Remembering Elliot Lawrence

February 14, 1925 – July 2, 2021

 

A tribute to the last of the surviving bandleader from the swing era

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Bandleader, arranger-composer and pianist Elliot Lawrence passed away on July 2, 2021 at the age of 96.

Born as Elliot Lawrence Broza on Feb. 14, 1925 in Philadelphia, his parents were active on radio and (by 1948) television.

Lawrence began studying piano when he was three, conducted the orchestra for a stage show when he was our, and was writing music by the age of six.

He led his first orchestra (the 15-piece Band Busters) when he was 12, performing in a local club.

While a junior at the University of Pennsylvania (where he majored in symphonic conducting), he led the Elliot Broza Orchestra, soon changing his last name to Lawrence.

At 20, in 1945 (just before the big band era ended) he formed the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra, an impressive swing band.

The Elliot Lawrence Orchestra stayed active and busy during 1945-54 both in live performances and in the studios where it recorded for the Decca, Columbia, and RCA; its best known recording was of Gerry Mulligan’s “Elevation.”

While most of Lawrence’s sidemen never became famous, his lineup at various times included Red Rodney, Gerry Mulligan, Mitch Miller (on oboe), Phil Urso, and Neal Hefti.

While the Lawrence big band had broken up by 1955, he made a series of excellent jazz-oriented dates with jazz all-stars and studio musicians during 1955-60 for Fantasy and Vik.

Elliot Lawrence gradually moved away from jazz during the second half of the 1950s and altogether after 1960, composing and arranging music for radio, television specials (including every Tony Award telecast from 1965-2011), films (Network and The French Connection), and Broadway shows including Bye Bye Birdie and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

At the time of his death, Elliot Lawrence was the last surviving big band leader from the swing era.

Here is a film short from 1947 that features the Elliot Lawrence Orchestra and its 22-year old leader with singer Mindy Carson (“The Gypsy In My Soul”), and Alan Dale (“Marie”); best is the closing instrumental “Five O’Clock Shadow.”

-Scott Yanow

 

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