Laura-Simone Martin on Growing Up in the Music Industry
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
Sofia Garcia ('23)
While junior year demands a time-consuming load of AP and honors classes, extracurricular activities, and college prep, one LHS student is still making time for music. Sixteen-year-old Laura-Simone Martin has quite an impressive resume; from working with esteemed jazz musicians like Tia Fuller, John Clayton, and Terell Stafford to performing across the country in places like the Monterey Jazz Festival and Vail Jazz Workshop. She plays with State and National-level ensembles such as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra, NAFME Jazz Ensemble, and the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey. Right now, she is the bass player in Princeton University’s Creative Large Jazz Ensemble under Darcy James Argue, playing along with college students… the list goes on. With ambitious and enthusiastic plans for the future, this won’t be the last you’ll hear from Laura Simone-Martin as she strides through the music industry.
Where did your passion for jazz begin?
I was always surrounded by music when I was little. My mom (Dr. Trineice Robinson-Martin) is a vocalist (Gospel, Jazz, R&B) so I grew up singing at church and harmonizing with her. I started playing bass in fifth grade after discovering a video of Esperanza Spalding, a famous bassist and singer, performing at the White House for President Obama and Michelle Obama. That was my first time not only seeing a woman playing bass but also a Black woman playing bass and she was wearing an afro. At that moment I really saw myself in her. I thought if she can do it, I can do it too. I didn’t start jazz until eighth grade when I went into a summer stay away camp in Connecticut called Litchfield Jazz camp. And that was the first time I realized that jazz was a lot bigger than I thought it was. I was surrounded by a lot of people who were better than me and was really inspired there. But when I came back to Lawrence, I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of jazz in Lawrence.
How do you balance school and extracurriculars with jazz practice?--And also make time for yourself?
Well, honestly it's a constant struggle to find a balance. There are definitely some days where I feel overloaded and I wished that I did nothing. But I think what pushes me to keep going is that I like all of the benefits that happen from the hard work. So I think just allowing myself to feel okay with taking breaks and hanging out with friends while still accomplishing what I need to get done is how I balance.
Who’s the coolest musician you’ve worked with?
I would say John Clayton. I met him at the Vail Jazz workshop and he shared all of his experiences and knowledge with me about the bass and life in general. I heard stories from him touring on the road and being close to a legendary bass player who passed, Ray Brown. He’s also, like, the nicest person that you could ever meet. Sometimes when you think of someone famous, they might not all be nice, but he was the complete opposite.
He was very down-to-earth?
Yeah, and he’s very supportive too. Like he wants to do whatever he can to help you succeed.
Where was your favorite place to perform?
The Monterey Jazz Festival, not only because it’s one of the most well-known jazz festivals in the world, but also because I was surrounded by so many amazing musicians; a lot of legends and artists that I really look up to were all there and I was able to meet and hang with them. A lot of new friendships started there and developed. It all felt like a surreal dream. Being able to perform at the festival was a complete honor and taught me so much just from being in the aroma with fellow dedicated musicians around my age.
I was hoping you could talk about the club that you started at LIS? Queen Amina?
Oh right, yes. So currently, I am the Founder/President of Lawrence High School’s Black Student Union, but I still wanted a program with more youth involved. And whenever I’d look around in Lawrence high school’s music department, there were not a lot of girls in the band, and I realized that a lot of girls dropped off playing their instrument either around middle school or high school.
That was me!
Yeah, and I think that they mostly drop either because they’re not exposed to the possibilities that music can take you or they’re just not passionate enough about playing their instrument. So I thought that a way to have more girls passionate about their instrument is by not only teaching them and working and playing together but also building a sisterhood around music where we learn about women composers and women musicians. I really get to show them the representation in music.
I remember the first day I asked if anyone knew any women jazz musicians or could name any and no one raised their hand. And then I asked, does anybody know what jazz is? and nobody knew either. And I remember myself in middle school and the only thing that kept me playing was playing jazz, so I figured that if they knew that earlier they could be as passionate as I am about it. I invite guest speakers to inspire them; we've had Katie Thiroux and Tia Fuller (Beyonce's saxophonist, saxophone behind Dorthea Williams in Pixar's Soul). I remember after every guest speaker, I could tell how much more motivated and inspired they were in progressing with their instrument. They have truly become my little sisters, and they're also teaching me how to become an educator because this is my first time teaching too. We're all learning from each other.
Where did your idea for the club name come from?
Well, originally, the whole idea of Queen Amina came from this past summer with COVID-19, where everyone was in quarantine. With that, many people started making virtual ensembles, and I thought I would try it. So I had an idea to form an all-Black, female group ranging from high school to college. Yet I found it a huge struggle because I couldn’t find a jazz piano player who was Black and female. So then I postponed that idea. But when I was going to try and make the group, I decided the ensemble would be named Queen Amina because she is a powerful African warrior queen. By her impressive bio, I thought it fit and truly represented the fierceness and talent in the group. Taking that same concept of all females in music, I decided to keep that title for the program I run at Lawrence Intermediate School.
What advice do you have for young aspiring jazz musicians?
For young aspiring jazz musicians, I would say don’t limit yourself. Many times new beginners, including me, at a time were under the impression that in order to be good you had to live in a little bubble of jazz. But as I grew not only did I realize jazz was not a small bubble, but I realized it had many branches inside the bigger bubble of Black American Music. So once I figured that out I fell in love with not just “jazz” but the joy of discovering new music not only under Black American Music (gospel, jazz, r&b, rock n roll, etc.) but also in different cultures. So to the rising jazz musicians; listen to things outside of your comfort zone because it is the combination of your influences and background that makes jazz music “jazz.”
Are you interested in making original music?
Yes, I am very interested in making original music. I have always been into writing lyrics, but I am still figuring out how to maneuver around chord progressions. So once I start to learn more about music theory, I will definitely start writing more often.
Looking ahead, what's coming up for you in terms of performances?
I’m going to the JEN conference, a huge music education conference for jazz. I’ll get the chance to stay in Dallas for a couple of days and learn from different professionals there. Then on January 23, I will perform with YOCJ (Youth Orchestra Central Jersey), Symphonic Orchestra at Rider University, and guest artist David Kim. In January, I’ll also be performing with the NAFME (National Association for Music Education) national jazz ensemble. Then in March, I will play at the legendary jazz club, Birdland with the Grace Fox Big Band, an all-girls big band with most members from Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard. So yeah, everything is really exciting so far, and I am just looking forward to the different opportunities to grow on my instrument and learn from others.
What are your goals for the future?
I really want to get into the Carnegie Hall National Youth Orchestra Jazz summer program to spend a month with Sean Jones, a famous trumpet player, and travel to different countries. I hope to go to a college somewhere on the East Coast. My top choices are Juilliard, Michigan State University because they have a really good music/bass program, and Manhattan School of Music. But if I end up in New York and playing music then I’ll be happy meeting new people, gigging, and joining more ensembles.
Why New York?
It’s where the jazz world is, it’s filled with so many opportunities whether that be gigs or just the chance to see live music in historic jazz clubs.
What’s your dream place and musician to perform with (dead or alive)?
My dream place to perform would be in Europe or an iconic New York jazz club like the Village Vanguard with people like Tia Fuller, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Miles Davis.
Finally, what jazz song or album should everyone listen to as soon as they finish reading this article?
Every person should listen to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. That is like, the most basic, most impactful album to the jazz world.
[Interviews from December 6th and 8th 2021 have been edited and condensed for clarity]