know, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. It’s just, you know, it’s the kind of thing where you would like to live your life all over again so you could appreciate it even more.”
And Rudy had a way of bringing his particular brand of enlightenment to you, even when you weren’t ready for it, or unwilling to accept it. He was endlessly persistent. He’d come by the local several times a week, he’d have his rolling suitcase with him, and he was always perfectly dressed for the weather – always the right coat and the right shoes. He would say hello to everybody. And if you were busy, he was always polite. He’d wait a bit. And what I found with Rudy is that even if I was busy trying to meet some deadline, something that just had to get done, if I stopped and turned to Rudy, the world went away.
Rudy’s sense of joy, his sense of the past and his sense of beauty all came forward and washed over you and made you forget about the mundane.
When I say he was enlightened, it’s because I believe he had an understanding of the eternal. He also understood the power and potential of the present moment.
He knew that a kind word, a little joke, or a reverie about the past could have meaning far beyond the moment of its unfolding.
And perhaps, more important, Rudy Lawless seemed at peace with his existence, understood why he was here and what it was he wanted to do with his time.
So Rudy, we say thank you for your music, your generosity of spirit, your great good humor – and most of all, for your kindness and your wisdom.