Janet Lawson sits upright in her chair across the table with an expectant grin on her face. If one looks more closely, one sense a certain gravitas behind that smile, a seriousness revealed in a gesture, certain gleam in the eye. At 70, this jazz virtuoso has basked in her share of the limelight, toured the world, and collaborated with some of the greatest names in the business. She’s also devoted years of her life to educating young people—and not only about jazz singing. The road has not always been smooth.
“I’ve marched in a few parades,” quips Lawson, “and I’ve seen my share of bastards who needed to be taken down, to be taught a lesson. But I’m also not into punishing people for their misdeeds for the sake of punishment itself. Dig: There’s a karmic justice out there. The universe takes care of itself. But, as Arthur Miller said, ‘Attention must be paid.’”
Lawson’s attention these days is split between her New School vocal students (she’s been there since the late 1990s) and working on a variety of creative projects—all the while taking the necessary steps to recuperate from a devastating 2001 diagnosis of Lyme Disease that led to Bell’s Palsy, a disorder of the nerves that control the movement of muscles in the face. The illness stymied her career, and stripped her vocal chords of much of their power and flexibility. Her recovery has been slow, but steady, and that she’s continued to pursue her development as an artist and a human being throughout the often frustrating and maddening process of healing is a testament to her strength of character, her spirit, her sheer chtuzpah.
Born In Baltimore, Maryland, in 1940, to Eastern European émigrés—a mixed Jewish and Catholic couple—Janet was performing on the radio at age three, and singing with jazz bands before her eighteenth birthday. Her father, Oscar “Jack” Polun, was a drummer and composer who fronted his own trio in town. Lawson’s mother, Helene Kocur, was a singer and lyricist who performed in Polun’s group and had her own tunes performed by Peggy Lee, among others.
“My mother, she had this heart condition,” Janet recalls, “So she couldn’t really get out and work. She’d be walking around the house, with this big yellow legal pad, writing down ideas for song lyrics. And my father would come home and she’d say, ‘Jack I’ve got an idea.’ The piano was in the basement, so I’d sit at the top of the stairs and watch them work. And he’d play for her, and she’d say, ‘No, no, not that chord.’ She didn’t know anything about music. But he’d play until it sounded right. Based on that rather odd beginning, I think my ear developed a lot.”
Her sense of herself and her potential was enhanced by her parents’ liberal stance on civil rights, their belief that she had a future in music, and in her own innate desire to taste the world beyond the row houses of Baltimore.
“My parents were very hip people—my dad took me to the joints on Pennsylvania Avenue, which was like the Harlem of Baltimore, when I was a five year old. But still, I was very naïve as a kid, and Baltimore was a completely Southern town. I had a summer job when I was fourteen, stuffing envelopes, and there was a black cat there who worked as a janitor cleaning up the room. And we would sit and have these deep philosophical discussions and the first time we walked outside for lunch he split off to head across the avenue. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he looked straight at me: ‘Janet,’ he said, ‘You know what will happen if I walk down the street with you?’ I was shocked.”
Lawson, who has piercing brown eyes and looks much younger than her years, remembers her earliest days on the bandstand, and how her plucky demeanor didn’t always wash well with the more conventional set:
“When I was fifteen, I was in a junior sorority, and I came home and told my mother there’d be a big band at the dance, and I wanted so much to sing. And she said, ‘Ask, ask. You have to ask.’ So at the dance, I finally walked over to the leader, Bill Maisel, and I asked if I could sing and he said, ‘Sure.’ And it was like ‘All of Me,’ or something. And afterwards, the head honcho of the sorority comes over to me, and she says, ‘Janet, that wasn’t very ladylike.’ This was in l956. And I said, ‘Oh really?’ And I took my little sorority pin and stuck it in her corsage and I said, ‘Here’s what you can do with your junior sorority.’ Maisel later hired her, (‘for twelve bucks a night,’ remembers Lawson) and she worked with the band for four years, until she was 19.
New York beckoned.
“Was I ready for New York? I doubt it,” she smiles brightly. “But my father resolved that problem. When I was 18, he had said if I didn’t get a job after high school I was going to have to start paying rent, or leave. His way of doing things was, shall we say, percussive.”
A brief stint as a Girl Friday with an advertising agency followed, and then Lawson was spotted by a client, one Arthur Klein, whom she describes as a ‘hot shot realtor with a cleft palette—but such a brilliant man.” Klein had come up through the steel mills in the Midwest, and he had a vision of creating new homes for different ranges of income. He hired Janet as a model and demonstrator, and on her first job she distinguished herself:
“He had given me this handbook all about the homes. I said, ‘Cool.’ I took it home, I gobbled it up. Not only am I’m going to stand there, I want to talk. I want to contribute, I want to participate. So there they are, these suits from New York, the investors, and one of the homes is a cutaway house, a model, and at one point I said to them, ‘Gentlemen, this roof has been tested in a l00 mile gale.’ And they looked at me, and one of them said, ‘What does that mean?’ And I said, ‘Well, if a l00 mile gale comes through, the entire house will be blown away, but the roof will be intact.’ Well, they were hysterical. And Arthur Klein said, ‘Come on, you’re going to work for me.’ So I became his private secretary.”
Klein knew about Lawson’s dream to be a singer, and later he encouraged her to go to New York.
“He said, ‘Here, use this phone and call the Y.’ He challenged me. So, I called and made the reservation. Arthur said, ‘I’m going up for a memorial in the summer; I’ll drive you up.’ He spoke to my parents, he picked me up, my mother said, ‘Here’s your stuffed animal, here’s your suitcase.’ Arthur drove me to the Y. We get there, and he helps me move in, I’ve never stayed anywhere. The elevator man pushes the button, we ride up to the third floor, the door opens up, and I see a woman in her bathrobe, scrubbing the floor, and I think, ‘Oh, we have to do the floors to stay here.’”
The woman, who was a guest, had dropped a bottle of perfume and was cleaning it up.
“I was terrified,” remembers Lawson. “I stayed in my room for two days, it rained the whole time. I didn’t go out. Arthur calls me, and says, ‘How are you doing, Janet?’ I said ‘I’m not doing so well.’ He picks me up, takes me to dinner. He says, ‘Look, I’ll take you back, if you want to go home, I’ll drive you back. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.’ He said, ‘If you try and you decide to come home, you’ll always have a job with me.’ I said ‘OK.’”
Soon enough, Lawson got a day job at Columbia Records, as a secretary, and began actively pursuing her singing career. On her lunch hour, she would cut demos and visit recording dates, and was continually writing down the phone numbers of established stars in hopes of getting a break.
“There were 1,000 really talented girls out there just like me, all trying to sing. Luckily, I was young and didn’t know from rejection. I just kept plugging.”
Plug she did.
“I’d heard about 1650 Broadway,” she remembers, referring to the address near the legendary Brill building. “There were all these agents there, and I called them ‘hole in the wall agents’ because there were set up in these little cubicles—not really offices. Just glass stalls, really. The place was literally crawling with agents. But there were lots of them. And being young and pretty good looking, they all hit on me, everywhere I went in this building. And I would come home and throw up. It was just such an onslaught. I was just so terrified. I had zero experience with men—none.” She laughs at the memory. “I was a teenager. From Baltimore. Please.”
“At that time women were thought of as either virgins or whores. So the ones who saw me as virginal took me under their wing. These people wanted to protect me. That was one way. They saw me as someone they could protect and help. So one of them would say, ‘OK, we have a trio tonight.’
“Well, in that realm, a trio was any three instruments that had no engagement on a given night; sometimes it was a drummer, a sax and a trumpet player. So, they’d send me to a gig in Brooklyn and I would sing with these three instruments. It was bizarre.”
A few years into her New York tenure, Lawson got the push she needed from a woman named Maureen Levoy, who was working for Harry Belafonte.
“Belafonte heard my demo and said, ‘Tell her I’ll book her into the Intercontinental Hotel chain, in El Salvador, in Aruba, in Dutch Guyana, and Surinam.’”
She accepted, and took off for Central America.
“I took the gig. It was work. It paid. I had to go to some costume design place on 40-somehting street, and pick out this shiny material. I got these tight, hot pink and white satin dresses, and I carried my 59-cent book of lead sheets, and I went to El Salvador and sang.”
Along the way, she discovered the music of Thelonious Monk, among others:
“The big part for me, the big transition,” recalls Lawson, “was meeting a man named Jules Columby, who, with his brother Harry, was managing Monk. And the way I met him was, I was living at 332 West 76th street, right off Riverside Drive. Fifth floor walk up, the top floor, the bathroom windows opened onto a 77th street penthouse. It was right down the street from where Miles lived, and Al Jeter. And Al Jeter, who was a trade bank official, and who played great tenor sax, took over Riverside Records; his bank took over Riverside Records. So Jules and Al and all these people—Ira Gitler and Dan Morgenstern and Ray Katz—they all used to go to these parties that Al Jeter would have in his penthouse apartment. For days people would come.
“So one night I was watching ‘Young Man with a Horn’ on TV, and I’m inspired and I hear this tenor saxophone wailing from across the way, and I go to my bathroom window…this is like out of a movie… and I sit on the sill, and I start singing with the tenor saxophone across the street and at some point Monica Killoran, who was also typing temporarily says, ‘There’s this party,’ because she knew Jeter, and so I got invited. And when I walked in the door, he said, ‘Oh, you’re the singer from across the street.’
“So Jeter knew me. And everybody was there, Monk was there. And I would sit on the floor and there was a little spinet piano and people would just come in night and day, all weekend. I never sang, I just sat on the floor listening to all this great, great music.
“Every single night after that I was down at the Five Spot listening to Monk play with his group. My God, it was heaven. And then Monk would be talking with Jules in the kitchen, and Jules would be laughing, and I never knew what Monk was saying.
“On Monday nights, the dark nights, I’d go and sing there, with Paul Motian and Teddy Kotick and Pat Rebillot. I would be singing in the walls, feeling the walls of Monk’s music coming to me. And that’s how I got so connected to the music. It was Monk’s rhythms that really pushed me to a new place.”
Within months, Colomby had booked Lawson into the Village Vanguard with Art Farmer’s group, and her career was launched in earnest.
She admits that her sense of herself, of her career, was somewhat limited at that time.
“I saw myself as a singer,” she says, brushing her hair off her face. “It was a career, and I was a singer, that was it. Then I went into the studio with the rhythm section from the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and I cut a single called “Two Little Rooms.” And it started getting airplay—on the Country and Western charts. I was mortified.”
Beginning in the early 1970s, Lawson became involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement, although, she feels, for her, personally, the issues of emancipation were not as pressing as they were for others:
“I always felt different, I mean, most of my girlfriends were either married or pregnant right out of high school. And only later they got into their lives; that’s what the Women’s Movement was about. I got into my life while I was still in my teens. Even in terms of the Women’s Movement I was somewhat out of sync, because the movement was catapulted and propelled and nourished by women who felt frustrated in their lives. Here I was living that life, the life they had been denied.
“But I was still hindered by the way I was treated. When men talked at me, they looked down at my breasts, and I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m up here.’ And when the Women’s Movement became strong I was very vocal, I was a radical feminist. I was moved by it, taken by it, and so I was in it, and I think that the whole feeling of freedom on every level acknowledged my spirit and that’s what I identified with. And I went to the storefront on 9th Avenue on the corner of 42nd Street, and Susan Brownmiller and Robin Morgan and all these people, all these women were starting “Women Against Pornography;” Adrienne Rich.
“We were trying to shut down 42nd Street. I marched with them. I was right up front with a big booming bass drum. I wrote a lyric to the tune of “Anthropology,” “Pornothology,” I called it.
“People were making fortunes off of the female body. Off of us. Spread eagle pictures on every corner. I had to walk past them or walk past construction workers who were obscene to me. So on the one hand, my spirit is free and open, and on the other, I had to walk around shut down because of the way I was being treated as a woman. It was simply wrong, and it did something to me. Experiencing that really messed up what it felt like to be a woman. Because if that was true, that reality, what does that mean that I am? Am I supposed to stay closed? Am I supposed to stay open, and vulnerable and abused? No. So I had to traverse that way and find my way, I had to create my own way. It was hugely difficult, especially because I think my sense of myself was growing and I was trying to nourish it, listen to it, feel it and not react. React against it, I mean. Stop it from happening. And that’s hard because when you react you’re not being true, you’re creating something artificial for yourself.
“Spirituality is essential. I think it’s always been in me. My father was orthodox Jewish, my mother was a strict Catholic. And my mother kept a kosher household for the first seven years of their marriage. Separate dishes, for God’s sake. Well, it was for God’s sake. But she kept her Blessed Mother in her hat box in the closet, and my father kept his talis with his underwear in the bottom of his bureau. And the two of them canceled each other out because each one was saying they were the one, they were the one. At least in the shul I could go with my father and, when I was a little girl, because I was a woman who was not menstruating, I could sit with my father and he could hold my hand and he would sing and I loved that. But when I went to church with my mother, I had to kneel, sit, get up, sit, kneel and I was always out of sync. I was always standing when everybody else was kneeling; I was always sitting when they were standing. I looked at my mother, at age 14, and I said, ‘This is it. I’m never doing this again.’”
During the 1970s, while in her thirties, Lawson discovered transcendental meditation and yoga, and she spent time in California, singing and studying theater.
Meanwhile, the flip side of “Two Little Rooms,” a jazz tune called “Dindi,” had become a sleeper hit in England, and suddenly Lawson found herself in demand.
“I formed my own group, and I remember, this is years later, I still wasn’t known as a scat singer, but I was performing in 1977 with the Janet Lawson Quintet at Beefsteak Charlie’s on 13th and Fifth, and I what I had finally realized was I wanted to improvise. But when I improvised nobody clapped. When a horn player improvised, everybody clapped, so I realized I had to bring in a horn player. There’d needed to be that construct of solo, applause, solo—the audience needed permission to participate. So, I finally put that together, and something just clicked in me. And one night, the critic John S. Wilson came in. I had no idea he was there.”
The next day, Wilson’s New York Times piece loudly proclaimed, “Janet Lawson Has the Dream Jazz Voice.”
The phone began to ring.
Engagements and recordings with artists like Eddie Jefferson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington followed. There were more hit recordings (“So High,” “Shazam/Captain Marvel,” “Dreams Can Be”) and, in 1981, a Grammy Nomination. The Ellington episode bears repeating:
“My father had this graphic design school in Baltimore, his day gig, and he was working with a seven step program in the schools—with felony offenders—teaching them a trade. I was visiting my parents, and I went to a meeting in the basement of this penitentiary with my father. I was now a New Yorker, you know, so I was doing my best to hang with all these killers—I’m trying to be cool, but the guards—I just felt terrified, they looked like dead police dogs. So the guys, the prisoners, are sitting there: ‘Oh what do you do?’ they ask me. ‘I’m a singer,’ I said. ‘Hey,’ they say, ‘We’re having a spring dance. You think you could come back and sing for us in April?’ ‘Absolutely!’ I told them.
“So I see in the paper that Duke Ellington is going to be appearing at this club in Baltimore, so I just called up the office, his representatives in New York, and I said, ‘Do you think Duke could come over to the prison while he’s in town?’ ‘Why not?’ the guy says.
“Well, we get to the prison, and sure enough, Duke’s just sitting there, in a swivel chair, and then we’re both just sitting there. And Duke’s got this little paper plate with a plastic spoon, with his ice cream melting on the plate. And Duke looks at me and he says, ‘What are you going to do?’ So I said, ‘Uh. I was thinking of ‘Love You Madly.’ ‘Oh, what key?’ he says. ‘I usually do it in the F.’ I say. ‘Could you do it in F?’ We were just having this light conversation, just patter.
“So we start, and Duke’s playing that old upright piano, and he’s playing the shit out of it with one hand holding down Quentin Jackson in one finger and Johnny Hodges and the other guys in the others. Because he’d always said that he arranged for his musicians, not for the instrument—and I could see then that it was true. So there he is playing, the whole band’s in his one hand. And I’m singing ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and ‘Love You Madly’ in this prison. And we made a nice duo. It was far out.”
Through it all, Lawson has maintained a fierce discipline and love for the music that continues to expand. In the late 1990s she began teaching at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and is now teaching jazz vocal technique at the highest level that school has to offer.
She studies Feldenkrais with an acknowledged master in the field, Andrew Gibbons, and, now, post illness, is slowly gaining back the full use and range of her fabulous voice. She has taught jazz singing in Latvia at the Saulkrasti Jazz Festival there, and recently attended the Jazz Education Network Convention in New Orleans, where she performed and gave a master class. Her spirituality is her strength, and her forthcoming book The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life celebrates, as she puts it, “how improvisation nourishes the authenticity of one’s development as an artist—a voice that’s true to the creative spirit, that communicates more deeply from within and, at the same time, speaks to the depths of others.”
Janet Lawson is accepting private students; call her at (646) 369-7207.