Portrait of man with flute

Photo by Frank Stewart

Hubert Laws



"To receive this award among many stellar giants of music is humbling. To recognize this wonderful gift of music from our magnificent creator is already inspiration to dedicate endless effort toward excellence. This award gives added impetus to continue this quest."

Hubert Laws is one of the very few to specialize on the flute in jazz, using it as his primary axe, and in doing so he has become the premier musician on the instrument. In three decades of playing, he has also mastered pop, rhythm-and-blues, and classical genres.

Laws grew up in a musical family, with his grandfather playing the harmonica and his mother the piano (which influenced his siblings as well as Laws -- his brother Ronnie is a well-regarded saxophonist and Eloise, Debra, and Johnnie are vocalists). Laws started on flute for his high school orchestra, initially to play the William Tell Overture. He also became enamored with jazz at this time, and began playing regularly with a Houston group that eventually became known as the Crusaders.

Laws won a classical scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, studying with master flutist Julius Baker. At the same time, he was gigging at night, playing with jazz and Latin musicians such as Mongo Santamaria, Lloyd Price, and John Lewis, as well as with classical orchestras such as Orchestra USA and the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra.

In 1964, he began recording as a bandleader, amassing more than 20 albums as leader. Laws is also an accomplished session musician, and has worked on recordings with Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sarah Vaughan, and Stevie Wonder, among others. He also worked on film scores for The Wiz and The Color Purple and collaborated on film soundtracks with Quincy Jones, Bob James, and Claude Bolling for California Suite and with Earl Klugh and Pat Williams on the music for How to Beat the High Cost of Living.

In addition to his jazz work, Laws has appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, and with the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, and Los Angeles, and the Stanford String Quartet. He performed in a sold-out Hollywood Bowl concert with fellow flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and in the same venue in 1982 with the Modern Jazz Quartet. While a member of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras, he also was featured at the Playboy Jazz Festival (Los Angeles), Kool Jazz Festival (Rhode Island), and Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival. In addition he has recorded with opera singers Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle (on the 1991 release Spirituals in Concert).

In 2006, a 30-year retrospective video on Laws was released with live performances. DownBeat readers' polls have selected him "Number One Flutist" for 12 years and a Critic's Choice for seven consecutive years. He has performed annually at Carnegie Hall.

Afro-Classic, Mosaic Contemporary, 1970
In the Beginning, Columbia, 1974
Remembers the Unforgettable Nat ?King' Cole, RKO, 1998
Moondance, Savoy Jazz, 2003
Flute Adaptations of Rachmaninov & Barber, Spirit Productions, 2008

Interview by A.B. Spellman for the NEA September 22, 2010 Edited by Rebecca Gross


Q: Were your parents musical?

Hubert Laws: Yes, that's right. My mother played piano for the local Baptist church choir and my dad thought he could sing. So we actually had a lot of music in the family. Matter of fact, we had a piano, as I recall. My mother tells me when I was five years old I got up there and started making up melodies. And most of my siblings are involved in music, one way or the other.

Q: Your brother Ronnie has a good career as tenor saxophonist.

Hubert Laws: Yeah. In fact, Ronnie had the biggest [album] for Blue Note Records since its beginning. His very first release was the biggest-selling album since Blue Note had been in existence. George Butler was the one who signed him at the time.

Q: Your sister Eloise sings, Debra sings, Johnny sings.

Hubert Laws: Johnny has a beautiful voice. I got him involved in two records that I did, when I was signed with Columbia Records. One was called Land of Passion, where he sung a duet with my sister Debra. Another was Say it with Silence, which he actually sang solo on. His job was a mail carrier, but he had this wonderful, wonderful voice, very reminiscent of Lou Rawls. It's kind of funny, because when we got him in the studio, he thought it was so easy. He sung around the house and shower and all that, but when we got him in the studio, you should have seen him sweating bullets! When you record, it's totally different. Especially when you begin to think about it, rather than thinking about having fun.

Q: Did your parents push you towards music, or did you drift to it yourself?

Hubert Laws: That's a good word, "drift." I used to say "victim," but I'm not a victim. Actually, [I] just sort of inherited it and moved towards music. Like I said, I played piano in the home because it was there, and my oldest sister sang. We were doing gospel music, and we'd go into various churches. Hearing my mother play piano apparently had some effect. I began to -- just by ear -- play the piano. Then my mother got us to take piano lessons from a local lady who really didn't get us into the materials of music. What I mean when I say "materials," [is] learn how to really read. So that was a short step.

Q: Dizzy Gillespie's first teacher was a pianist who couldn't read music, but taught him rhythm and ear. What do you think about that?

Hubert Laws: Well, when I studied, I wasn't really studying to be a jazz musician, per se. In fact, I didn't even know too much about jazz. I knew about religious music. And that music is just loaded with energy. You know, people shouting and singing. But later on, I found out that those were the roots for improvised music. I'm glad that I had that, because I think it has had a lasting effect on what I do today.

What I had at one time aspired to do [was] play in an orchestra. I did that [for] four years. I subbed at the Met in New York and then I played in the New York Philharmonic. I began to appreciate something that I took for granted -- the ability to improvise.

Human beings are free, moral agents. They like to feel like they control or they have free will. Free will is something that we all enjoy. When you think about it, playing the music of these composers limits free will. They play the music, and after they've played it once or twice, they may feel, "Oh my goodness, I'm limited." I have a friend who plays with the L.A. Philharmonic, and he made the statement that "The only time I really feel I can rise and shine is when we play Daphnis and Chloe." [There are] big flute solos in Daphnis and Chloe.

Then I begin to think about how much freedom I have been enjoying improvising without limits and took it for granted. So guess what? Instead of practicing all of the concerti and the sonatas, I started playing that same discipline towards improvisation. I feel like I'm progressing, even in my age now, and it's something that I just took for granted. I should have really, even from the beginning, concentrated my efforts toward the materials of improvisation. Because the more you do it, the more you feel adept. At least I do.

But I spent many of my years, many of my hours practicing that instrument just to figure out very difficult fingerings for the concertos or sonatas or whatever. Etudes and stuff like that. I had no idea that flute playing would become therapeutic to me. As you get older, you have more responsibilities, and [that] can bring some stress. I carry my flute around everywhere I go and pull it out. It actually becomes a panacea for me, for things that go on around me. It really gives me relief and calmness, tranquility.

Beautiful music comes out of those orchestras from the composers that give them the floor map for playing. But to be locked in that situation for many, many years, I can understand perhaps it may contribute to some high level of boredom.


Q: Tell me about your first flute, your first gigs, and how you would get to and from your jobs.

Hubert Laws: I got my first flute while I was in high school. What happened was the high school band was playing this piece by Rossini called "The William Tell Overture." And in that "William Tell Overture" is a prelude most people don't know about. They know [one] part because it was the Lone Ranger's theme. But the prelude had a big flute solo in there. In the high school band, there was no one to play that solo. Just about that time, a friend of mine, Sonny King, had a flute in his attic. He gave it to me, so I began to play. I went around two days without even being able to make a sound off that thing. But once I started getting a sound, then I learned to play that solo. That became an instant marriage. It was also an escape from having to find reeds for that saxophone and the clarinet. The sound intrigued me, and I've continued to really just love the sound of the instrument.

[But] my first instrument was an alto saxophone, which I bought with the newspaper. I had a newspaper route, I was nine years old. I heard this hit -- it was a hit in Houston -- "Because of You." I learned much more about that, since then, why it was a hit. It's a beautiful alto saxophone sound by Tab Smith. Tab Smith had this beautiful sound, and boy I loved that song. I said, "Man, I want to learn that song." So, believe it or not, I encouraged my mother to show me how I can find a saxophone. She took me downtown, and I put some money down on a saxophone. And I bought that alto saxophone, just to be able to play that solo.

I learned later why that song was recorded at that particular time. Tony Bennett had a big hit, "Because of You." Many times, in order to follow hits like that, instrumentalists would record it too. I found [that] out just by listening to a local program that comes on every Sunday, Music from the Swinging Years. [The host] gives a history of what was happening politically and socially, during that particular time, and he plays the top hits. I found out through listening to that program, not more than a year ago, why "Because of You" came to be, and how Tab Smith jumped onto the bandwagon and recorded it. That's what influenced me to get that alto saxophone.

Q: When you first started getting your jobs, how did your parents take that?

Hubert Laws: Well, what happened was there was a local talent show, and I got involved in that. I won it about two or three times. I was only 13 at that time, and so they called me the 13-year-old sensation for four years. The club owners thought it was a novel kind of a thing, so they engaged me to play floorshows. In fact, another person who was on the floorshow appearing with me was Roy Gaines.

Roy Gaines is a rhythm-and-blues guy, and his brother, Grady Gaines, played with Little Richard in a group called the Upsetters. That was all in Houston. Matter of fact, I've know Little Richard since I was 13 years old. Incidentally, Roy Gaines is the grandfather of my son. That's how small a world it is. It was out here that I met his daughter, who became the mother of my son.

Q: Your father had to take you to the clubs, or what?

Hubert Laws: Yes, that's what happened. My dad, being a religious man, well he didn't want me to play any clubs in the first place. But when I would go out on the floorshow, people started throwing all this money and his eyes got big as saucers. I overheard him on the phone with one of his friends: "Hey man, you should see my son out there. Man, they're throwing money!" So he was very glad to take me to the other performances.


Q: Can you tell me about the sequence of groups you played with, from the Modern Jazz Sextet through the Swingsters?

Hubert Laws: Well, we were in high school and Stix Hooper, who was the coordinator, was the pioneer for the group. He put all the elements together. We had a jazz orchestra in high school, a big band. Five saxophones, four or five trombones, five trumpets. That was a dance band.

Q: In Houston?

Hubert Laws: In Houston, Texas. Stix Hooper was the drummer, Henry Wilson was the bass player, and there are others in the jazz band who Stix chose to comprise what was called the Modern Jazz Sextet. It evolved into the Swingsters.

So we were the Swingsters, and then we got to be the Nighthawks when we moved to Los Angeles. We played a gig there, and then we did another gig for a long stint in Lakewood, near Long Beach. It was then that I think I auditioned for a scholarship to go to Juilliard, shortly after I left the band. They ultimately went to Las Vegas, and they started playing gigs there. I got a letter from Wayne [Henderson] telling me, "Hey Hubert, we got this recording contract with Pacific Jazz Records." At that time I said, "Man, what did I do, why did I leave that group?"

It was very difficult in New York. I got there in one of the biggest snowstorms, in 1960. I got there in my car. I had a ‘50 Plymouth, but that's another story. I can tell you some funny stuff about that old jalopy.

I left Los Angeles after I got the scholarship, and drove that car down to Houston, Texas. My brother, Johnny, came along with me to go up to New York. My mother insisted. You know how mothers are, protective and all that. She didn't want me to go by myself, although I had been by myself, basically, in L.A. (although I was living with an aunt). But basically I've been pretty much a loner, supporting myself since I was 15 or 16.

So I drove from Los Angeles to Houston, picked up my brother Johnny, and we went on up to New York. We got somewhere in Tennessee, and I tell you, that's when they had Jim Crow real bad. Back there, blacks really weren't free to use the facilities on the road. It was quite a thing, looking back. But at the time, it was depressing. But when you're young, you're resilient. You can take a lot of things. We look back at it and kind of laugh.

We got up to New York. I was there for maybe six or seven months before someone stole my car. Stole that old Plymouth. But here I am, practicing and practicing, every day. You know, I never did stop practicing. Even today, I practice as much as I can every day. It served to be a protection in many ways, protection from many things. I can't even enumerate them all, but like I said earlier, it's become like a means of therapy as well, a panacea from stress.

When [the Swingsters] began to record, I was still struggling at Juilliard. I was there for four years. While I was there, I found gigs. I was secretively playing saxophone, because there was this myth that if you play saxophone, you can't play flute well. While I was at the school, nobody knew I was playing saxophone, but I had to do it in order to support myself.

So, I was doing that while the Crusaders – the Swingsters had become the Crusaders -- began recording for Pacific Jazz Records. The first record was a jazz record, and of course, jazz records never have made a lot of sales. But when they started doing the crossover stuff -- Joe Sample wrote a lot of that -- "Street Life" was one of their biggest hits. And that's when they became universally known.


Q: You were playing jazz gigs at night, so you could go to school at Juilliard?

Hubert Laws: That's right. Not so much jazz, we were just playing gigs. In order to be successful you'd have to play music that was appreciated by the general public, you know. So you played pop hits, or whatever. My first gig in New York was with an organ trio at Sugar Ray's Lounge, up on 7th Avenue near the Hotel Theresa.

Q: In Harlem?

Hubert Laws: In Harlem. I remember specifically during that particular time, prominent in the news were Khrushchev and Castro. Rather than stay at the Waldorf-Astoria, they kind of snubbed their noses at that and went up to Harlem.

Q: Fidel came to speak at the United Nations…

Hubert Laws: That's right, that was 1960. He and Khrushchev stayed up there together, at the Hotel Theresa, which is where I used to play a lot of gigs. In fact, Chick Corea used to be in my group, playing the Hotel Theresa. We played these dances up there every Saturday night. But it was just one of the forms of music we would play for income.

Believe it or not, I was playing guitar at the time as well. Again, I was trying to avoid that myth of not playing saxophone and flute at the same time while going to the Juilliard School, you see.

Q: Why did you play jazz?

Hubert Laws: Well, I was not a leader, except for playing the Hotel Theresa. I played with this organ trio, I played tenor saxophone, flute. So I pretty much played the music that the organist, who was a leader, designated. I was a fledgling sideman. After I got that first gig, I never remember being unemployed. I've always had a gig, one way or the other, and that's how I was able to support myself through school.

Q: You also got a job with the great percussionist, Mongo Santamaria?

Hubert Laws: I began playing with him in '63. I had one more year to go at Juilliard, and I was playing these Latin gigs. They call it salsa now. We played these Latin dances on Saturday night, and I ran into a piano player who knew Mongo and he knew Mongo was looking for someone to play in his band to replace a guy named Pat Patrick. So he called me.

Rodgers Grant is the one who got me the gig with Mongo's band. We used to play these gigs at the Manhattan Center down there on 34th Street. I don't know if it's still there, but boy, I used to love playing those dances. You've got these elegant dancers, and they're just so nice. I started playing with Mongo in '63, and I played through '67 with him.   


Q: What was your connection with playing classical music with jazz musicians?

Hubert Laws: It was an outworking of spontaneity. I remember meeting in the office with Creed Taylor, who was the head of CTI Records. We sat down and decided some of the material we would want to record. Don Sebesky was along with us. When we recorded The Rite of Spring, it was an outworking of the instrument that I played, normally seen in a classical setting. But we thought to combine the classical with the jazz. Don Sebesky was a wonderful arranger. [He] was the one who really put together the arrangements.

We had wonderful musicians: Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, Bob James. These guys have the jazz aptitude, [and were] able to contribute something very special when it came to producing that music. The music was the themes of Igor Stravinksy. So it was a very unique outworking of just that one meeting we had in Creed's office, to do The Rite of Spring.

As a result of that, I started exploring other pieces of music that could be used as a backdrop or a background for jazz improvisation. That's how "Romeo and Juliet" came about, and Chopin's "Waltz," [and a] whole gamut of pieces we've done since then. I think it's good because it establishes a connection with people who know these themes. They see how it works out, and so you bridge that gap right away just by using a theme that's familiar to the general public.

Q: Stravinsky said that jazz music freed him of the heritage of Russian folk music on his music.

Hubert Laws: I heard that. [Maurice] Ravel actually said the same thing. I was told that he could be seen at Birdland when he would visit the USA.

Q: There's a lovely blues in Ravel's piano concerto.

Hubert Laws: It's interesting. I love "The Rite of Spring," the original score that Stravinsky wrote. But when it comes to writing jazz, it was kind of very corny to me when I heard it. He wrote something, I think, called the "Ebony Concerto?"

Q: He kind of sold out?

Hubert Laws: His classical works are wonderful. Jazz may have influenced him in some way or another, but you can't really write jazz, you know. You use some themes and allow the musicians to make it their own. That's where free will comes in. That's what's so wonderful about jazz.

Sometimes you take things that you're familiar with for granted. Here's this wonderful skill that people --and a lot of classically trained flutists have come up to me – [wonder:] "How do you do this? How do you play this? How you play jazz?" What I do is I take them through what I've done, but that doesn't mean they're going to end up with the same result. I tell them, "Listen to other people." In some cases, I used to learn their solos verbatim, that is note for note.

After doing that, I'd get the feel of it. I teach them the theory of how I did it. But that doesn't mean you're going to get the same result. I can understand the frustration, because they've been going through life [being] taught how to play music, how to read it, rigidly. But when it comes to that free will aspect, they don't know how to handle that.

Q: Would you encourage jazz musicians to pay more attention to classical music?

Hubert Laws: I would say musicians should open their ears to a variety of music because it would enhance one's given area that you happen to be involved in. It certainly has helped me to be involved in classical music, gospel music, Latin music. It's people from different cultures. I would not exclude myself from meeting and communicating with people of some various cultures. It's one reason why I learned to speak Spanish. It's like a whole new world of speaking to people in Spanish. I'm trying to learn Japanese right now. You know, language has been a barrier, but music has been put into these various categories as well, separated by geographical as well as by culture and language differences.

Music is a communicative tool. When you learn to use it, by erasing those boundaries, it can only enhance your life and interests. I'm still very excited about playing music. Whereas some of those guys that I played with in the Met, they used to go out there, and they were bored to death. I was never bored being around that great music. I focus on the composers. Not so much my little part in there, but the big picture.

Q: Can the "free will" that you talked about cross over to your classical playing, when you're playing what's on the page?

Hubert Laws: Well, if you make part of it your own. For instance, "Amazing Grace" has a set melody. But you can actually put your own way of playing it, your own expression. But you still have limited free will because you're still bound by the boundaries of the set notes. Like opera singers on stage, stretching it way out, long. They're trying to exercise some degree of free will as well. But I'm touting the advantages of being able to play improvised music, because it allows more free will.

Not to say there's no free will at all in classical music. There's some free will, as is obvious by what I explained. But there's more when you're playing this improvised music. I've come to appreciate it more as I get older.


Q: I'm going to list some of the 88 NEA Jazz Masters that you've played with: Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, James Moody, George Benson, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, Chick Corea.

Hubert Laws: Yes. Wonderful players. I feel so honored. It's funny how I never even thought about it that way, but that is true. I've been honored to be in the presence of those wonderful players.

Q: But there's also Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald…

Hubert Laws: I played the last recording of Sarah Vaughan's, produced by Sergio Mendez. Right over here, in Hollywood.

Q: Gunther Schuller said that Sarah Vaughan was the greatest singer of the 20th century.

Hubert Laws: Well, that's his assessment. That's good, you have your own assessment. But I would say my "favorite." That's how I would put it, because how do you extol the virtues of a rose over a lily? A chrysanthemum? How do you do that? They all have their intrinsic beauty. You know? That's the way I would look at it: "I like this. I love this a lot."

Q: Tell me about your experience working with great diva singers.

Hubert Laws: Believe it or not, for a short while I dated Kathleen [Battle]. She's a very, very meticulous person, a perfectionist. And that's one thing I brought home from being around her for a short period of time. She had an apartment up there somewhere, I think it was 87th Street. I used to go over there and practice the Bach cantatas. Wynton [Marsalis] and I played some Bach cantatas with her, and we did a recording at Carnegie Hall, when she did this thing with Jessye Norman. It was just a thing she asked me to do with her, along with some other people. At the time, it just seemed like something insignificant. I had no idea they were going to make a DVD out of it, but that's what ultimately happened.

Q: How's it like, working with the Modern Jazz Quartet?

Hubert Laws: I didn't really work with the quartet; I worked with the members of the quartet. I worked with Milt Jackson, and I worked with John Lewis.

Q: You didn't play with them at the Hollywood Bowl?

Hubert Laws: I played opposite them. But you know it's interesting, I had totally forgotten about it, [but] we played the Monterey Jazz Festival. I had to be in my early thirties or whatever. When I saw that, I was shocked because I did not remember that I had played that concert with John Lewis. But someone sent me a YouTube of that. It's amazing where people record, and you don't even know about it.

Q: Did you enjoy working on Hollywood film scores?

Hubert Laws: The enjoyable part, if the music sounds good, is the interaction with people. I like those sessions when I'm able to interact with the musicians. Technology is such, nowadays, that it sort of limits your connection with other musicians. Many times I go in and just put my flute on after the track has already been recorded. That's not too much fun.

When we recorded Walking in Space with Quincy, we had all the musicians present. I did a session not long ago, right up here at Capitol Records, right up the street. Not long ago, [I worked with] Pat Williams -- he wrote the theme for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and he did a lot of other scoring for TV. I did one track with him, and I was honored to be able to play with him. I walk in there, all the musicians right there. That was a great experience, to play it live, rather than going in by myself. So the highlight for me is interacting with the musicians. And if the music's good, I enjoy that.


Q: Is there anything you'd like to say about your original compositions?

Hubert Laws: I used to write a lot of music in New York City. In New York, the winter's very cold. And to me, it was always a fertile environment for me to compose. So I would get to the piano and think of a germ of an idea, write it down, and then I'd just work it out at the keyboard. That's how that piece came about, "Shades of Light." I don't know why I called it "Shades of Light," but I guess being oddball musicians, we always thought in an odd way. Many of my compositions come out with very unique titles.

Q: You were on one of the biggest hits of the 70s, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

Hubert Laws: You know, I went into RCA Victrola and recorded that just one time. The one time I ever recorded with Gil Scott-Heron. I hear people all the time telling me about that recording. And it was this one day -- one night, rather -- I went in there and recorded that. I didn't know it was that big of a hit. The biggest hit that I knew about that I did was with Quincy [Jones]. The first record that he did that Creed produced was Walking in Space. They still play that record -- it was recorded in 1969.

Q: I remember this Newport recording where you played the most peaceful, reflective version of "Amazing Grace" that I can remember.

Hubert Laws: Well, thank you for that. You know, my dad was responsible for that. One day, he'd come back from fishing. He was at the boat with the hose, watering it down, getting the salt off. While he was doing that, he was humming "Amazing Grace." I said, "Dad, you know what? I'm going to record that for you." That was back in 1971. I recorded that for CTI records. That record has followed me. In fact, I was in Montreux Jazz Festival last year, and Creed Taylor asked me to play that. I did it totally a capella. No other instrument. Creed said, "Boy, that had more interest from all the people who want to release that, than all the other pieces that we did."

Q: It was an expression of your spirituality.

Hubert Laws: Well that piece I remember since I was a kid. The way we do it, the way we did it was so full of feeling and pathos.

Q: I'm thinking of the Unforgettable LP of Nat Cole's music, that Natalie made.

Hubert Laws: I had aspired to do that music, because when I was a kid in Houston, I used to go to the wrestling matches. On the loudspeakers, they'd play this music of Nat King Cole. And I said, "Man, one day, I'm going to record as many of his hits as I can." Instrumental versions. So that's how I ended up recording Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.

And Kamau Kenyatta, a good friend I met at Quincy's place up in Bel Air, we got together and we arranged that together. I think he did such a magnificent job in the arrangements for that particular project.

Q: I wondered if there was anything about the pieces that you played that you'd like to tell us.

Hubert Laws: One of the pieces that I played was actually an original composition called  "Shades of Light." We had not played it very much in the group, so that's why I had to grab the music for it. We also did Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." We did his melodies, and we just sort of improvised on that. And then we played a blues, Thelonius Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." I think the last thing I played was a piece by Claude Debussy, which is called "Syrinx." That's one of the first pieces I learned when I went to study with my first flute teacher, Clement Barone. That was in Houston, Texas. He was very, very, very instrumental in helping me learn how to play.

When I was at the Texas Southern University, I wanted to play flute, and yet there was no flute instructor. We were compelled by the music department to go to one classical concert by the Houston Symphony a week. So I took advantage of that opportunity and happened to run into [flutists] Clement Barone and David Covig. Clement Barone was the piccolo player, third flute, and I stopped him. Boy, I had a lot of nerve to do that when I was that young. But I stopped him and asked him, "Hey, could one of you guys give me a flute lesson?" And they looked at each other, and David told Clement Barone, "You take him."

And that began my relationship with Clement Barone and his wife and his kids there in Houston. He gave me flute lessons. I think it was $3 a lesson. I would get on the bus and I'd travel to where he was. At the time in Houston, there was that segregation thing, you know. They lived in one part of town. This was something my parents didn't even know about. I was going to take those lessons because I was determined to learn to play that instrument and the way they operated it in the symphony orchestra. Matter of fact, I've got a flute that he sold to me for $150. It cost me almost $1,000 just to get the thing renovated.

At that time, he told me, "Hubert, this belonged to my dad, this flute." He played with the Philadelphia Orchestra back in 1905. So that shows you, that instrument is over 100 years old. I've got it in the vault right now, and it's one of my favorite flutes. He told me, "As long as you don't sell it to anybody else, I'll let you take it for $150." That was my first flute. That's how I got the scholarship to Juilliard, with that flute at a competition right here, around the corner, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

So taking flute lessons from Clement Barone started a relationship with him from there, in Houston, until he retired from the Detroit Symphony. He went to Detroit, played there for twenty-some-odd years. Our relationship continued until he died about six years ago.


Q: What is the principle in the scope of music that you have covered?

Hubert Laws: Well, I never really planned it. It was just circumstances that led me. I think my instrument, the flute, is a staple in the orchestra. But I was exposed to religious music earlier, so gospel music helped me when it came to rhythm and blues. I loved playing rhythm and blues. Believe it or not, I had no idea I was going to do it, but I ended up playing with Aretha Franklin, The Rascals -- that was a rock group back in the ‘60s -- Paul McCartney. Just being in New York gave me a lot of opportunities, and I ended up playing a variety of music, which I think is wonderful. Playing a variety contributes to your overall development in the whole music spectrum, I think. 

Q: Where in modern culture does jazz fit?

Hubert Laws: Well, what culture? Because, here in America, I think, like many things in life, the master teacher says, "Go in through the narrow gate, because wide and spacious is a road that leads often into destruction." Now, that's a microcosm, a paradigm for many activities in life, whether it be music, whether it be medicine, whether it be politics, whether it be food, or religion. Don't follow the majority. Look what happened with the flood. You believe, "No way can it flood." Most people were destroyed. Only eight people survived. Now there's a reason why they survived: they didn't go with the populace. So what's "popular" can be dangerous. Jazz is not popular.

Being involved in jazz has helped me in many other ways in life, period. You know why? Because it's always been like a stepchild. I became more receptive to ideas that were not popular. For instance, I know that most people eat junk food in the world. That's why you've got millions and millions of hamburgers sold by McDonald's. I know that that food is not healthy.

I know that if you eat raw vegetables, raw fruit…my mother's 91 years old. I got her on that regiment for the last 15 years. She thanks me every day for it. And I'm largely responsible for not going with the majority. I don't eat the so-called regular breakfast. You know, eggs, bacon, all that stuff. Occasionally. But it's not my regular routine. I get up every morning, and I make a smoothie with raw fruit, grapes, bananas, kiwi, flaxseed oil, blueberries. I think it contributes to my overall health. Many of my peers, man, they're dead. Died young.

Remember the time when most people smoked cigarettes? I never smoked cigarettes. I mean, I'm not trying to heap praise on myself, I'm simply saying that I learned from playing jazz that it's not popular. As a result, it helped me to accept other things that were not popular that could contribute to your overall well-being.

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