OBITUARIES : Yank Lawson

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The Independent Online
Jazz is big on portraits of the artist as a young genius who plays like an angel, drinks too much, forgets to eat and dies after an unfulfilled but romantically appropriate number of years while still at the far edge of youth.

The trumpeter Yank Lawson, who always looked at ease and well fed, had few such problems. A large (6ft 4in), contented man, he had earned good money throughout his career. Latterly - until the last six years which he spent nursing his wife following a stroke - he was able to choose jobs because he wanted to play them, rather than for the money.

Of Scotch and Irish ancestry, Lawson was a stirring soloist and a powerful lead in a jazz ensemble. He was an amiable man, revered and regarded as a friend by both musicians and fans. His sense of humour was robust and he usually brought a couple of really good new jokes to Britain on each of his visits.

Yank Lawson was one of the young men in the Thirties whose life was changed for ever by Louis Armstrong's playing. He was closer to the source than most, for he often played second trumpet to Armstrong in the recording studio. Throughout his life his style remained close to Armstrong's because, like so many contemporaries, he could see no better way to play.

Within the idiom Lawson was a punching and dynamic player, and his fiery solos brought him a generation of followers when Bob Crosby's records began appearing in Britain in the Thirties. Lawson was a real as opposed to a showbiz friend of both Armstrong's and Bing Crosby's. It was in the co-operative band nominally led by Bing's brother Bob Crosby that Lawson first made his name. He was noticed playing in the University of Missouri Dance Band and offered a full-time job in the band of Slatz Randall. In that band one of the saxophonists was Deane Kincaide, who in later years arranged much of the music Lawson played. With Randall, Lawson played in Chicago and there, in 1932, met Harriet, who later became his wife.

Lawson left Randall to join the band of the one-armed trumpeter Wingy Manone. Manone too was a friend of Bing Crosby's and each Christmas the crooner used to send Wingy one cuff-link. When the band reached Shreveport, Louisiana, Lawson did his starving. "Things got so tough we put birdseed in some old mouse-traps, caught birds and ate them." Worried by Manone's habit of walking along the street smoking marijuana and blowing smoke over policemen who happened to be standing on the corner, Lawson left.

He travelled north to Minneapolis in 1932 to see Harriet and, when they went to hear the Ben Pollack Orchestra which was playing in the neighbourhood, Lawson was delighted to find Kincaide in its ranks. Lawson joined the Pollack band where he met fine musicians, to become lifelong associates, like the clarinettist Matty Matlock, the tenor saxophone player Eddie Miller, the guitarist Nappy Lamare, the drummer Ray Bauduc. These men left Pollack en bloc a couple of years later and eventually formed the co-operative Bob Crosby Orchestra with Bing's brother as a figurehead and occasional vocalist.

For the next four years the brand of Dixieland jazz which the Crosby band played was in the ascendant, and Lawson's solos were a major attraction. His trumpet featured on its composition Five Point Blues which the band recorded in 1938. The arrangement was by the band's bass player, Bob Haggart, and the two now forged musical links which were to make them colleagues and friends for life. But that year, when the tyrannical trombonist Tommy Dorsey made him an offer he couldn't refuse, Lawson succumbed. He was showcased as a soloist in the Dorsey band on huge-selling records such as Tin Roof Blues and Lonesome Road.

By 1940, with a young family, Lawson wanted to leave the touring life, and he took a job in the pit band of the Broadway show Louisiana Purchase. Restless after some months, he re-enlisted in the Bob Crosby band where he stayed until late 1942, when he joined Benny Goodman. He didn't stay long with Goodman and then made a fundamental change in his career, to become a New York studio musician, on call for recording companies, radio and later television. He continued to find time for jazz and played often during this period at Eddie Condon's Club.

Much in demand, he eventually recorded on well over a hundred albums and played for Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and innumerable other stars. On Armstrong's four-volume Satchmo: a musical autobiography Lawson took the role originally played by King Oliver in Armstrong's early career.

Lawson and Haggart formed the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band in 1951 and they recorded with the group, playing potent improvised Dixieland, at regular intervals until 1960. The two men were regulars in the band on The Steve Allen Show for television during the Fifties.

In 1968, they put together the World's Greatest Jazz Band (the name was devised by Hickox). The band was a complete success. It lasted for 10 years and played at jazz festivals and concerts all over the world. With Lawson's death, Haggart, still musically effective at 81, is the sole survivor of the Crosby clan.

Lawson had planned to come out of retirement to tour Japan in May.

John Rhea ("Yank") Lawson, trumpeter and bandleader, born Trenton, Missouri 3 May 1911; died Indianapolis 18 February 1995.