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#OTGYpsi: John E. Lawrence's Summer Jazz Series continues to grow in his hometown of Ypsilanti


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Here's how an Ypsi summer jazz series became a local and national institution in just three years

John E. Lawrence

John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series

John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series on Instagram

John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series on YouTube


Josh Hakala: You are listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community, and we bring you On the Ground ypsi, in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we are going to be talking about something that seems pretty on brand for WEMU. We're going to be talking about the ongoing John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series today. As always, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale. Thanks for joining us again.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And we found the perfect person to talk to you about the John E Lawrence Summer Jazz series. Joining us in studio is John E. Lawrence. John, thanks for joining us.

John E. Lawrence: Oh, happy to be here. Yeah.

Josh Hakala: All right. We'll start with you, Rylee. You featured the Summer Jazz Series for Concentrate Media. What drew you to write about it?

Rylee Barnsdale: The John E. Lawrence Jazz series is really one of a kind. You know, in Ypsi in the summer, we've got a ton of stuff going on for pretty much every palate, whether it be art, music, food, you name it. And while this series definitely finds a home amongst those, it really is set apart because of how quickly it's been growing over the past three years.

Josh Hakala: And not only that, and we'll talk about this with John too, but having it start in 2020, which is probably not the ideal time to start a new venture, but it's been working.

Rylee Barnsdale: And it really came about as a way to bring folks together during that time when it was really hard to bring folks together. And now that we are in this third year of the series, it's absolutely exploded from when it began. You know, we have a lineup of all nationally recording jazz artists performing for crowds that number in the thousands to tens of thousands. You know, folks coming from all across the country, even outside of the country. And that's not even counting the folks watching at home on the livestream that goes on each night as well.

Josh Hakala: So, what is the format? It's every week? Every Friday?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah. So, John and the team sort of affectionately call it "Jazz on the Lake for Ten Weeks Straight," so folks can come out to Ford Lake Park on Friday nights. It's $5 to park, and that's per car. You can pack up your car with all of the folks that you want to bring with you and enjoy a free jazz concert for two hours in the evening. There's food, there are vendors, there are giveaways from sponsors. It's really an electric and exciting performance that is free.

Josh Hakala: Saving money on parking--you had you had the radio audience already on board with that. So, John, we'll get to the summer jazz series in a bit. But I want to start with you. You're an outstanding guitar player. How old were you when you got started playing music?

John E. Lawrence: I started when I was nine years old. I was in the fourth grade, and a friend of mine played guitar for the class. After the class was over, I asked him, "Could he teach me?" And he said, "Yes, sure. Follow me home." And I followed him home and he taught me my first two songs, and I've been playing ever since.

Josh Hakala: What were those first two songs? Do you remember?

John E. Lawrence: Yeah. One is called "Louie, Louie," and I still play it today. (hums the tune). Anyway, another one was "Twine Time," and that was the song, the R&B song way back in that day, that was popular. And that was a fun song to play. So, once I learned those two songs, I played them every day, and I remember my mother saying, "Johnny, that's nice, but can you learn something else?" Okay.

Josh Hakala: So, was there a moment when you realized this is something you want to do with your life? I feel like a lot of people, you know, they pick up a guitar or they pick up an instrument and they're playing it. They enjoy it. It's a little different to take it to a career.

John E. Lawrence: I tell you; it was always in my mind. I was in my first band at the age of 12. So, after nine, ten, 11, two, after three years of playing, I was ready for a band. And I joined my band, and we practiced every day from 6 to 9 Monday through Thursday in my parents' basement. And we performed on the weekends. You know, so I kind of knew that's what I was going to be doing.

Josh Hakala: I like it. Anyone involved in the arts and music specifically, you need that early support to get off the ground and having parents that are willing to put up with a band practicing in their basement. That's next level parenting right there.

John E. Lawrence: That's right.

Josh Hakala: How big a role did your parents play in encouraging you?

John E. Lawrence: Yeah, I'll tell you the truth. My parents let us practice in the basement for ten years straight, four days a week, and then we performed on the weekends. My dad was the manager. And he helped us buy a school bus, and we painted it our own colors and put our name on the side of it. And he drove. He was also the bus driver. He was the mechanic for the bus if something broke down. My dad was very special. His name was Hugh Lawrence. A lot of people think Morris Lawrence was my father, but Hugh Lawrence was my dad, and my dad built my first guitar amplifier from scratch. So, I sat there and watched him put the electronics in. I said, Dad, can we have some reverb?" He said, "Yeah, we can add some reverb." He added some reverb in there. And then he built the cabinet, put the cover on the face and the corners and the wheels on it. He built our first P.A. system, and I bet you somewhere those speakers are still working now, you know? But anyway, my dad was very supportive. My mom was very supportive. And, you know, she took me to buy my first guitar. It sas really kind of like an inexpensive guitar. And then I remember she took me to Al and Allie's Music, which was in Ann Arbor, and I traded that in and got me an electric guitar that had cutaways in it. And I remember my brother used to play before me and I got his hand-me-down guitar, but it wasn't cool enough. It didn't have any cutaways in it, so I had to trade it in. But then, my grandmother used to play guitar. I got a picture I keep in my wallet of my grandmother sitting on the porch playing the guitar. So, I think it's in the blood, you know?

Josh Hakala: You not only play, but you started teaching music at Washtenaw Community College. How did you get involved with that?

John E. Lawrence: I'll tell you that's an interesting story. If somebody had told me when I was in high school that one day I would be teaching at Washtenaw Community College, I would've said, "You out of your mind!" You know, there's no way that can happen. I was one of those musicians that just wanted to play, you know? I didn't want to go study and I just wanted to play. So I said, "There's no way that can happen." But what happened was one or two of the singers from my band, they were taking classes with Morris Lawrence up at the college, and they said, "John, you got to meet this guy named Morris Lawrence. He's a cool guy and he knows a lot about music." And so, they took me up there, and I played for him. And he asked me if I know how to read music? I said, "No, I just play by ear." And he said, "Well, you're only doing half of it. You know, there's a whole nother half that you need to learn." And so, he said, "Start taking my classes up here." I said, "But I don't have enough money to register." And he said, "But come to my classes. Just act like you're enrolled. And I won't tell anybody if you won't tell anybody." What do you say that for a boy? I took every class. He taught twice a day. He taught music theory. Morning class. Music theory in the evening. He taught music appreciation. He taught the jazz combo, taught the WCC Jazz Orchestra, songwriting. I was at all of them day and night. And so, after about ten years of doing that, Morris said, "Johnny, I think you know enough now. You should teach." And I said, "Morris, I don't know enough to teach." He said," I've been watching you, and I think you're a natural teacher. You know, I watch how you explain things to students. They come to you for help." And I said, "Okay, if you believe so." I acted on his faith and his belief in me before my mind kicked in. I realized I like this. This is something that I can do, you know? And so, I started out teaching just part-time--jazz guitar and jazz improvization and things like that. Then, after a while he said, "Johnny, do you want to teach another class?" I said, "Yeah!" So, he gave me the jazz combo class, and I enjoyed doing that. And that was kind of like what I grew up doing anyway--teaching bands, you know? And then he said, "You think you can teach a songwriting class?" I said, "Yeah, I can teach a songwriting class."

Josh Hakala:] It seems like you...I mean, the way that you got the music bug, yu know, you were just hooked. And that seems like the teaching was right in the same wheelhouse.

John E. Lawrence: It's the same. You know, it's amazing. Teaching was something that I never saw myself doing. But then, after a while, I started writing books because I had to write lesson plans for all of my students. And I realized if I can write these out real nice and neat on a computer, then I can compile them and make a book. And so, then I said, "If I can videotape me teaching a class, even if there's no students in the room, just have the camera on me up at the board, I can have somebody videotape it." Now I have an instructional videotape. So, I learned how to maximize my efforts. So, without having to learn something new, I could turn it into some moneymaking opportunities. And so, I sent the video to Mel Bay Publications. You know, they're one of the biggest publishers of instructional material out there. And I sent it to Hal Leonard. And I sent it to a third company. I sent the video to him and the first two companies turned me down. Then, I never heard anything from Mel Bay I said, "Oh, shoot! I guess I won't hear anything from them." But then about three months later, I get a call, and I was given a lesson at my house. When I'm giving lessons, I don't answer the phone. So, I asked my student's father if could he take a message for me. He picked up the phone and said, "Johnny, I think you might want to take this. This is Mel Bay Publications." I said, "Yeah, I think I'll take it. I think I'll take it." And it was the president of Mel Bay. It was Bill Bay, William Bay. And he said, "Johnny, I'm sorry. I apologize for taking so long to get with you. But my dad died." Mel Bay had died, and he had to handle that. And I said, "Don't worry about it. You had to take care of business. And I understand that." And he said, "Well, I'll cut to the chase. We like your video, and we want to publish it for you, but we don't have any books that cover the material that you cover in the way that you do in that video. So, we'd like to offer you a three-book deal. And I'll send you the contract. Take it to your attorney, look it over, make any changes you need to make and get back with me." I said, "Wow! This is cool!" So, anyway, so to make a long story short, 11 months later, I had three books out, a music video, and I was using my books as textbooks up at WCC. So that was cool. Every semester, the students had to buy all three books.

Josh Hakala: I always thought that, you know, you write a textbook. I mean, you're kind of set. Like, all you have to do is updated every now and then. Well, with the unfortunate passing of Dr. Morris Lawrence, you were given an opportunity to sort of share your vision with the music education department at WCC. You kind of do your own thing in a way, but you've had training in this practice. You've really come into your own as a teacher. What did you do to try to change the program there?

John E. Lawrence: Well, I'm glad you asked that one. President Larry Whitworth came to me one day. Actually, I was playing at their Mardi Gras, their annual fundraiser. And on the break, he came to me and said, "Johnny, how come we never hired you here full-time?" I said, "I don't know." I really did know. I never went to college. I never went to school for it. You know, you had to have a degree. But anyway, he said, "Come by my office next week, and let's talk about it." He said, "If I can get you in there full-time, would you do it? And I said, "Yeah!" And so, anyway, I met with him, and he said, at that point, the performance art department was kind of--the music part--was kind of suffering. And he said, "We were thinking about letting it go. But before we let it go, we'd like to give you a shot and see what you can do with it." So, he asked me some questions: What would I do differently? But he asked me what did I think was wrong with it? I said, "Well, I think it lost its heart when Morris Lawrence died. You know, people used to be sitting around in the lobby practicing or in classrooms, you know, teaching each other. But all of this is dead now. And it's like walking into a library, you know? It's like you got to whisper. In a music room. I said, "Something's wrong with that picture." So, anyway, I said then I would develop some courses that students need, give them some information that what they need to know in order to make a living in today's world. And so, I developed 22 new courses.

Josh Hakala: Wow! Really?

John E. Lawrence: In a two-year span. And the program went from, like, 500 students in there to 5000. You know, it just really took off. And it happened at a time when enrollment was down campus wide. And I remember my dean told me that they were at a meeting, and they asked him, "How do you explain the performing arts department is doing so well when everybody else is suffering?" He said, "Two words! Johnny Lawrence!" Boy, he shared that story with me. I just felt so proud because, you know, even though I can do all of these things, I really didn't have any formal training. You know, I had never developed a class before, you know? But the dean helped me through it. The department chair helped me through it. And the next thing you know, we had the self-management for the working artist to teach students how to make a living doing what they love to do. And I wrote a textbook on that, and that's out now. You can get it on Amazon right now. But anyway, that's how I ended up turning things around at WCC.

Josh Hakala: You're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale and John Lawrence, a musician and founder of the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series, which is happening every Friday night at Ford Lake Park through September 1st. And you decided to retire from teaching WCC in 2016. And I should have used air quotes with retire. Because like a lot of retirees, it sounds like you've been even busier in retirement than before retirement. So, what was your mindset when you decided to step away from teaching and get back to focusing on your music career?

John E. Lawrence: Yeah, well, what happened was I retired from WCC, and I knew it was the right time to do it because I had to be 65, and the semester ended right on my birthday. And to do the whole 36 years of teaching there, and it ended right on my birthday I said, "That's a sign that I need to do this." And so, I retired. And, for the first year I said, "I'm going to live like a retired person. I'm not going to do anything. I'm not going to put anything on my calendar. I'm just going to lay back." And after a year doing that, I felt like my life was just wasted, you know? And so, I said, "I got to do something, you know?" And so, I started performing again. I started teaching again, but privately. And I did that. But what really changed my life and got me focused is a year before COVID hit the first time--when they locked everybody down, a year before that, I started losing members of my band. My trombone player went home and died unexpectedly. My musical director and keyboard player, Al McKenzie, who used to be the music director for The Temptations and groups like that, he went shopping one day. And by the time he got back to his car, he couldn't lift his right arm to put the groceries in the car. And by the time he got home driving, he couldn't lift his hand to take the key and ignition. And so, they misdiagnosed him and said that physical therapy would do it. It's probably some kind of a pinched nerve or that kind of thing. And it wasn't getting any better with the therapy. So, he wouldn't get a second opinion and found out he had two brain tumors. And one was cancerous. And shortly after that, he passed away. And so, I started thinking, "I've been kind of lackadaisical about my career and pushing myself." And so I said, "I'm going to see what I could do if I would devote every minute I was awake to writing and recording music." And I ended up doing that for 15 to 20 hours a day for a year and a half. I ended up with about 300 songs. I was recording them with all the instrumentation ready to be released. And then, after a year and a half, it was like in me. I was used to doing work in that way--you know, working to work around the clock. And I only need 2 hours sleep. I sleep from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and I go back and do it all over again. And so, that's when I learned I don't need as much food as I thought I did. I don't need in my sleep as I thought I did. But anyway, long story short, I ended up with about 600 songs ready to go. And one of those songs I sent to a producer, Grammy Award-winning producer Jeff Lorber, and he's a keyboardist, but he's a composer and he's great. He started Kenny G's career. So I said, "If I can get him to produce my song--because it's a song that sounded like something he would have written--if he would like it enough to produce it, that would be a feather in my cap." And so I sent it to him and he said, "Johnny, it's a nice song, but I don't think it'll do well in today's market." And before I could feel too sad, he said, "So, why don't we write one together, write something together?" And I said, "Wait a minute, let me see if I can take this in. You mean I'm going to be writing with a Grammy Award-winner!" So anyway, he said, "I'll send you three songs, and you choose which one you like, and we'll go from there." He sent me this song called Leather Jacket, and you see, I got my leather hat on that end up being my logo, wind up being my signature song. I said, We don't have to go any further. Just let's work with Working with "Leather Jacket." And it came out last year and went worldwide. And now, my songs are being played on the radio next to George Benson, David Sanborn, Boney James, Grover Washington, Sade. And so, it took me to a whole nother level. And then, we had to do a follow-up this year. So, in March, we released a new one called "Velocity," and that one did even better than the first one. And so, now we're working on an album together, you know? And we were actually working on a song that was written by Jeff Lorber, and Paul Jackson Jr played on it, who played in my jazz series, the first kickoff one, with Jazz Funk Soul: Jeff Lorber, Paul Jackson Junior, who plays on everybody's stuff. You see him on all the Oscars and all of the award shows. And so, I'm playing with all these major cats right now, you know? So, it's like a dream come true. And the jazz series just feel right into place, you know? So, everybody that comes here, you know, we treat them like royalty. We try to give them the kind of treatment that they deserve. You know, not all the time you get that. So we give them the best sound that we can give them. Aerials Enterprises does the sound. They started with doing the Detroit Jazz Series--Montrose, Detroit. And then so, we got the best sound. We got the best stage that we can afford. And now, we get the best artists, you know? And so, that's why it's growing so fast. You know, because I'm just giving them the best of the best. I wanted to give the community my best. You know, I'm at that point in my life now where I'm thinking about what kind of legacy am I going to leave behind, you know? And so, that's why, you know, I'm pushing so hard right now.

Josh Hakala: Why was it important for you to have it in your hometown?

John E. Lawrence: Yeah, you know, Ypsi has always been supportive of me, you know? It started out being just one concert. I'm going to do what I want to call it a giveback. I want to give back to the community. I wanted it to be free. And then, it was right before they lifted the restrictions from COVID for the first time--a week before, actually. And so, I said, "I can do this every week. I can make this a ten-week thing It doesn't have to be just one concert." So, I contacted the mayor, who was Lois Richardson at the time, and I asked her, "Can we do a jazz series?" And she said, "Let me get back with you. We got to go to city council and all of, you know, protocol and everything." Anyway, she got back with me a week before the time I wanted to start, and we got the okay. So, I got on the phone, and I just called all my friends on my phone--you know, my contacts. And they hadn't done any performing because COVID has shut them down. And so, a lot of them had new material that they were itching to perform for the first time. And so, they jumped at the opportunity to perform. And we did it down at Riverside Park. Actually, it was supposed to be Frog Island because we called it the Frog Island Jazz Series at first. The week of the show, around Monday through Wednesday, it rained straight. Tt was like buckets of rain, and Frog Island became a lake--literally. Ducks were swimming by--families of ducks--where the audience was going to be sitting. And so, I had to find another location. And we moved across the street to Riverside Park, which ended up being better because it was the nicer park But what happened was I only had $30,000 in my budget to do it, and that was to pay the band and the sound company. When we moved across the street, they didn't have a stage. You see, they had a big concrete slab at Riverside Park. That was a built-in stage. Over there, they didn't have a stage, so I had to rent a stage. The stage cost $30,000--just the stage! You know, I said, "That's our whole budget, you know?" But I just believed in it. I learned something. You remember that movie when they say, "If you build it, they will come?"

Josh Hakala: Field of Dreams.

John E. Lawrence: Field of Dreams?

Josh Hakala: Yeah.

John E. Lawrence: I'm working off of that every day now. I believe if you make it as strong as you can make it, and the money will come. People will come and support it. And so, that shot it up. That doubled the cost of everything. So, it was $60,000. And then, I still hadn't paid any of the bands yet. And so, add that into it, it gets to about $75,000, you know? And then, when we finished all the advertising and all that stuff, $80,000 is what it cost me. And I don't have $30,000, you know? But everybody, all of the sponsors kicked in--you know, Black Label, they kicked in. Jean Butman kicked in. And a whole lot of people just gave like $500, you know? And we ended up with enough money, so I didn't have to reach into my pocket at all. And so, even this one, this year, this one is twice as much as last year's, because it's all national acts. Last year, we had one national act at the end on Labor Day. This one, every act is national. So, it doubled everything. And then, I'm renting a bigger stage. They cost $3,000 a variety, you know? So, but anyway, the bottom line is we're halfway through, and we're going to make it. So, I just believe that you make it as strong as you can make it. And this is my philosophy about life. Try to be the best you can be. Do it the best you can do it. Don't worry about how much it costs. And watch what happens.

Josh Hakala: And you wanted to put Ypsi on the map. You've been doing three years! Are you feeling like it's starting to happen?

John E. Lawrence: It's happening. People are coming from all over. It's not just Ypsi now. You know, somebody called me last week from Cleveland, Ohio. "Is it still going on? I hear you guys got rain up there?" That's it. We go rain or shine. You know what I mean? So, they drove on up. Another guy came all the way from Atlanta just to see last week's show. And it was just so amazing. And we're streaming it now. And we just found out that, next to America, Japan is our next biggest audience that's tuning in every week. And I think Greece was next, you know? And so, it is worldwide, and we're putting them on the map. And I want this thing to grow so big, people fly in from Europe, from all over every year, you know, to experience this, you know? So, that's the plan. And one of the ways I want to do that is to make it a two-day event all summer long. So that way, people can come in on a Thursday. We get the hotel room and fill up all the hotels in the area. Stay Thursday and Friday. During the day on Friday, they can sightsee, check out all the sites around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And then, come Friday night to the concert. Get up Saturday, do some shopping all over, and then come back Saturday night. And then, check out Sunday morning. Now, you've got a reason for people to stay in the hotels. And so, that's my goal is to fill it up and just make it good for everybody. You know, everybody can benefit from this.

Josh Hakala: Well, the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series is taking place every Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Ford Lake Park, ending on September 1st. Concerts are free to attend, as we mentioned. $5 parking. Just stuff as many people in your car as you possibly can. And performances are also streamed live on YouTube as you mentioned. For more information you can find at John E Lawrence Jazz dot com. John E. Lawrence, it's been a pleasure to have you. And, as always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thanks to both of you for joining me on On the Ground Ypsi.

John E. Lawrence: Thank you.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: All right. This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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