It’s that time of year again. The Playboy Jazz Festival, now in its 33rd year, will take place Saturday and Sunday, June 11 and 12 at the storied Hollywood Bowl. Musicians, singers and bands from a variety of styles of jazz, including Marina del Rey resident Ronald Wayne “Ronnie” Laws, will bring their collective talents to the famed stage.
Laws, a saxophonist who has been performing professionally for over 30 years, will be joined by fellow sax man Walter Beasley and guitarist Stanley Jordan.
Laws has performed at the festival in the past as well as for other engagements at the Hollywood Bowl. He says it is always a great time when he gets to play in the shadows of other jazz legends who have headlined at the historic amphitheater like jazz singers Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
“It’s a great privilege to play there,” the saxophonist said in a June 7 interview with The Argonaut. “(The Hollywood Bowl) has a long history of featuring some of the legends of jazz, and I think that in many ways when you get a chance to play there it solidifies you as an artist.”
A longtime fixture in the world of jazz, Laws has recorded with some of the top musicians of contemporary jazz, including South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela (“Grazin’ in the Grass”) and pianist Ramsey Lewis (“The In Crowd”). He has also blazed his own trail as a solo artist, beginning in 1975 with his initial offering “Pressure Sensitive,” which yielded arguably his signature hit, “Always There.”
“Always There” has been sampled (the act of taking a portion, or sample of a sound recording of a song and reusing it as an instrument or a different sound) and covered by a variety of artists, and is considered by industry observers to be a certified jazz-funk hit.
Laws, 60, grew up in a musically inclined family in Houston, TX, where his mother Miola was instrumental in his introduction to music.
“Growing up in a musical family led the way to exposing my sisters Elosie and Debra and my brother Hubert, Jr. to a large genre of music,” Laws recalled. “My mother was a gospel pianist. It was part of the family diet.”
The Laws siblings have carved out their own paths along the musical trail, each with their own unique contribution.
“When the discussion turns to the essence of contemporary jazz, it’s safe to say the contributions of Ronnie Laws would have to be included in the conversation,” wrote Phillip Barnett in Jazz Crecsendo.com after Laws released “Voices in Water” in 2008. “As a matter of fact, the entire Laws family is so completely woven within the historic texture of American music that the names Hubert, Eloise, Debra along with Ronnie himself are synonymous with the word legendary.”
On Sunday, June 12, Laws will be one-third of Harmony 3, which will feature Jordan and Beasley. Laws came up with the name for the trio and thought it would be interesting to play the Playboy Jazz Festival with two musicians whom he has performed with in the past.
“I have a lot of respect for (Beasley),” he said. “I played with him in dual concerts before.”
Of Jordan, Laws calls the guitarist a “prolific artist.”
Playboy Jazz Festival Producer Darlene Chan said having Laws for the 2011 version of the festival will be a treat for the fans as well as the two-day concert’s organizers.
“Ronnie is a crowd favorite,” said Chan, who lives in Santa Monica. “He called me and told me that he was available this year and that he was putting (Harmony 3) together and we thought it would be a lot of fun.”
Laws said as his career has progressed, he has become more discerning in choosing whom he performs with, and Beasley and Clarke work well with his style of jazz.
“You get to a point where you’re more selective with people who are going to be on stage with you,” he said.
Chan, who has produced the festival since its inception, said Laws is equally at home playing at the Hollywood Bowl or in a much more intimate setting. Susan Gordon, a publicist for the Los Angeles Jazz Society, recalls him playing in Marina del Rey years ago in a small, community setting.
Laws said playing smaller, more intimate venues gives him the opportunity to reconnect with longtime fans and jazz lovers who might not always be able to see him perform in larger areas like the Playboy Jazz Festival.
“It’s very enjoyable,” Laws said of playing before smaller audiences. “You can really see that heartfelt appreciation and it’s very gratifying.”
Laws played with the iconic R&B band Earth, Wind & Fire in the early 1970s, and while they too began playing at colleges and before small audiences, they soon developed a dedicated fan base and eventually won six Grammys along with a worldwide following.
Laws left the band before Earth, Wind & Fire hit the pinnacle of their success, but he could tell early on that they would be special.
“From day one, you had the sense that it would be a unique group,” he said. “(Band leader and founder) Maurice White has a very innovative approach to new ideas, and I knew that (their) success was inevitable.”
It was Masakela who encouraged him to strike out on his own and soon after, Laws recorded “Pressure Sensitive,” the beginning of over 20 albums spanning more than three decades, including a 1996 tribute to the late saxophonist Eddie Harris.
Chan said Laws’ talents and success as a crossover artist in jazz, R&B and funk are the blend of musical qualities that festival organizers look for every year.
“His style really works well for the Playboy Jazz Festival,” the producer said. “We try to present a mix of new artists as well, and quite frankly, we also want artists who can sell tickets. And Ronnie can do that.”
Laws said he and Harmony 3 will play many of the old favorites, along with a few spontaneous jams for the audience.
“We’ll do our best to have them up and out of their seats,” he said.