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Ashland jazzman dies of brain disorder

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Robin Lawson, right, and Cheewa James co-hosted a newsmagazine show on KOBI-TV. This photo was taken in the fall of 1982.John Darling
 Posted: 8:47 AM August 11, 2009

Friends and family of Robin Lawson, 70, who died Sunday of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, remember him as a master jazz musician with a sense of humor and unflagging drive toward perfection.

Lawson is the second Ashland musician to be felled by the degenerative brain disorder. Choir and band leader Dave Marston died of CJD on June 22.

A British immigrant, Lawson performed in many musical groups and concerts, acted as Winston Churchill in a long-running one-man show, served as assistant to Congressman Bob Smith for eight years and worked as a radio and television journalist regionally.

Lawson, who battled CJD for a month, was a warm, humorous and hard-working Renaissance man who set out to master many fields of work and did well in all of them, friends and family members said.

“Music was always number one for Robin,” said Pam Lawson, his wife of 44 years. “I told my mother when we married that I knew I'd always be second fiddle to his music. He always liked to progress, to keep moving himself and us forward, not sit on his laurels.”

Pam Lawson said her husband was told during a physical exam in February that he was in perfect health and would “live forever.”

“He never smoked or drank or did drugs,” she said. “It seems so unfair for someone so healthy to be struck down like this. My husband was a truly good, kind, decent and loving human being with a lot of talent and zest. He never gave up.”

His daughter Christie Lawson, 42, said, “We've received so many e-mails and letters showing how many people's lives he touched. He was a loving man and such a hard worker. Quality was so important to him and he taught that to me and my sister (Ali). It's amazing how many people felt special in his presence.”

Lawson arranged music and used archival recordings for many “Spotlight” productions featuring the works of Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and other legends at Camelot Theatre in Talent. His fellow band members were amazed when Lawson asked them to follow every note from his sheet music, which was based on original performances.

“He was such a perfectionist,” said Livia Genise, Camelot artistic director and a friend of Lawson's. “He cared so much for the music. The arrangements were just like the recordings. It was just amazing.

“He was just a brilliant musician, a wonderful person to know.”

Bassist Jim Calhoun of Ashland, who performed with him on many occasions, said Lawson showed “an amazing attention to detail, trying to get the exact voicings of riffs, even though only a handful of people in the audience would know. He was a wonderful guy.”

Lawson studied international politics and economics and loved to discuss issues, always in a respectful manner, said Calhoun. “If our national debate could be as civil and friendly, the country would be a lot better off.

“My friend is gone and I miss my friend,” Calhoun added. “My life is much richer for having known him.”

Drummer Hal Davis, also a frequent performer with Lawson, said, “He really knew his stuff. It was always fun to play with him. He always had his own unique approach and you had to stay on your toes — very entertaining and gifted.”

As a child, Lawson lived through the German bombings of England in World War II. Once he was found hiding under the family's grand piano when a rocket leveled the house across the street, said Pam Lawson.

“He was passionate about his one thing, jazz, from age 15,” she said.

Robin Lawson came to America at 19, with virtually no money, to study music and break into the jazz world. He attended Fresno State College and Berklee School of Music in Boston and studied under legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Lawson served in the U.S. Army in Germany, winning the All-Army Entertainment Contest and touring Europe with a jazz combo in 1961 and 1962.

From correspondence courses in journalism, Lawson built a broadcasting career, starting in Stockton, Calif. He made money reporting news and writing radio jingles, meeting his future wife when she came to audition as the jingle singer.

The couple toured the West as part of a musical group, married in 1965 and moved to Ashland in 1969.

Lawson locally was the “British Cowboy” on KSHA radio and, joining California-Oregon Broadcasting Co., started KEKA in Eureka, then worked in news and hosted a TV magazine show on KOBI in Medford.

Cheewa James, who co-hosted the magazine show with Lawson, said, “I loved working with Robin because he always saw the good in people and portrayed them on the television screen that way. He honored quality, and we did things until they were right. I still miss that British accent yelling at me, ‘One more shot, Cheewa, just one more. Let's make this perfect.' ”

Former KOBI news director and close friend Mark Brown of Ashland said Lawson set a standard for broadcast journalism in the region and at KCMX radio “could break more news than any newspaper, just because of his ability to ask the tough questions and his willingness to just pick up the phone and call any senator or congressman.”

Brown added, “He took things to such extremes to do it the right way, even taking acting lessons from Pat Patton (Oregon Shakespeare Festival director) in preparing to act Winston Churchill. It was top notch. He was such a remarkable man — and he was THE jazzman of the Rogue Valley.”

Robin Lawson was born Jan. 24, 1939, to Edward and Gwendolyn Lawson in the south of England. In addition to his wife, Pam, and grown daughters Christie and Ali, all living in the Rogue Valley, he is survived by a sister, Vivienne Willett, father-in-law Alex Gaudaur and mother-in-law Marianna Gaudaur.

A “Celebration of Life” memorial is in the planning and will be posted on www.caringbridge.com, along with memorial messages from friends.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.


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