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Past Events

Harlem Speaks
Sarah McLawler
March 30, 2006



 
Watch video of this event

Pianist, Hammond B-3 organist and vocalist Sarah McLawler was the Jazz Museum’s Harlem Speaks guest on March 30, 2006.

She discussed being born in 1926 in Kentucky to middle-class parents who met at a Baptist Convention. Naturally, then, McLawler was raised in the church with gospel music.

After her mom died, her family moved from Louisville to Pittsburgh, where she began attending an integrated school. Her grades began to drop, and she told her father, a minister who had a church there, that she wasn’t happy. Her father sacrificed his church and moved the family to Indianapolis, Indiana to a “close-knit community.”

She began taking organ and piano lessons with her father’s church organist, Lizzie Gordon, while learning about European classical music at Crispus Attucks high school. She was also a member of the school’s glee club and a capella choir. (The Montgomery Brothers—Wes and Monk—used to play at the school, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard went there too.)

McLawler, while in Texas to bury her grandmother, was overheard playing the piano by Lucky Millinder, who took her on the road with him for the summer. Panama Francis, drummer with Millinder, and other band members watched over her and exposed her to the art and craft of professional jazz performance. Thereafter she continued her education at Fisk University, where, she says, “they had an excellent music department with great teachers.”

She also studied organ at the Indiana Conservatory. Soon she formed an all-woman group, the Syn-Co-Ettes, who performed as the house band at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. An opportunity arose for the group to come to New York, and they grabbed it.

After meeting Richard Otto, a classical violinist who also performed jazz, at a residency at a Brooklyn club, she married him and the two spent many years touring and recording together. “Richard was a virtuoso who won four national violin competitions at Carnegie Hall. The renowned Nathan Milstein gave him the last gold medal. We were ahead of our time, we were unorthodox.” The two won fame by “jazzing up the classics,” and were beloved by Cab Calloway, who brought his entire group to hear them at the Capital Lounge in Chicago, and Duke Ellington, who adored their version of “Flamingo” on the hit recording “We Bring You Love.” They played all over the world, and headlined at the Apollo Theatre.

“Clifford Brown used to come to the Mansfield Hotel in Chicago to play Richard’s violin concerto books, which had music by Liszt and Rachmaninov. He would then adapt those runs during his solos. And we helped him pack the car before he and Richie Powell left on that tragic trip.” The husband-wife team opened performances for the legendary Art Tatum, and integrated Miami clubs along with Errol Garner when Morris Levy and Oscar Goodstein opened a Birdland club there.

She is especially proud of being chosen to play at Count Basie’s wake at the Benta Funeral home in Harlem. Her second husband, William Kimes, a guitarist, used to give lessons to George Benson, who served as best man at their wedding. You can hear her sing and swing on the piano at the Chez Josephine restaurant in midtown Manhattan every Saturday evening.

 
 
 

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