On October 1, 1968, Seattle Symphony Orchestra hires its first African American musician, bassist Bruce Lawrence (1928-2015), in an effort to begin diversifying its membership. A highly skilled player, Lawrence arrives from New York with a deep musical background that covers the spectrum from classical to jazz. He is welcomed aboard by symphony members and their conductor, Milton Katims (1909-2006).
The Seattle Times noted that Lawrence grew up on Sugar Hill, a posh district in Harlem where the "swells" once lived. Jazz there was a neighborhood affair, where Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew, Arthur Taylor and Jackie McLean were local heroes.
As a youth in New York, Bruce Lawrence's musical background included both formal training -- four years at the High School of Music and Art and then two years of bass studies at the prestigious Julliard School -- as well as some high-stakes, on-the-job lessons when he fell into playing with various prominent jazz ensembles led by stars like Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, and even Dizzy Gillespie.
"Dizzy showed me what he wanted me to play," Lawrence told the Times, "You had to play everything from the top of your head. It wasn't written out. In the band was John Coltrane and Jimmy Heath. I'll never forget those guys." Lawrence also had amazing experiences performing on stage with other jazz icons including Charlie "Bird" Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.
Like many African American musicians of his generation, the Times pointed out, Lawrence studied classical music as a youngster but gravitated toward jazz because the symphony world was then off-limit to blacks. In 1958 Lawrence answered an ad for the Ottawa Symphony in Canada, where racial barriers weren't as rigid, and snagged the job. Symphony gigs in Halifax and in Syracuse, New York, followed.
In 1968, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra came through with an attractive offer for Bruce Lawrence. He accepted and moved to Seattle. For more than three decades Lawrence contributed his fine musicianship to the orchestra's sound. He retired from the symphony in 2005, which allowed him more time to work with the young students in a string orchestra that he organized at Leschi Elementary School in Seattle's Central Area. Bruce Lawrence died in August 2015.