Jazz Masters of Houston: Hubert Laws

Above: Hubert Laws exhibiting his incredible facility at classical music with a jazz touch

While Houston is loaded with talented musicians, flautist Hubert Laws is probably the only one who performs annually at Carnegie Hall. A child prodigy born into a family of musicians in the Studewood area, Laws has gone on to be considered, along with Herbie Mann, the modern master of the instrument.

After proving his knack for flute at 13 when he filled the flute chair in the high school orchestra, Laws was already well on his way in his performing career when, in 1960 at age 20, he came to a crucial fork in his road. Laws' decision: Whether to continue playing jazz with the up-and-coming -- and eventually historic -- Jazz Crusaders or to attend Juilliard.

Laws was already an accomplished player and working in Los Angeles with the Jazz Crusaders, having been in all of the proto-Crusaders high school bands like the Swingsters and Modern Jazz Sextet, when the Julliard scholarship opportunity arose.

Once in New York, he not only studied with renowned flautist Julius Baker, Laws began to sub for the New York Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Broadening himself beyond classical music, Laws worked at night with jazz ensembles such as Mongo Santamaria and John Lewis.

New York offered an artist of Laws' talent an amazing array of possibilities, from classical to jazz, and he made the most of them, appearing with a host of national symphonies (Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, and Los Angeles) as well as performing as a soloist for the New York Philharmonic under the direction of renowned conductor Zubin Mehta.

Beginning in 1964, Laws began recording albums as the leader of his own band and has since produced dozens of albums, beginning with three for the Atlantic label: The Laws of Jazz, Flute By-Laws, and Laws' Cause. He then switched to the CTI label and annually produced an album for many years. Most of these were jazz efforts, but in 1971 Laws recorded a classical album, The Rite of Spring, with an ensemble of other noted jazz players. The album won Laws a large following in the classical music community.

But Laws is probably best known for his rendition of "Amazing Grace," which he cut in the early 1970s to please his father, who reportedly didn't really understand Laws' recordings.

The winner of three Grammys, Laws, whose younger brother Ronnie was an original member of Earth, Wind, and Fire, has continued to perform at the highest levels of both jazz and classical music throughout his career. He has headlined at the most prestigious jazz festivals in the world and has worked as a session musician with the likes of George Benson, Chet Baker, Chick Corea, Astrid Gilberto, Ron Carter, Freddy Hubbard, Jaco Pastorius, Lalo Schifrin, Houston Person, Gabor Szabo, McCoy Tyner, and fellow flautist Herbie Mann.

Laws has also collaborated on numerous albums with Quincy Jones, and has recorded or performed with a vast array of popular music stars: Paul McCartney, Nancy Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carly Simon.

The National Endowment for the Arts presented Laws its Lifetime Achievement award in 2010. NEA followed up in 2011 naming Laws a Jazz Master. Interviewed for the NEA by A. B. Spellman, Laws explained why he had pursued a career in jazz versus sticking with classical orchestras.

"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."

Laws is set to receive the Los Angeles Jazz Society's Lifetime Achievement Award October 27. He will be part of the Mumbai, India Jazz Festival in late December.

Laws resides in Los Angeles.

This is the first in a series spotlighting the giants of Houston jazz. Some are natives who moved on to pursue their musical destiny, others are artists born elsewhere who have chosen Houston as their home.

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