Go Deeper

Q&A: Rick Lawn

Posted June 22nd, 2009

Philadelphia’s University of the Arts long has been involved with the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe. Its students perform in shows, its graduates create new works of theater and dance, and the school itself hosts performances and affiliated programs like last week’s meet-the-artist event with Pig Iron at the Arts Bank.

Richard Lawn, a seasoned jazz composer, musician, teacher, and author, is the dean of the College of Performing Arts at University of the Arts. Unlike your typical academic dean, Rick has had a long performance career himself, a career invaluable to educating students in the school’s widely respected performance programs. [Visit his website,, to listen to some of Rick’s work.]

Recently, I spoke with Rick and about getting into jazz and his life in the performance world.

When did your love of jazz first originate?
Junior high was my defining moment. I had a really great high school band director who was jazz crazed; I used to go and watch Steve Gadd. During college, I was on the road with Lionel Hampton. It was a small band and we toured all over the east coast; the tour bus would pull up at route exits on the expressway and pick me up there. That was the summer of ’69.

Like the song?
[Laughing] Sort of.

Who’s inspired you over the years?
Chuck Mangione became one of my idols. I ended up playing Carnegie Hall with him back in the 1970s; on a different tour I played in the Bottom Line in the Village. It was pretty exciting.

Any other favorite performances that have been memorable for you?
There were a lot of gigs [over the years]. I played with Ray Charles and Natalie Cole when I lived in Austin, Texas. Lanny Morgan was playing lead alto for the Cole gig. He was one of my childhood idols. I had a record jacket with his autograph on it. So [when I met him] I said, “I don’t want to make you feel old but I heard you play [when I was] a kid.” I was enamored. He was such a nice guy.

How about some of your favorite compositions you’ve done?
I think some of my best music is in Mirrors: Four Reflections in Jazz or Dance. It’s a four movement dance suite (by Big Band Modern Dance Company) about 35 minutes in length. It traces the evolution of jazz. The best ballad I’ve ever written is there.

Anything in the works currently?
I started a new 10-piece band. It’s a resident ensemble of UArts faculty. We call ourselves “The Power of Ten.”

[Speaking of UArts], what’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
The chance to work with really great students. I’ve been teaching for nearly 40 years. Teaching and learning are connected. The students motivate me to write music.

You’ve also written three books.
All three books were actually motivated by my teaching. I needed a better way to communicate. I saw a need and a niche. The first book, Jazz Ensemble, is a helpful tool for high school students or students training to be jazz educators. Jazz Theory and Practice is a real application for arrangers, composers, or improvisers…Jazz people thought there was a void in instruction literature. The last book was the most ambitious. Experiencing Jazz is an overview of jazz history for the novice and appreciators. They can learn enough to understand it and go deeper.

What’s the best part of being the dean at UArts?
It was meant to be. My first day as dean [eight years ago] I got off of the Patco, went to Cosi for a cup of coffee and they were playing jazz. Then, I arrived [at UArts] and the plaques on the street outside were Jerry Mulligan and Stan Getz!

So the stars aligned that day.
They did.

What have your students responded to most over the years?
They respond to the real deal. I’ve got a lot to share, things to think about, a knowledge of resources and real stories.

What do you think about Pig Iron? [They held a meet-the-artist event last Tuesday at the Arts Bank.]
Pig Iron is always worth seeing. Also I’m glad to see the effort [by Live Arts] to make connections between younger artists and institutions.

Any final thoughts?
Right now I’m just trying to get my band off the ground. I’m excited. I love to write music for people. But you have to get people to play that music. And sometimes that means starting a band.

–Jennifer Burrini

Photo courtesy Rick Lawn.