A Smooth Talk With Hubert Laws
May 22, 2010
Author: Enid Francis, SmoothJazzTimes.com
SJT: I don’t think you’ll ever retire, but I’ll ask anyway; will you?
HL: How can I retire when I’m still growing musically? It’s the strangest thing; I used to spend so much time hoping to play classical flute perfectly. I realized that no one can do that but it didn’t stop me from trying to achieve the highest level of that skill. Little did I realize something that was inherent in me is the ability to improvise – to play jazz. It’s just like having a woman, a presence in your life, who is great for you and you don’t look at her that way. The “woman” was in my life from the beginning, but I just took her for granted. I felt I didn’t have to spend that much time on her – her being jazz improvisation, in my early years. That said I took my own ability to improvise for granted, but learned that this art of improvisation is a challenging one.
SJT: Tell me about your early exposure to music then.
HL: I went to church with my parents where I would hear people shouting and improvising with gospel music and there I learned to play gospel music. And right across the street from my childhood home was a honky-tonk named Ms. Mary’s Place, I’ll never forget it, so I’d hear people like BB King and Big Mama Willie Thornton. Through my window at night, I listened to all the artists that came through there. That’s how I learned to appreciate different music genres.
SJT: Did you get to indulge in jazz while at Julliard?
SJT: Improvising basically means you take a melody and you vary it, which is what I heard all my life. You don’t have that latitude with classical music – you play what’s written, and you can’t make it sound the way you want it to sound. Since the focus of my scholarship to Julliard was classical flute I guess what I did was to take on the attitude of the establishment, which was to look down their noses, in a sense, at jazz improvisation. Lucky for me, Chick Correa would grab a bunch of us to jam and improvise, because there was no jazz program, so that was the only jazz that was going on at Julliard at that time. That’s where I began to appreciate my skill and my freedom to improvise.
SJT: Why do you love jazz improvisation?
HL: I love it because it is something that is very personal and unique to each musician’s creativity.
SJT: So what musical genre brings out your deepest passion for playing the flute?
HL: It’s all the music that I hear on a daily basis that keeps me passionate, whether it’s classical or jazz. In jazz improvisation I’m trying to bring some content, or to make musical statements that will keep people listening. That’s the challenge.
SJT: To what do you attribute your longevity in the music world?
HL: Longevity? I think if I had stayed only with one idiom, like classical music, I’d be like some of those other fatalities, people who would not go beyond the boundaries of the orchestra. I can move from classical, to jazz or even to R&B if I have too. That and my interest in growing is what keep me relevant. A jazz musician produces on the spot. Just like an orator has to put his own words to a speech, jazz is like having to put meat on the bones, so to speak.
SJT: Who did you meet early in your career that you feel played a profound role in expanding your musical capabilities?
HL: I don’t think it was one individual. I think it runs the gamut from my mother, who was influential when she took me to church for gospel music, to the variety of highly achieving artists I’ve been blessed to share a stage with.
SJT: Do you write new music?
HL: I haven’t written a single note of music since I’ve been married. I’m telling you (laughing)! But I recently recorded Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concnerto No. 2, but adapted it for flute.
SJT: Are there recordings that you go back to listen to with a new appreciation for them?
HL: Of course! I listen to people who are very economical with notes. I think about Count Basie – he was a guy who didn’t play a bunch of notes, Miles Davis did the same thing, Coltrane – Coltrane played a lot of notes but he also was economical in a way, so all of those things influence me now. I’m in constant metamorphosis, there’s a change going on all the time, and that’s what keeps me so interested.
SJT: Where do you record?
HL: I have my own studio. I have recorded the last five albums on my own in my studio. I do the flute myself, but for other sounds, I depend on a man named Chris Brown. I love recording on my own.
SJT: What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve ever received about music?
HL: “Practice while you’re young because when you get older you’ll have less time!” Julius Baker, my flute teacher at Julliard, told me that. I apply that advice to whatever I’m doing, because time is valuable. I grab time. I grab space to continue to improve. And Baker was right, when you get older time just flies by you.