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Don Lawson
British Modern Jazz Musician

Don Lawson


Don Lawson, percussionist, one of the dwindling company of survivors of the earliest days of the modern jazz scene in London, sadly passed away last year.  His recording career from jazz enthusiasts’ points of view spanned the comparatively short period of 1952-59 in which he was associated with virtually all the foremost British musicians and visitors from overseas who pioneered modern jazz in this country.

Born in Ladbroke Grove, London July 7th 1930 his first professional engagement was with Kenny Graham’s outfit, The Afro Cubists, in September 1951.  He claimed that before joining this now legendary group he had virtually no experience outside a few dance gigs and had received no formal tuition.  Invited to sit in, his natural talent was noted by Graham, ten years his senior. An invitation to join officially came within days. His first recording session followed for the old Esquire label in February 1952. Four titles were recorded, his co-musicians being Graham on tenor sax, Jo Hunter (trumpet), Ralph Dollimore (piano), Roy Plummer (guitar) and Stan Wasser (bass).  Besides drums, Lawson assisted with maracas, conga and bongo. A lasting musical association with Dollimore also dates from this time. The four titles were: Mike Fright, Pip Squeak, Kenny's Jig, and Cuban Canyon.


Here's Kenny's Jig:




Finding a niche as resident drummer at Studio 51 where he was to remain for some time, Don recorded four titles, again for Esquire in May, with The Melody Maker’s New Stars.  His new companions comprised Ken Wray (trombone), Vic Ash (clarinet), Geoff Taylor (alto sax), Jimmy Walker (tenor sax), plus Dollimore and Cliff Ball (bass). Don widened his experience working for spells with the dance bands of Roy Fox and Bert Ambrose.  From the summer of 1953 he was with trumpeter Kenny Baker’s Quartet and in the following October was in the recording studios for a third session this time for Melodisc, the personnel comprising Baker, Stan Tracey (piano) and Cliff Ball (bass). Among the five titles recorded was Stomping At The Savoy, later released as a 78 which sold quite well.


Listen to Stompin' At The Savoy




Eight months later the same group recorded for Parlophone, Wanted and I Speak to the Stars, two dismal but highly popular songs on which Baker doubled on flugelhorn and Tracey on accordion!  Jazz musicians had to be prepared to compromise to earn a living in those early days. In another session soon after the quartet recorded two further titles under the designation ‘Kenny Baker and his Band.’ Lawson was back in the recording studio in early January for Decca with The In Town Jazz Group comprising Dizzy Reece (trumpet), Johnny Rogers (alto sax), Kathy Stobart (tenor sax), Eddie Thompson (piano) and Jack Fallon (bass). The late Kathy Stobart’s association with jazz of course dated back some years. Reece was an exciting newcomer from the Caribbean whose style was influenced by Clifford Brown.  The titles recorded were distinctly jazz fayre this time - I Can’t Get Started, Good Queen Bess, I’ve Got You Under My Skin and 52nd Street Theme.

Lawson had by now joined tenor saxist Don Rendell’s Sextet and at a busy session at the Tempo studios on Feb 22nd 1955, the group, in both sextet and quartet formations, recorded no less than nine tracks, an odd mixture of comparatively recent popular hits including Slow Boat to China, Didn’t We? and You Stepped Out of a Dream, some standards including Muskrat Ramble, Sometimes I’m Happy and the rather more experimental Dance of the Ooblies and Thames Walk.  The latter has appeared on CD compilations released in recent years. Whatever the material, the musicians concerned stamped it with their own individual style. The personnel besides Rendell and Lawson comprised a young Ronnie Ross on baritone sax, Dickie Hawdon (trumpet), Damian Robinson (piano) and Pete Elderfield (bass). On the quartet numbers, Rendell used Robinson, Elderfield and Lawson. The latter widened his experience still further this year appearing with Freddie Randall and Bob Burns.


We can listen to You Stepped Out Of A Dream




Then came an engagement as a member of Tony Bennett’s accompanying group on his first British tour, for which the musical director was the former stalwart of Woody Herman’s Herds and the George Shearing Quintet, guitarist Chuck Wayne, who was particularly impressed with Don’s work. It was to be a year before Lawson returned to the Tenorama-Nixa recording studio on February 22nd, 1956 with Rendell’s unchanged quartet for Don’t You Know I Care? and Curio. The following day came another marathon recording session for Nixa with a distinguished group, Kenny Baker and Friends.  A selection of unmistakeably jazz standards received a modern treatment in a session which must have been fun to work on, Jive at Five, Bugle Blues, Tea for Two Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, It Don’t Mean A Thing, I Can’t Give You Anything But love. Besides Baker and Lawson the ‘Friends’ were Bruce Turner (alto sax), Derek Smith (piano) and a visiting American bassist, Major Holley, a leading performer on the instrument who had worked with bebop-modern jazz giants, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Oscar Peterson.  A further title recorded at this session, with Baker and Turner standing down, was It Had To Be You.  The product of the day’s work is available on the CD ‘Midnight At Nixa.’

Three months later, in July, Don Lawson returned to the recording studio at MGM with his original jazz mentor, Kenny Graham, from he had also received lessons on living.  Since their last recording engagement Graham had been concentrating on composing.  His Afro and Latin American influenced scores were thirty years ahead of their time and greatly extended the members of the group over the next few days. Besides Graham and Lawson, the group titled Kenny Graham and his Satellites, included the unusual configuration of Danny Moss (bass clarinet), Jack Elory (flute), Stan Tracey (celeste and vibraphone), Sammy Stokes (bass) and Yolanda Bavan (voice and maracas). Lawson is listed as percussionist and the drummer as Phil Seaman, arguably in his day the most accomplished performer of the modern school on his instrument. On July 2nd / 3rd the group recorded nine titles, Lullaby, Tropical Sun, Sunday, 2 West 42nd Street and the numerically titled One Four, Two Four, Three Four, Four Four and Five Four. The innovative instrumentation required by the arrangements called for Martin Slavin to double on vibraphone when Stan Tracey was needed for accordion accompaniment.


Listen to 2 West 42nd Street





On July 4th another session resulted in three further tracks, Fog on the Hudson, Sunbeam and Sunstroke.  These were recorded by virtually the same musicians, now styled Kenny Graham’s Afro Cubists though on the first title, Eddie Taylor is brought in as an extra percussionist.   Slavin plays xylophone on one track and Tracey the piano for the first and only occasion over the three days on Sunbeam. This is very ambitious music, some contemporary pundits calling it pretentious.  Many of these titles constitute Graham’s jazz suites, Moondog and Suncat, foreshadowing his later work, One Day I Met An African which was played and enthusiastically promoted by Humphrey Lyttelton.  Fifty years later, Lawson expressed his pride at having taken part in these sessions and his reverence for the composing talents of Graham, for whom he had great personal respect as musician and man.  Don intimated that he considered his work on this session the high point of his career.  His technique on drums was tested and developed dramatically on these drum-based compositions. Whether the MGM chiefs were happy with what was produced and whether the records sold in any great numbers is more difficult to assess.


Here's Sunbeam





Two days later Lawson was back at the MGM studio recording two tracks (there may have been more of which trace has been lost), with the Don Rendell Quartet featuring Rendell, Robinson and Lawson from the previous session in March 1956, but with Sammy Stokes replacing Pete Elderfield on bass. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore is a jazz familiar. Juno is possibly an original Rendell composition.  The demand for Graham’s group continued with a session for Nixa just five days later, July 11th, when four more original Graham scores were recorded by the Afro Cubists.  The titles of the compositions sound as if they belong with the works recorded a few days earlier - Chant, Utsu, Sunrise, Sunset. The personnel is Ash, Moss, Tracey, Stokes, Phil Seamen and Lawson sharing the percussion work, Yolanda Bavan, later of Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan fame, also doubling on marimba and a Mr Ivor Slaney, a classical musician, making his one and only appearance on a jazz recording, playing the oboe. Graham is not listed but it is inconceivable he was absent when a group bearing his name recorded his work. Presumably he was musical director. 

Some months later, in January 1957, Lawson was on drums with the Don Rendell Jazz Six comprising Rendell, Kenny Wheeler (trumpet), Ronnie Ross (alto/baritone sax), Ken Moule (piano) and Arthur Watts (bass).  Three of the titles recorded, Jack O’Lantern, Will O’ the Wisp and I Saw Stars may be Rendell originals while Limehouse Blues is an old hobby horse in a new dressing. On a follow-up session some days later Bert Courtley, trumpet, was added on the single track recorded, Out of Nowhere. The demands of the Nixa recording studio were not completely satisfied until the 31st when the same group assembled to record Ignis Fatuus, Star Eyes, I Know Why and Taking a Chance on Love.

Meanwhile Don had worked with Keith Bird’s Quintet, appeared in the Jazz from London package, sharing drum duties again with Seaman and tried his hand in variety with Caribbean popular pianist Winifred Atwell, besides fulfilling his commitments to Don Rendell.  But earning a living as a jazz musician was becoming a precarious existence – it was never more than steady - as changes took place both within the idiom, and without, modern jazz being side-lined by mainstream and the revival of ‘trad’ jazz.  The masses were temporarily seized by rock ‘n’ roll fever but the rock revolution initiated by Presley, Holly, etc. was also developing.  For the moment Don Lawson stayed in jazz working with Ken Moule, Dill Jones, and touring with Kenny Baker’s Half Dozen. He was with Don Harper’s Quartet in 1959 and later the Frank Horrox Quintet.  This last engagement in 1959 was significant because it was the group with which he made his final recordings in a purely jazz context.  Besides Horrox, piano, his co-musicians were Albert Hall (trumpet), Rendell (tenor sax) and Jeff Southcott (bass).  The standards recorded were After You’ve Gone, Deep Purple, Just You, Just Me, and How About You which feature on a release by Embassy Records.


Here's Just You, Just Me




Though only 29, Don opted for a steadier income within the wider field of entertainment, enjoying a distinguished career in pit orchestras in London theatres, accompanying a host of visiting international stars including Barbra Streisand, Mary Martin, Eartha Kitt and composing for BBC TV, radio dramas and the Houston Ballet.  His widely varied activities included work on Russell Harty’s TV shows and a long stay as percussionist, composer and musical director for dancer Wayne Sleep’s company, while regularly playing engagements in a jazz milieu with Ken Moule, Mike McKenzie and Matt Ross.

Don, not in the best of health in later years, but strong in voice and bristling with reminiscences, lived in Hertfordshire with his highly talented wife of over 50 years, Sheila O’Neill, who had a long, successful career on the West End stage as a dancer and eminent choreographer.  He boasted a collection of classic British modern jazz records and other items including a unique log of every engagement he played which will be a mine of information for jazz historians of the future.  On the recordings I have heard of Don Lawson, his drumming is unobtrusive, but always reliable and felt, rather than displayed in showy solos. He belongs in the worthy tradition of Cliff Leaman, Dave Tough, Kenny Clare, Stan Levey et alia.  He gave of his best in the most exalted and exacting jazz company of his day.

Lionel King

Lionel King is a life-long jazz enthusiast who has written numerous articles for jazz journals and an occasional broadcaster on TV and local radio. His interest is ‘across the board’ - devised a centenary programme to commemorate the birth of Bix Beiderbecke in 2003 and in 2005 another featuring Black British Jazz Musicians. Lionel’s record collection began with two 78 rpm copies of Dr Jazz Stomp (Jelly Roll Morton and The Red Hot Peppers) and Painted Rhythm (Stan Kenton and Orchestra); he frequented the jazz clubs of London’s West End during the 1950s and attended Leyton Grammar School where an earlier pupil was Johnny Dankworth. He now lives in ‘jazz-starved rural Warwickshire’.


Martin Guy writes in response to Lionel's article: ' Knew him well. Lovely man and drummer'.


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