10 Questions with
Lawrence Brownlee from Yardbird
Lawrence Brownlee is known throughout the world as one of the leading bel canto tenors and is one of the most in-demand singers around. Brownlee was recently nominated for “Male Singer of the Year” by the International Opera Awards and has performed with nearly every leading international opera house and festival as well as major orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and the Bayerischer Rundfunk Orchestra. On March 24 and 26, he takes on an entirely different role than he has in the past—one of ghost of jazz legend Charlie Parker in the Lyric Opera’s Chamber Opera, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. The premise of this opera follows Charlie Parker’s death as his body lies for several days, unclaimed in the morgue. During that time his ghost returns to the jazz club Birdland, determined to compose his final masterpiece. Recently, we talked with Brownlee about his career and how he prepared for this very different role.
CJM: In order to give our readers some background about you and how you developed into one of the world’s foremost operatic tenor’s, it would be interesting to know about your early years. Did you grow up in a musical house? How did you become interested in opera and classical music?
Lawrence: I did grow up in a very musical household. My parents both sing, and my father directed the church choir. All of my siblings sing as well. It was a result of being in music in high school that someone suggested I pursue music as my career because a teacher heard something special in my voice; he led me to opera. I didn’t know I had the voice for it until he told me I did. I discovered opera and fell in love with it.
CJM: As you developed and pursued your career, you did your graduate work at the
Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. IU is known in the jazz world for their outstanding Jazz Studies department that was run for many years by the late David Baker. Although you were studying operatic music, did you ever meet or work with anyone in the Jazz Studies?
Lawrence: Yes, I had the great pleasure of attending IU School of Music and I knew David Baker very well. I was involved in other areas of music at IU and some of my closest friends were jazz studies majors so I knew their work well and attended many concerts. And we did perform together a lot, actually. It was not jazz, however. I played the bass guitar for the gospel choir and later became the music director, so these were the same musicians. I also saw David Baker perform a few times.
CJM: The list of your accomplishments and achievements are too numerous to mention here. With that being said, we have to ask: What drew you to play the role of Charlie Parker’s ghost in Yardbird?
Lawrence: Charlie parker is such an iconic figure in all music, not just jazz. I was drawn to the role because of his virtuosity as a musician. To bring his story to life interested me a great deal. Listening more and more to his music has given me a great appreciation to what he accomplished in such a short time.
CJM: Does playing the role of Charlie Parker require you to dig deep into his music and life so you can see what drove him and how he developed his style?
Lawrence: I did search resources to gain some insight about him. I watched YouTube and read some of Stanley Crouch’s book. Those who he collaborated with greatly influenced his style. The team also helped me prepare to play him. His relationships with various people, where he was born and the time in history, all informed who he was as a person and a musician—his successes, failures, addictions, etc. I tried to draw from all those things to play Charlie.
CJM: Musically and stylistically, how difficult was it to prepare for this role?
Lawrence: I’m a classically trained singer, and the writing challenged me a bit. In this role I was asked to use my voice much like that of an instrumentalist. In opera, we sing in a nice, neat range, but the composer Daniel Schnyder, a jazz musician, challenged us to explore the full gamut of the vocal possibilities: high, low, fast, slow, soft, loud—the extremes of the voice. This was a challenge, but I learned things about my voice that I can now use in other more classical roles.
CJM: You studied at both the Chicago School of Music and the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Who did you study with and how did the schools help you to expand your knowledge and help you grow as a musician?
CJM:Obviously, many of our readers are jazz enthusiasts. Will they hear any of Charlie
Parker’s compositions in the Chamber Opera?
Lawrence:I warn people that it is a legit chamber opera. But you will hear the music of Parker and his motives throughout. There is actually a vocal scat line that is a direct transcription of one of Charlie’s famous solos.
CJM: You performed Yardbird at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, a place where Parker played. Tell us about that experience.
Lawrence: That was a great honor for me— to be where Charlie and so many of the greats in many types of music was humbling. It was the first time an opera had been performed on that stage. I just remember telling myself to try and honor the great legacy of Charlie Parker and the Apollo Theater. I will never forget that experience.
CJM: While performing this show, have you been able to meet anyone who was directly
connected or who had performed with Parker?
Lawrence: I met Jimmy Heath, a saxophonist, who performed with Charlie and still performs today. He’s around 90 years old and shared with me things about Charlie. He strongly felt that his brilliance was in no way associated with drug influence. He expressed that he wished it were talked about less in the opera. He also recognized so much of the music.
CJM: Following the performance in Chicago, there will be a special tribute by Rajiv
Halim and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Quartet playing some of the music of Parker. At the shows in other cities, have they included something similar or is this idea unique to the Chicago production?
Lawrence: A few days before the premiere there was a jazz celebration at the Philadelphia Art Museum where the opera was first performed.
CJM: After or before Yardbird this month, what projects do you have coming up where people might be able to see you in a different setting?
Lawrence: I have a recital coming up on March 11 at Apostolic Church of God, before the Yardbird opera-singing spirituals. Then I will sing a concert on the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Civic Opera House) with Eric Owens on April 9. I look forward to performing for the people of Chicago.