Born in Baltimore to a family of professional musicians, Janet Lawson made her singing debut at the age of three and in her teens performed with big bands. After moving to New York, she began her studies with distinguished composer/arranger Hall Overton and made her debut appearance in the Village Vanguard with the Art Farmer Quartet. Throughout her career she has appeared with, among other jazz greats, Duke Ellington, Tommy Flanagan, Joe Newman, Barney Kessel, Milt Hinton, Ron Carter, Barry Harris, Dave Liebman, David and Lida Baker, Rufus Reid, Clark Terry, Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton, and Bob Dorough.
Lawson was soprano soloist with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in Blood Memories at City Center, New York, and composed and created, with lyricist Diane Snow, the musical Jass is a Lady, supported by NEA and ASCAP Theatre Workshop and produced by Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Lawson has appeared at major New York jazz clubs and has toured the US, Canada and the Far East. She performs mostly in Europe at festivals and clubs, including the Jazz Cafe in London, the Duc des Lombards in Paris, the Copenhagen Jazz House in Denmark with The Very Big Band, plus concerts and clubs throughout Latvia and Lithuania. Her group, the Janet Lawson Quintet, has recorded two albums, The Janet Lawson Quintet, which earned her a GRAMMY® nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Performance-Female (On a short list of jazz vocalists nominated for a first album, she lost to Ella Fitzgerald), and Dreams Can Be. Cambria Master Recordings recently excerpted the albums for the new CD, The Janet Lawson Quintet, and in 2001, Celeste, a Japanese label, released two CDs of her earlier works plus recordings with David Lahm on Palo Alto's Real Jazz for the Folks Who Feel Jazz and Eddie Jefferson on Inner City’s The Main Man.
Lawson is widely recognized for her impeccable musicianship and free-spirited, swinging improvisation. Her commitment to improvisation, the essence of jazz, and her later studies with tenor sax master Warne Marsh nourished her conception of the voice as an instrument. This dedication to the musicianship of singers led her to extending her voice into the field of jazz education. A gifted teacher of vocal jazz technique and self expression, Lawson has conducted clinics throughout the world and master classes at the Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music, Indiana University at Bloomington, City Stages in Birmingham, Alabama, and the University of Calgary, and has taught at Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camp, and at IAJE with Patty Coker and Berklee's Bob Stoloff. Lawson headed the Vocal Jazz program at Wm. Paterson in Wayne, New Jersey, from 1981 to 1988. She is one of the founders of the Vocal Department at the New School, where she is currently Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz. She has been a rostered artist in the Pennsylvania Arts in Education (Artist in Residency) Programs since 1990. Lawson was the first jazz vocalist to offer master classes in Latvia and created the Vocal Jazz Program at the prestigious Teacher's Training Academy in Riga, Latvia, which now offers degrees in Vocal Jazz.
Lawson is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York and Pennsylvania Councils on the Arts, and ArtsLink. She was co-awarded the New School’s Collaborative Project Award with Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts, Craig Houser. Lawson is listed in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and the All Music Guide to Jazz, and included in Leslie Gourse’s book Louis’ Children and in Scott Yanow’s new book The Jazz Singers. After a lengthy illness that prevented her from singing, Lawson is recovering and has returned to living, gigging and teaching in New York, where her spirit was first nourished by the music and musicians she loves. She wrote a book -- The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life – about her journey to recovery, which will be published in Latvia, and she is working on a soon-to-be-published children’s book and accompanying CD about the history of jazz, Grandma Sage and her Magic Music Room, with story and original music co-written with renowned composer and author, Carman Moore. And she continues to foster the vision of jazz singing as ‘a musician’s expression with your voice as your axe.’ Stanley Crouch, noted critic and journalist, says, “. . . Janet Lawson is a true musician . . . up next to the musicians with whom she’s working on an equal level.”