Morris J. Lawrence Jr., is about as versatile as anybody can get when it comes to music.
He wrote serious music, popular music, sung in heavy opera and light musical comedy, taught music, and played just about every musical instrument–”everything but the guitar,” he always said.
While working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan, Lawrence served as the Director of Music at both the Washtenaw Community College and St. Thomas schools.
In the spring of 1968, in recognition and according his work was a commission by St. Augustine High School of Lawrence’s native New Orleans, Louisiana, for a symphony band composition.
Lawrence, (then) 28, felt the $1,000 commission he received for “Caprice,” which the composer described as “a sonata allegro design with a theme which has an English flavor to it, consisting of this them being played with many colorful background varions,” was one of his first steps on a rather long and difficult climb to making a name in serious music.
Composer of four string quartets and forty band compositions, author of a piano book of songs and a text on basic musicianship for colleges, Lawrence was fond of popular music.
He wrote sixty-five numbers for dance orchestras, ranging from rock and roll to the more subtle forms of jazz.
In fact, in a composition class at the University, Ross Lee Finney suggested that in his serious music, Lawrence use the jazz rhythms he had learned in New Orleans.
“In New Orleans, I wrote jazz most of the time,” Lawrence always said. “Here, I saw the difference in style. The music is more intellectually stimulating. I tried writing in the different medium, but using the jazz rhythms, I came into a new contemporary style.”
In between travels, Lawrence was busy cataloguing his works so he could give publishers a list of what he had available.
Lawrence graduated of St. Augustine High School, where he was the first chair clarinetist and band president of the symphonic and marching bands.
His band director, Edwin Harrell Hampton, early recognized Lawrence’s composing ability and encouraged him.
He went to Xavier University, where he received a Bachelor of Music Degree in Instrumental Music Education in 1961.
Professor William D. Revelli, director of U-M bands, helped obtain an Oliver Ditson Scholarship for Lawrence in 1961.
“I heard about the University of Michigan all the time, wherever I went,” Lawrence said. “I thought if I couldn’t make it, it might be the end of the world, or maybe the end of my career.”
Lawrence received his Master of Music Degree in the summer of 1962. While working on the degree, he played the B-flat contra-bass clarinet in the Symphony Band and was in the Michigan Marching Band under direction of George Cavender.
During his undergraduate days in New Orleans, Lawrence played professionally with the dance orchestra, “The Royal Dukes of Rhythm,” a period during which he was concert-master and band president f the Xavier University Bands, founder of XU Collegians Dance Orchestra and recipient of eight music department scholarships for his outstanding musicianship.
“I started composing serious music while I was in high school,” Lawrence said. “They look light now, with all the mistakes and everything. While I was composing swing and jazz pieces, my band director asked me to write for the marching and symphony bands, and I got started.”
Lawrence felt especially fortunate that during his studies at Xavier and Michigan, he had come in contact with such composers as Mrs. Elizabeth Ivy, Richard Saylor, Orlando Tognazzi, Ronald DeKant, Arthur Hunkins, George Wilson, and Ross Lee Finney.
“I know exactly what I want to express in my music,” Lawrence said. “When I sit down to put notes on paper, I have the entire form of the composition in my head. Although I may change it in final form, it usually is pretty close to what I originally conceived. I would like to be known as a neo-romantic composer.”
Lawrence sang in Tosca in New Orleans, played B-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, and the saxophone in the Monroe production of the musical “Gypsy,” and appeared in a singing, acting role in the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
In 1966, he was the contra-bass clarinetist for the Ypsilanti greek Theatre Orchestra.
“I always felt I had to be a fighter and keep plugging away,” Lawrence said. “I want to get more of my works published, and whatever happens, I’ll keep playing, composing, and singing.”
Lawrence and his wife, Darrilyn, whom he married in 1965, had two sons, Morris II and Jason Christopher.