The violinist whose career has shredded category and genre and first joined Local 802 in 1994, speaks of music, culture, inspiration, and vision…
Gwen Laster was born on Detroit’s west side during a period culminating in African American arts and self-determination. As she came of age, the city boasted the Motown dynasty and its legendary artists, but long before blues progenitors of the Fortune and Sensation labels cast the Detroit sound widely. Koppin Hall in the 1920s served as the premiere Black artists venue and as jazz matured, Detroit was an important base. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers led by the great Don Redman were among its celebrated bands. John Lee Hooker too was a resident, having moved up during the Great Migration, as were Sippie Wallace, Little Willie John, Lucky Thompson, Howard McGee, Alice Coltrane, Della Reese, the Jones brothers (Elvin, Thad, Hank), the Winans, and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, among so many more.
Laster’s childhood home was situated between the site of Motown’s original studio and New Bethel Baptist Church where Reverend CL Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, served as pastor. Ushered in by the records playing at home — “Dinah Washington, Miles, Supersax, Ella, R&B, everything!” — and the rich musical heritage about her, total immersion was assured. At home her parents entertained frequently, so this soundtrack was often heard late into the night. “I often fell asleep to this music,” she explained. Soon, young Gwen was to become more than a listener. “It was a working-class upbringing, and I was a product of the public school system,” in the best way possible: teachers of color were being hired and, “It was common knowledge that my teachers were very vocal, very militant. They taught us that we needed to be better,” and Richard Wright became essential reading.
Area music programs included group lessons twice weekly; Laster was moved to play violin, inspired by the orchestral arrangements behind the great jazz singers: “I knew that sound from the records. “By middle school, the music teacher, a jazz trumpet player by night, encouraged students to learn piano and experiment with tonality. More importantly, “He let us hang out and jam.” Excelling on her instrument, Laster was among those encouraged to play in the more developed band of the local senior high, Northwestern, a performing arts magnet school. Before long, Laster was part of Northwestern’s student body, learning much from orchestra director Anderson White, a violist. “One day we came in and he had electric violins and amplifiers. They sounded AMAZING. We were working on David Baker’s jazz arrangements, and then he’d flip the script, and we’d play Bach on these electric instruments. It inspired us to learn European classical music with this other window into Black music,” she said.
Besides serving as an inspiration, White was also a teacher enforcing serious technical discipline. By the 11th grade, Laster and two cohorts had progressed enough to be recommended for recording sessions. “Motown had left Detroit by then but there were many studios. This is how I met (award-winning songwriting team) Holland, Dozier, Holland. I cannot recall who they were producing but I ended up on some of their records. We played and often had to work out the arrangements.” The latter was an early step for Laster to begin composing her own music.
White also arranged brief tours for the violin trio, including to Nebraska, to perform both pop and orchestral music, “so we couldn’t forget our roots” and to summer music camps via the University of Wisconsin at Madison. During the school year, Gwen was playing regularly with local musicians, many Northwestern students, performing music of Frank Zappa, Narada Michael Walden and Edgar Winter, where she was encouraged to sing, and double on vibraphone and percussion. “There was such a pool of talented musicians. One of my friends, Nate Watts, began working with Stevie Wonder right out of high school. He still is! And Ray Parker Jr. was there too. Playing in an orchestra was half of my muse but playing with just a rhythm section was the other. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Through a vast range of influences, most often horn players, Laster discovered violinist-leaders Jean Luc-Ponty and Noel Pointer, followed by the 1977 album by the band Oregon, simply titled “Violin,” featuring Zbigniew Seifert on the titular instrument. “And then I got hip to Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli and Ray Nance. And Michael White (John Handy, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, the Fourth Way) — he doesn’t get enough recognition. I was amazed at the entire imaginative process of improvising. Speed, dexterity, knowledge of theory and harmony was what I needed to play,” so studies at the University of Michigan School of Music followed. “I needed the technical training and repertoire expansion, but this program was very strict and not that encouraging. At one point, my teacher said, ‘Look, you’ll never make it. You’re Black and a woman.'” Though Laster credited this statement to the possibility of pushing her to succeed, such hurt was experienced as bitter cold. The violinist returned to Detroit each weekend to play gigs and, surely, to be fortified.
Following graduation, Laster embarked on post-grad studies, but did so quite independently. “I practiced four, five, and six hours per day and though working within the graduate school’s programming, also studied privately with Detroit jazz artists,” including Marcus Belgrave and alto saxophonist Don Walton. James Carter was a fellow student with whom she’d shared music. “I was intrigued with jazz musicians and their knowledge of harmony. I wanted to know how to get inside my instrument in that way.”
In this period, Laster also became associated with guitarist-leader A. Spencer Barefield’s ensemble. “Similar to the AACM and Black Artists Group in their cities, Barefield was the creative edge in Detroit.” Along that line, Laster, in 1982 was hired for a performance led by Roscoe Mitchell whom she described as a master of the entire art of jazz, “and this allowed me to I realize how much room I really had. My musical self-esteem was beat down after college. Thank God the Black musicians embraced me,” she recalled tersely.
Called to play behind hometown legend Aretha Franklin for the vocalist’s first Showtime special, Laster also had the opportunity to perform with Franklin at multiple Detroit venues: “‘Pink Cadillac’ was a big hit then and Clarence Clemons was on those gigs too.” For years thereafter, Laster was a fixture of Franklin’s lavish birthday parties.
Relocating to New York in 1993, “with only $1400 and all of my possessions in my car,” Laster took an apartment in Fort Greene, and began sitting in regularly at the Dean St. Café. On a cold call, she reached out to the Harlem School of the Arts, a respected institution intent on giving pride of ownership to the community (as per the HAS website). Laster explained her desire to teach jazz strings and a successful interview found her with the unexpected title of director of jazz strings. She led ensembles, taught improvisation, and wrote arrangements. “We traveled with the kids. too. It was amazing. I met J.D. Parran there, and Ray Chew, so many brilliant musicians. I can remember hiring Ray to play with me at Dean Street,” she said, laughing.
Laster’s focus on improvisational music also led to an array of gigs with some of the music’s giants including Anthony Braxton. “I worked with his nonet at the original Knitting Factory several times and played his opera at John Jay College. Everyone around Braxton is such a virtuoso, and I needed to learn the lexicon of his symbols, but he’s such a generous soul. Creative orchestras like this always feel like home to me. Butch Morris was another intuitive and open director. I only played with him on some rehearsals but was happy to just be there. And Karl Berger: I recorded at his house in Woodstock in a smaller ensemble but have not gotten around to playing with his Improvisers Orchestra yet.” Other large, experimental assemblages to which Laster lent her unique gifts are those of Wadada Leo Smith (at the Vision Festival), bassist William Parker and saxophonist Andrew Baba Lamb, as well as the Sun Ra Arkestra, led by the ever-youthful Marshall Allen. “My last performance before lockdown was with this band at Town Hall. And then we made a recording in 2021. That was quite an experience: the string section is a quartet, but the other violinist is also the lead vocalist, Tara Middleton, only the second woman to have been a full member.” Laster also recorded with composer Danny Elfman in a long list of session work.
In addition to side-musician duties within the sphere of expansive jazz, Laster also has a thriving solo career, performing frequently in the region. One of her ensembles, the New Muse 4tet, released the powerful and empowering “Blue Lotus” in 2019. She is also a founding member of celebrated We Free Stings sextet, led by violist Melanie Dyer, her frequent collaborator. This band’s latest, Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage (ESP-Disk) was launched this summer to wide acclaim.
A big part of Laster’s gigging life has been as a member of Local 802, particularly work within studios and Broadway pit orchestras. She began subbing on Broadway in 1994, something which came only with certain struggle. “Someone introduced me to a Black violinist originally from Detroit who understood the difficulties I was having. She began calling me as a sub, and it expanded from there.” Further, old connections such as Ray Chew led to an array of performances and recordings with major pop and R&B artists such as Alicia Keys, Shakira, Solange, Nona Hendryx, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole, Mark Anthony, Rhianna, and Shaggy, as well as noted tenor Andrea Bocelli. And a great point of pride remains her performance with Jennifer Lopez and Shakira at President Obama’s 2008 Inaugural Neighborhood Ball.
Currently she makes her home in arts-heavy Beacon, New York. She recently renewed her membership in Local 802: “There’ve been new union gigs coming my way and I’m subbing on Broadway again. But more importantly, with 802’s new administration and staff, I feel comfortable and confident about the direction, and the inclusiveness for Black musicians, women, and jazz musicians. The history and legacy of the music–and the union–will be honest and open.”
(c) 2019 by John Pietaro (published with permission of the author)
Impressions for John Coltrane
Impressions of liberation,
Proud, full-throated, full-bodied,
Force of one force sustained:
Heart ravaged, pulse asunder
As he takes the skies.
Digging through harmony like a derrick unmanned,
Tearing ground to forge
The unearthed, the infernal new,
Leaving behind ruins of sound,
The bodies of jazz past thrown from speeding black sedans,
Chrome-blinded, windows down, the rush of air and
Dizzying view, too much to bear.
Talisman, my bourbon, my joint,
My Bud on tap.
The far from over, the other way,
Roiling, boiling, broiling,
Elvin, throbbing within,
The dance of four limbs
Careening, crashing tumult,
Like the silent war of cosmos
But the force of horns is relentless.
The timeless two.
Shock of the free
To never again.
Abstraction is the only reality.
It lies on a spectrum few can see,
Worlds within worlds
Originally published in Smoke Rings, poetry chapbook, 2019