Here's how an Ypsi summer jazz series became a local and national institution in just three years

Ypsilanti Township's John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series has grown rapidly, with crowds of as many as 10,000 attending in person and even more watching concert livestreams on YouTube.
In just three years, Ypsilanti Township's John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series has grown rapidly, with crowds of as many as 10,000 attending in person and even more watching concert livestreams on YouTube. But for the event's founder and namesake, John E. Lawrence, the series is a labor of love for not only the music, but for the Ypsilanti community.

"The jazz series is considered one of the most prestigious in the world over the past three years," Lawrence says. "I really want to put Ypsi on the map."

The free weekly concert series, affectionately dubbed "jazz on the lake for 10 weeks straight," moved from Ypsilanti's Frog Island Park to Ford Lake Park, 9075 S. Huron River Dr. in Ypsilanti Township, in 2021 due to large crowds in its inaugural year. The series has also expanded musically, with this year's lineup featuring all nationally recognized recording jazz artists. Audience members also have the opportunity to shop from local vendors, and they can enjoy the concert with food from local food trucks.

The event is just the latest manifestation of Lawrence’s almost lifelong love for jazz. He says he wouldn't be where he is today had he not learned to play guitar from his childhood friend Michael Lewis. His first band played shows throughout Ypsilanti starting when he was 12 and going into his 20s. He says his parents were "very supportive," with his father taking on the role of his band’s manager.
John E. Lawrence.
"From the time I picked up the guitar, I never wanted to put it down," he says. "With that kind of support, I knew I had to stick with it. I never gave it a second thought."

Eventually, Lawrence’s passion for music led him to Washtenaw Community College, where he began to learn music theory from Dr. Morris Lawrence's lectures. After soaking up as much information as he could, John Lawrence began to teach part-time at WCC at Morris Lawrence's suggestion. 

"After my first class I taught, I loved it," John Lawrence says. "I taught beginning guitar, jazz guitar, improvisation. Suddenly I was at my max load of what a part-timer could teach." 

Morris Lawrence passed away at age 53, leaving behind a robust performing arts program that John Lawrence would eventually chair. Lawrence suggested introducing non-traditional classes such as R&B and funk at WCC, and giving students opportunities to perform in bands at different events.
Food trucks at the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series.
in 2016, Lawrence retired from WCC and began to focus on his personal music career. The tragic, sudden losses of his band's trombone player and musical director caused him to shift his focus and throw himself deep into his craft. He says he "decided [he] wanted to spend every minute [he] was awake in the studio writing and recording music." In 2020, Lawrence wrote, produced, and recorded over 100 songs, 13 of which make up his recently released album "Masterpiece Vol. 1." He also worked with jazz fusion keyboardist and producer Jeff Lorber and award-winning producer Peter Mokran.

For Lawrence, the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted a need for community engagement. He wanted to give back to the community and give folks an opportunity to come back together again. He decided to do so through a free concert series featuring local jazz acts, culminating in a performance by a nationally recognized recording artist.

Keith Jackson, Lawrence's longtime collaborator and friend, has been working alongside Lawrence on the jazz series since its inception in 2020. He says that out of all of the projects he and Lawrence have worked on together, the series is "by far the largest," with this year's shows being no exception.

"We started booking acts in November and December of last year," Jackson says. "John has actually already started booking acts for next year." 
Gerald Albright performing at the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series.
Other changes to this year’s series, Jackson notes, are adjustments regarding accessibility, such as expanding the handicap parking areas, and designating areas for audience members to bring tents to sit under while enjoying each concert. He says each iteration of the series has allowed him, Lawrence, and other volunteers to learn a lot and make each year better than the last.

"The crowds have gotten so big. The interest has gotten so big," Jackson says. "Everyone has been so cooperative, and everyone’s really enjoyed it so far."

Lawrence says the "caliber of musicianship for the series this year is world-class." While the lineup features several new artists, crowds will recognize not only Lawrence himself closing out the series on Sept. 1, but also New York-based saxophonist Paula Atherton. Atherton, who closed out last year’s series, returns to the stage on Aug. 18. She says she’s had a "really great" time working with Lawrence again – although she's hoping for clearer skies this time.

"Last year, I did a 90-minute set and it rained the whole time," she says. "People had tents, umbrellas, any kind of thing you could have, and they were not going to leave."
Gerald Albright performing at the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series.
Atherton says jazz is meant to be enjoyed with others, so she appreciates the fact that the series is free, making it easier for audiences to form a kind of community with one another. She says she is excited to return to Ypsilanti, having "made a lot of friends" after her last visit, including Lawrence himself.

"John sets everything up right," Atherton says. "He’s a super sweet guy and he’s doing such a great thing here."

Lawrence says he is "very proud" of every musician in this year’s lineup, and securing such a star-studded lineup wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the series’ sponsors and Washtenaw County.

"Washtenaw County has kicked in in a big way. They’ve done a great job in helping us find funding," says Lawrence. "They felt this was nothing but good for the community, and they wanted to make it as strong as it could be." 
Gerald Albright performing at the John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz series.
He also attributes the event’s success to Jackson and the rest of the series' operations team. He calls his team and the series' many volunteers a "well-oiled machine," a sentiment which Jackson shares.

"We try to carry out John’s vision," Jackson says. "He has a really good heart, he’s a really positive person, and he just wants to do this for the community. It makes him so happy to see all those happy faces out there."

From practicing with his band in his parents’ garage to booking a full 10-week lineup of nationally recognized jazz artists, Lawrence says the series is "truly a huge accomplishment" not only for his community, but for himself as an artist.

"[If] you do something long enough [and] you don’t give up, you get better at it," Lawrence says. "This is only the third year. I’m not finished growing this thing."

The John E. Lawrence Summer Jazz Series will take place every Friday from 7-9 p.m. at Ford Lake Park, ending on Sept. 1. Concerts are free to attend, with a $5 cash parking fee at the park gate. Performances are also livestreamed via Lawrence’s YouTube channel for those unable to attend in person. Afterglow events at local businesses, with opportunities for meet-and-greets with performing artists, will be announced via the event’s Instagram page. For more information on the lineup, sponsorship opportunities, or to donate, visit the series' website.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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