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Laurence Sugarman

Updated: Jan 20

Tell something about your family, where you grew up, etc.




 

I am the youngest of five children born in Washington, DC. My father was a tax lawyer in the US Treasury Department and my mother was taking care of all of us. Shortly after my birth he left the government to join a law firm in Cleveland where both of my parents were born and raised.

That’s where we all grew up. Later I studied biology at Washington University in St. Louis. There I worked at St. Louis Children’s Hospital until I eventually went to Medical School at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I came to Rochester for my post graduate training in pediatrics and never left. I live in Pittsford with Laurie Hunt: fiber-artist, musician, intrepid orienteer, teacher, and a wonderful partner.

 

 

How did you get started in music?


My mother filled our house with music. She would play classical music and Broadway musicals on a large record player in the living room. On Saturdays she would cook to live broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Cleveland has a great arts community, especially music. At least once a year during elementary school we would travel to Severance Hall where the great Hungarian-American composer and Music Director George Szell would provide a children’s concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. When I was about 10 years old, I was in the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Choir. We performed Britten’s War Requiem and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalmsat in Severance Hall. That’s when I began to feel possessed by music, hearing it in my mind all the time.

Our parents required each of us five kids to learn a musical instrument. So I experienced my older siblings practicing and receiving lessons in classical instruments with strict teachers in my earliest years. But there seemed a lot of stress and discipline and tears: being told to practice and getting it right. I was in love with music but scared of what it might involve. Then, when I was six or seven years old, the early 1960’s, I heard Pete Seeger play the banjo. I don’t know where or when it was. There was something about that sound that captured me. I am sure it worried my parents. To their great credit, they bowed to my insistence and got me a banjo. I have not put it down since.

 

Did you play an instrument in high school?


I played the banjo in high school more than anything else I did in high school. I was also in the school choir and some theater productions but mostly I played the banjo. I had good friends who played the guitar and one who played the fiddle. We were riding the folk music and folk-rock wave and the anti-establishment status of traditional and protest music. Pete Seeger was singing, “If you love your Uncle Sam/Bring them home. Bring them home/Protect our boys in Viet Nam/Bring them home. Bring them home.” During adolescence there were a number of really good folk musicians in the Cleveland area that I would go to hear and from who I would learn. My friends and I would find a ride to the Kent State Folk Festival and just soak everything up.

 

 

Did you go to college? Where? Major?


I moved to St. Louis to attend Washington University. There was – and still is – a thriving traditional music scene there from blues to bluegrass and jazz to ragtime. I quickly became immersed. From my freshman year, I started teaching banjo lessons at an acoustic music shop called, Music Folk, in Webster Groves, Missouri.

That music store was founded that year in 1973 and is still going strong. It formed the heart of the traditional music community. There I had the opportunity to play and perform with wonderful musicians. At Washington University I was in the choir and a 16-voice group that performed madrigals and early music, touring extensively. The rigor of that classical training and the diversity of great traditional musicians were powerful influences.

Somehow, in the midst of all that I finished my undergraduate degree in biology and got a job working in laboratories at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. I enjoyed a few years of working at the lab from 7 AM to 2 PM five days a week, then playing at bars until 2 AM three nights a week and festivals and other events on the weekends. In 1978 our Original Mound City String Band won second place in the Tennessee State Old Time String Band Championships.

 

 

Which instruments do you play? Do you have a favorite?

 



I primarily play the banjo and I sing. I am a middling fiddler and can strum some chords on the guitar. But I have been enthralled with studying and learning about the banjo since I was six or seven years old. I like what Pete Seeger said about the banjo. He said that it is the only “truly American” instrument, and that like anything “truly American,” it came from someplace else. The banjo is a descendant of sacred West African harps, including the kora. The resonating chamber was a large skin covered gourd.

The gut strings were tied around a protruding rod and coursed over a bridge resting on the skin to amplify the sound. Slaves taken to the American continent reproduced these instruments in a variety of ways to keep alive their healing and religious traditions – their cultural heritage. Those sounds and music blended in with that of the European and indigenous peoples’ music to become American. I love a lot of instruments that I do not know how to play. But the banjo is part of me.


 

What's the best piece of advice another musician has ever given you?


That is a great question. Pete Seeger said that we ought to collect all of the music we can, make it our own, then give it back. Over the last 20 years, my wife and I have been strongly influenced by Chris Thile, genius of progressive American tradition music. There isn’t one specific thing that he has said that comes to mind.

But his music is so brilliantly authentic. He teaches about taking a musical phrase or element, considering where most expect it to go, then taking it in unexpected places that expresses your own direction and feeling.

About 40 years ago, someone told me that our relationship with our music comes in the practice of it, not in the performance. I think that is true with all of our art. The framed painting, the finished weaving, the fired pot are the end of that process. We can only bring it back alive by starting the next project. Music is always in process.

 

 

Which musicians have you been most influenced by?

 

Huge list, fortunately always expanding. In no particular order: Leonard Bernstein, Scott Joplin, Pete Seeger, Chris Thile, Naom Pikelny, Alasdair Fraser, Bonnie Rait, Robert Johnson, Utah Phillips, J.S. Bach, The Irish band Lunasa (at the Smith Opera House in Geneva on February 22!), Kinloch Nelson, Alhaji Bai Konte (kora player), Aaron Copeland, John Lennon, Stephen Stills, …

 

 

What type of music do you perform/create? Has your style changed over time?


Another great question. I play what has been called “clawhammer” or “frailing” style banjo, but I tend to break most of the rules of those styles and play more melodically than most of the folks who play those styles that I hear. My music is based on traditional forms (3/4 and 4/4 timing and two- and three-part repetitions) of traditional dance tunes, songs and ballads. But I add bridges and variations. When I write songs the words and music often come together and so dictate each other. Asking what type of music I create is kind of like asking what kind of person you are. I am too close to answer that. I have become a more patient, more dynamic, often slower and a more careful creator and performer of music. If I were to give a short answer to these questions it would be, “evolving.”

 

 

What are you currently working on now? Do you have any upcoming projects?

 

I am looking forward to creating my sixth recording project next year. I am wondering if it will be all original work. Perhaps there will be some very original takes on traditional music. I am thinking of old friends around the country with whom I would like to collaborate. Stay tuned.

 

Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?


Writing, reading, baking bread, cooking in general, hiking, feeling humbled in nature, and having meaningful conversations with our dogs while we walk.

 

What inspires you to create music? Are there real-life situations that inspire you?


I wish I knew. A meaningful conversation. Those geese in the spring. Once, I had to pull the car over into a gas station to write down a new song. The entire song – lyrics, words, melody and accompaniment -- exploded into my awareness when someone on the radio said, “They say everybody needs a song about the rain.” Can you hear the rhythm in that line? Like most folks who create art, I don’t feel in charge of the process. But I know the discipline of some form of regular practice helps. A famous writer wrote something like this. “I only| write when I am inspired. And I am inspired every morning at 8:30 AM. The lyrics are about love (of course, but only sometimes) and how we change and how we heal and how we don’t and how we let go and hold on…at least so far.

 

 

What do you want to express through your music?

 

Yet another great and hard question. The simplest answer is the most immediate one. just want to resolve the discomfort of this unexpressed bunch of feelings and intervals and thoughts and get them out of my mind and body and into the air so it is no longer contained within me and it makes sense, hopefully to another person. From a more reflective place, as with all art, I hope to touch on experiences and attendant emotions that we share, that brings us common understanding. Tears are okay. So is laughter. As long as they are about what we share deeply.

 

 

Do you have a piece of music that you’re most proud of? Why?


That’s unfair. It is like asking if you have a favorite child. It is very meaningful and very valuable to me that some people have told me that one of my songs is their favorite. That means the artistic expression worked. It evoked something of importance in another person. All of the music I have created is precious to me. I experience it allowing me in, letting me float on its current. So I am honored to get to practice and play. I hope the music is proud of me. Last year I composed the simplest and so the hardest-to-play instrumental composition. I think that the word “simple” means “really difficult.” My wife, Laurie, and I developed the bass part. Because it is simple and slow, there is a lot of space between notes and a lot of exposure. It is really easy to hit a note wrong or at the wrong time. The piece only works when it is played slowly. We got to perform it for Chris Thile. We wanted to know what more he would do with it. He told us it was perfect as it is. To keep it as it is. We are pretty proud of that.

 

 

Who would be your ideal musician to collaborate with and why?

 

If time travel were possible, then it would be anybody on the previous list of influences. The

characteristics of that collaborator would be someone who is serious about the art, honest, generous, provocative, challenging, disciplined, courageous, and joyous. So among those living collaborators, I am already there. I get to collaborate with my wife, Laurie.

 

Where can people go to hear you perform?


I have been performing much less over recent years but I look forward to doing more. I do my best to attend and participate in performances at Tunes By The Tracks every other Wednesday evening at the Clifton Springs Library. It is a wonderful venue and OCAC folks ought to support it. I have produced five CDs and nobody uses CDs anymore. In 2024 I intend to get all of my music available online on one platform or an-other. For now, the best way for OCAC folks to hear my music is to come to an OCAC opening reception next time they ask me to play.

 

Do you accept requests to play at events?


Absolutely. I like to watch people’s feet tap.

 

What is your contact information?


 

 

What are the hardest and best parts of creating music and writing lyrics?


How consuming they can be.

 

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