NEW HAVEN — Toad’s Place on York Street lit up as a cadre of jazz musicians gathered to pay homage to one of New Haven’s own axe men extraordinaire, Rohn Lawrence, and to raise money to help young guitarists follow in the late musical legend’s footsteps.
Hundreds of jazz lovers waited for the doors to open on Sunday night in a line that snaked into the alley next to Toad’s. They, and I, were waiting for the fundraiser for Lawrence’s Still-in-the-Ville Foundation to begin.
Lawrence died in December 2021, but his legacy lives on in a foundation that ensures young musicians access guitars so, like Lawrence, they can embark on musical journeys that change their lives.
I remember when Lawrence’s first album, Hanging on a String, came out in 1997. It was a fast favorite in my rotation and on jazz playlists across the country. He only made three albums, but his talent and musical legacy spanned genres and decades. He was a staple on the New Haven music circuit and played everywhere.
He was at Rudy’s when it was still a dive bar on Elm Street; you could find him and Marion Meadows jamming there on Wednesday nights, and it was always packed. Toad’s Place, though, was like home for Lawrence. He held court in The Lily Pad upstairs on Mondays and you never knew who might pop in to play with him. When he died, he lay in state on Toad’s main stage for all to come and pay their respects. On Sunday, many of his musical friends returned, bringing their instruments and love for Lawrence back to for a star-studded musical marathon that Lawrence would have loved.
Jackie Buster, Lawrence’s former wife and friend, welcomed the crowd and shared why the evening was so important for Lawrence’s legacy and the development of young musicians. She also shared a couple of anecdotes about how they met and his love for his community and music. His sister joined her on stage to welcome the audience and kick off the show.
The concert played out in several sets, with musicians from throughout Lawrence’s career vibing on stage as they played jazz and R&B standards and told stories about their musical and personal relationships with Rohn, affectionately known as Rohnnie to everyone who graced the stage.
The event was called “Rohn Lawrence Through the Decades,” and by the time we left Toad’s Sunday night, we had journeyed through Lawrence’s musical legacy and experienced the joy he brought to those both on and off stage. Musicians whose careers started with him in New Haven and those he met on the road over the years as he played in bands around the globe unleashed their talent for the packed house. You may or may not know these musicians by name, but you’ve heard and danced to them for years: Jay Rowe, Rick Cunnigham, Alex Bugnon, Keith Robinson, Butter, Toni Aiardo, and T. Sommerville, to name a few.
Soprano saxophonist Marion Meadows opened the first set leading a group of Lawrence’s buddies in a silky, syncopated rendition of Stanley Turntine’s “Sugar.”
The guitar solo had us bopping in our seats and in the aisles, and that was just the first song. Keyboardist Joey Melotti told the story of how he met Lawrence as a kid; unbeknownst to them until sometime later, their dads had also grown up together. Melotti went on to massage the keys as he danced and vibrated with sheer joy on his solo during the first song. The musicianship and camaraderie on stage filtered out to the audience, and we felt how the music melded them together as one.
At one point it was as if they were having a conversation with their instruments. I kept thinking how that must have been some rehearsal. This first group to play set the tone for the rest of the evening, jamming as if Lawrence was in the room with his axe.
The soulful styling of Lamone wowed the crowd with a cover of Earth Wind and Fire’s classic “Fantasy” that took the falsetto parts to heights that Phillip Bailey would envy. Ricky Allen Draughn performed Prince’s classic “Purple Rain,” which he told the crowd was one of Lawrence’s favorites. The guitarist shredded the solo, one of the best parts of the song. Then came Carla Z, one of Lawrence’s best friends, whose sultry voice was perfect for Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love.”
Lawrence’s touring band was up next. The audience vibrated to the songs from Hanging on A String, and the house rose to its feet on the title song. These musicians left it all on the stage to raise funds to support young people to follow their musical dreams.
Almost all the musicians shared stories and anecdotes about Lawrence’s love of music, how he mentored and supported them, and their relationships as friends and performers. Seeing this bevy of talent coming together to ensure that other young people can access music and performance was heartening, and a sure way to ensure that Lawrence’s spirit lives on.
Visit the Still in the Ville Foundation’s website www.stillintheville.com to learn more about or contribute to supporting up-and-coming young musicians.