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Despite a prolific recording career as both a leader and as a sideman, alto saxophonist Arnie Lawrence made his most lasting contributions to jazz as an educator, founding the jazz program at New York City's New School University and later launching the Jerusalem-based International Center for Creative Music, a program that welcomed musicians of both Jewish and Arab descent. Born in Brooklyn, NY, on July 10, 1938, Lawrence first studied clarinet. By age 12, he was playing professionally in Catskills clubs, and at 17 he was performing as part of the "Jazz Unlimited" series presented by the landmark New York City club Birdland, once splitting a double bill with the immortal John Coltrane. As word of his soulful, fiery playing grew, Lawrence was invited to sit in with the likes of Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Maynard Ferguson, and Duke Pearson, but he did not make his recorded debut until 1966, when he appeared on Chico Hamilton's LP The Dealer. In addition to a long tenure with Hamilton, in 1967 Lawrence joined NBC's The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as a featured soloist, a gig he would maintain until the program relocated to Los Angeles five years later.
After signing to the Project 3 label, in 1968 Lawrence issued his first headlining session, You're Gonna Hear from Me, soon followed by Look Toward a Dream, a collaboration with guitarist Larry Coryell. After releasing the 1970 Embryo label effort Inside an Hour Glass, which featured his experimental project Children of All Ages, Lawrence joined Willie Bobo's Latin Jazz Band, then in 1974 shocked purists by signing on with the jazz-rock combo Blood, Sweat & Tears. Further confounding critics, in 1978 he embarked on a 14-month world tour behind Liza Minnelli. Upon returning stateside, Lawrence formed a new group, the fusion-oriented Treasure Island, releasing an eponymous LP on Doctor Jazz in 1979. After 1981's Renewal, he again receded to the background, touring with both Louis Bellson's Big Band and Elvin Jones; he also composed a symphony, "Red, White and Blues," later premiered by the Williamsburg, VA, symphony orchestra in a performance that featured Lawrence alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Julius Hemphill as featured soloists.
Lawrence's teaching career began during the mid-'70s with artist-in-residence jobs in Kentucky and Kansas, and in 1986 he mothballed his recording and touring pursuits to create and co-found the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, an educational center pairing master musicians with young up-and-comers. The New School pioneered an idiosyncratic educational approach that replaced traditional classroom settings with the stages of Manhattan nightclubs. Over a decade, the list of Lawrence's students would grow to include Roy Hargrove, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, John Popper, Peter Bernstein, and Jay Rodriguez. In 1997 he relocated to Israel, establishing the International Center for Creative Music in a building offered by the Jerusalem Department of Culture. Lawrence welcomed students of both Jewish and Arab backgrounds, insisting he was simply bringing like-minded musicians together regardless of their origins. In the same spirit, he often played alongside Israeli and Palestinian musicians at the West Bank club the Flamingo, and also operated his own nightspot, Arnie's Jazz Underground. After a long bout with lung and liver cancer, Lawrence died in Jerusalem on April 22, 2005.
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