Rudy Lawless, the consummate drummer whose definitive style earned him chairs in the bands of such notables as Andy Kirk, Blue Mitchell, Hank Jones and Roy Eldridge, died Feb. 21 in Manhattan at the Bellevue Hospice. He was 84.
His boyhood friend and fellow musician, Richard Butts, confirmed his death as a result of assorted health complications. He also confirmed that Lawless was born in Sydenham Hospital in Harlem.
“Rudy’s passing is a great loss to the NYC jazz community,” said saxophonist/composer and friend, Rene McLean. “Aside from being a great musician in his own right, he was boyhood friends with of Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and Arthur Taylor, who grew up in the rich cultural environment of Harlem’s Sugar Hill.”
Lawless seemed to be committed to the music from the very beginning. While residing in Harlem on 159th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, he was only blocks away from the noted drummers Sid Catlett, Denzel Best and Jimmy Crawford.
Lawless was basically a self-taught musician but was afforded the opportunity to be under the tutelage of Best. He and his young drummer friend Ben Riley took lessons from Roy Haynes, when he was not busy on the road.
Lawless once stated his idol Art Blakey, who also became a good friend, would stop by on occasion to give him some drumming tips. At 16, he spent a summer touring the U.S. with Eddie Durham’s band.
“Living in Harlem, Rudy had seen it all, like the greats James P. Johnson, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis,” said saxophonist Bill Saxton. “Rudy didn’t mind sharing his knowledge or experiences with the younger musicians.”
Lawless’ soft touch and smooth brushwork made him a regular accompanist with such noted singers as Hazel Scott, Dakota Staton, Etta Jones and Betty Roche during the 1970s.
In the early ’60s, he did a three-week stint with Mary Lou Williams at the then famous Hickory House on 52nd Street. He has recorded with pianists Junior Mance (in Tokyo) and Lenore Raphael, and vibraphonist Freddie McCoy.
From 1988 to 1990, Lawless took his own group to perform in Tokyo. Through the ’90s until recently, he and his ensembles performed regularly in clubs with vocalists Keisha St. Joan and George Jackson, with whom he also recorded three albums.
“I am grateful that Rudy was in my life,” said pianist/composer Danny Mixon. “We are family. I knew him when I was in my twenties. He played on my latest CD ‘Pass It On’ . At the time his health was declining, but he played anyway and I am forever grateful to him.”
When Lawless was not performing, he was giving back to the community by working with various nonprofit organizations. He always said, “I have to give back what was given to me.”
For three years, he hosted the weekly jam session at Local 802 for the Jazz Foundation of America. “I worked with Rudy at the jam session,” said singer and songwriter Okaru Lovelace. “He was a good drummer and always had something positive to say.”
His memorial will be held May 15, at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan.