Janet Lawson, Educator
Janet began developing her unique style as an improvisational musician and scat singer studying with jazz masters -- Hall Overton the early 1960s, and continuing in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Warne Marsh and Hal Galper. As a performer, her growth continued throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s in jazz clubs, concerts and festivals around the US, Canada, Central America, the Far East, Italy, London, Paris, and Denmark. In the late ‘70s she formed The Janet Lawson Quintet, whose first self-titled album earned her a 1981 GRAMMY® nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Performance-Female. One of only a handful of jazz vocalists nominated for their first album, Janet lost that year to Ella Fitzgerald.
Janet’s commitment to Jazz Education evolved during these years from her deep respect for the great musicians who generously shared their insights through teaching as well as playing. They set the tone for how to instill a musical and personal awareness that she was striving to develop as a jazz singer. They were her role models for how she might pass this knowledge to other jazz singers who, like herself, were passionate about the music.
Janet began her life as a Jazz Educator in the early ‘70s, presenting improvisation workshops at Maryland State Penitentiary through Baltimore’s Visual Arts Institute, a highly respected school of commercial arts directed by her father, O. Jack Polun. In the late ‘70s, she subbed for Carman Moore, then music critic for the Village Voice, for his History of Jazz course at LaGuardia Community College. Inspired by knowledge passed on from Carman, she created, along with pianist/composer Steve Browman (who now teaches at the American School of Modern Music in Paris) the Improvised Music Collective, a non-profit organization dedicated to improvisation with other art forms and, through an NEA grant, brought an interactive program about Jazz into schools throughout New York City, planting the seeds for a program – JAZZ JOURNEY – that she would help create nearly fifteen years later. Janet also taught intergenerational music workshops with Head Start children and residents of senior centers, and to children with special needs through A Family of Artists in Pennsylvania.
In 1981, Jamey Aebersold hired Janet to teach at his Jazz Camp. That same year, the Wm. Paterson College Jazz Program, headed by Rufus Reid, hired Janet to head the Vocal Jazz Program. In 1989 she began a five-year stint as Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz at NYU. In 1994, she began teaching at the Mannes College jazz extension division, which was merged into the New School Jazz BFA curriculum in fall of 1995, when she became Adjunct Professor of Vocal Jazz at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. As a Jazz Educator, she has guided her students to an understanding of not only the language of the music, but to the discovery and expression of their authentic selves. One of those students, Sasha Dobson, who was Janet’s vocal jazz private student at the New School in 1997, was featured in the August 28, 2006 issue of Time Magazine in an article entitled “Six Singers Worth a Listen.” Another rising star who studied with Janet is Bilal Oliver (known just as “Bilal”), who now travels worldwide with fellow New School alumnus, pianist Robert Glasper (featured in a previous Time Magazine), who also participated in her classes.
In 1994, Janet developed, with pianist Lenore Raphael, a program called JAZZ JOURNEY, and through the New Jersey Jazz Society produced a video with Clark Terry, Arnie Lawrence, Ray Drummond and Billy Drummond called “JAZZ and YOUth.” The interactive history of jazz follows the journey of the people taken from their homeland and sold into slavery. Janet exposes this story’s history, sociology, and geography, as well as the ethical values of society, giving students an opportunity to connect to the story by vocally improvising their own melodies and rhythms to the different styles of music from the “journey.” The children begin the “journey” in W. Africa, mimicking animals and the sounds of nature, creating POLYRHYTHMS; moving to the Caribbean, singing SYNCOPATED RHYTHMS; proceeding to the Deep South of the United States, expressing their feelings in the BLUES; to a New Orleans ROMP, imitating tubas, trombones, trumpets and clarinets; and ending up in the big cities of the North, improvising the sounds of BEBOP and SCAT. Over the years, she has brought JAZZ JOURNEY through Artist in Residency programs to children in schools in the Poconos (where she lives) and throughout the US, Canada, Denmark, and Latvia.
Janet presented JAZZ JOURNEY at Latvia's Riga College of Pedagogy and Education in 1999. After her successful residency at the IV International Music Camp for Young Latvian Musicians in 2000, students and teachers from both institutions were aware of her reputation as a superb educator and wanted to experience JAZZ JOURNEY for themselves and pass it on to their students. She was invited back in 2002 for V International Music Camp, and for the first time, student teachers and professional music teachers from throughout Latvia were invited to the camp to attend a three-hour JAZZ JOURNEY seminar conducted by Janet. The music teachers then brought the program to their respective music schools and colleges, including the Latvian Academy of Music.
At the International Music Camp for Young Latvian Musicians, biannual events that attract classical students from all over the world, Janet has taught her students through her own compositions and arrangements, as well as jazz standards, how to transform their traditional folk singing and classical backgrounds into improvisational jazz singing. This summer in Latvia, at the Saulkraisti Jazz Camp and Festival, she had the privilege of offering thirty singers pathways to their own uniqueness. Through their studies of improvisation and jazz theory, which they connected to with great joy, they expressed that uniqueness performing with amazing precision and musicianship.
Six years ago, after contracting Lyme disease, which wasn’t diagnosed for over a year, Janet lost her voice -- both speaking and singing. She could not perform and wondered if she could even teach. What she discovered about being a Jazz Educator during this difficult time has not only strengthened her commitment to teaching, but also taught her that passion IS the Teacher – that love of communication IS the Teacher – that recognizing where the music comes from IS the Teacher. And as she slowly recovers her voice, (she was able to perform for a jazz festival audience for the first time in six years this summer in Latvia!), she has gained from this loss a higher level of understanding and compassion.
During her initial illness and the process of recovery over the past six years, Janet began writing a book about improvisation called “The Integrated Artist: Improvisation as a Way of Life” which explores the deeper meanings and truths behind the disciplines of musicianship and the relevancy of including observations about ourselves in the process – and how our own generosity and compassion nourishes the spirit of creation: “So, in our desire to be our best, we must also accept our ‘mistakes,’ thereby discovering even more – the unknown!” For Janet, the essence of life is commitment -– the successes or failures are merely by-products.
This past year, Janet has returned to the source of her inspiration for JAZZ JOURNEY, Carman Moore, to co-write a book and CD of original songs called GRANDMA SAGE AND HER MAGIC MUSIC ROOM – a History of Jazz for Children. 2006, Toni Ballard