'Carry on for me': Austin musicians remember accomplished jazz drummer Scott Laningham
Guitarist Mitch Watkins first met drummer Scott Laningham in the early 1980s when they played a gig together at a Mexican restaurant on Sixth Street. Laningham was just 21 years old.
“The way we connected musically led me to suspect that there was more going on personally and spiritually, as well,” Watkins recalled this week. “I certainly put out the word about this new kid to anybody I knew.”
They played music together often over the next 40 years. Watkins, an anchor of the local jazz community who has toured with the likes of Leonard Cohen and Lyle Lovett, enjoyed seeing the young prodigy blossom into one of Austin’s finest musicians.
In the 2010s, Laningham toured in the bands of Christopher Cross and Alejandro Escovedo. At home, he held down the drum seat in renowned local jazz outfit Church on Monday, and he collaborated with Watkins and bassist Chris Maresh in the group Tres Musicos. He also had a wife and eight children, so he worked full-time at IBM for the past 20 years.
'As soulful as humans get':Austin guitar great Denny Freeman remembered by music community
On May 8, Laningham collapsed while working in the yard of his house in Leander and died. He was 61. Two weeks later, Watkins attended Laningham’s memorial service, which included home movies of the drummer enjoying life with his family.
Those videos were a revelation to Watkins. “His life as a loving father and family man was something that I rarely saw,” Watkins said. “And there was just tons of footage of them on family camping trips, playing in the yard and working in their garden.”
Laningham prioritized such experiences even as he pursued music and worked his day job. “Any one of those — family man, full-time IBM employee or in-demand musician — would have stretched a person of normal abilities to the max,” Watkins continued.
“But he managed to keep all of that together. He lived a life that was fuller than most, that’s for sure.”
On Monday, many of Laningham’s friends and fellow musicians will gather at the Continental Club for a 6:30 p.m. celebration of his life. Church on Monday will perform, and many of those who held Laningham dear will share their memories of him.
Among them will be saxophonist Elias Haslanger, who recruited Laningham for the Church on Monday band. The group began a Monday residency at the Continental Gallery (upstairs from the main club) a decade ago and will return to that slot in June when the Gallery reopens.
“When I decided to put the band together, he was the first one I called,” Haslanger said. That’s saying a lot, seeing as how the lineup also includes B3 organist James Polk, who toured for years with Ray Charles. But Laningham had left an indelible impression on a teenage Haslanger decades earlier, when his parents brought him to a radio performance by the Mitch Watkins Group at KUT’s Studio 1A.
Read about Paul Oscher:Austin blues musician who played in Muddy Waters' band dies at 71
“He didn't really look like he fit in with the band, because he was so squeaky clean,” Haslanger said. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this guy looks really young.’ But then he sat down at the drums and just played beautifully.”
Born Oct. 20, 1959, in Dallas, Laningham grew up mostly in the Amarillo area. He came to Austin around 1980 to attend the University of Texas, earning a degree in Radio-Television-Film. He then lived in New York City for a stretch in the 1980s. When Watkins moved there in 1984, they began playing together in a group that had a memorable gig at storied New York jazz club Mikell’s, with Stevie Ray Vaughan sitting in.
A couple of years later, Laningham relocated to Boston, where he worked for Christian Science Monitor Radio and met his wife, Elizabeth. Over the next couple of decades, they had eight children. The family eventually resettled in Austin, where Scott started working for IBM doing multimedia projects.
Watkins recalled that Laningham stopped playing drums for a while during those years. “He decided at a certain point in his life that he did not have time,” Watkins said. “His family came first, which I always admired him for.”
Read about Gene Taylor:Austin pianist who played with Fabulous Thunderbirds and others dies at 68
Gigs at Austin jazz institution the Elephant Room with Watkins and others, along with Haslanger’s recruitment of Laningham for Church on Monday, drew the drummer back into Austin’s music community. Other prominent Austin artists took notice. Alejandro Escovedo attended many Church on Monday gigs and eventually hired Laningham to play drums in his touring band.
Then bassist John Fremgen introduced Laningham to Christopher Cross, who brought Laningham into his touring band. When Cross and producer-engineer Randy Miller decided to form the local jazz supergroup Freedonia several years ago, Laningham was a natural choice to play drums.
Laningham’s enthusiasm for the project was vital in bringing together an accomplished cast of players. “He really was the impetus for getting the final formation of the band,” Cross said. Laningham became Freedonia’s emcee at live gigs and also contributed to the group’s repertoire, writing the title track to the band’s 2019 album “Firefly.”
During the pandemic, Laningham stayed busy with a variety of projects. He created SLRadio as an online outlet for interviewing many of his fellow local jazz musicians; those interviews can be found on his YouTube channel. He also began recording some of his own material, which may be released posthumously.
“People thought of Scott as an amazing drummer and a first-class gifted musician,” Watkins said. “But I was as touched by the kindness and love he showed to everybody as much as his musicianship.”
“Scott made a massive impression on all the people who were involved in Freedonia,” Cross said, noting that the band is planning to release a four-song EP that features Laningham’s contributions. “He was very charismatic, and just so full of life and joyful about music that it was infectious. He drew you into his enthusiasm.”
Beyond the music, a true friendship between the two men developed. Cross had Laningham and his wife over for dinner at his house a couple of weeks before Laningham’s death. “We had a lovely evening,” Cross said, “with no premonition about what would happen.”
Laningham had survived a heart attack three years ago but generally was in good health. EMS technicians tried to revive him after he collapsed in his yard. His oldest son, Nate, said the family decided not to pursue a cause-of-death inquiry with the medical examiner.
Friends quickly donated more than $50,000 to a GoFundMe campaign to help cover funeral costs and other expenses as the family begins to find a way forward without Laningham. “He was the primary breadwinner, so what they're going to do is really worrisome for me,” said Haslanger. He'll be taking donations for the family at Monday’s Continental Club memorial event, which will also be livestreamed on the Monks Jazz Club YouTube page.
Just a few days before Laningham died, he posted two original songs to his Bandcamp site. “Holy Ground,” an instrumental that features contributions from Watkins and George Strait violinist Gene Elders, was inspired by the protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Laningham sings and plays all the instrumentation on the second song, “Carry On.” He wrote a brief explanation of the tune on Bandcamp: “In the middle of the enormously challenging year of 2020, I became a grandparent, and that had me pondering the circle of life — new life coming into the world at the same time so many were losing loved ones. ‘Carry On’ was one creative result.”
The music is graceful and uplifting. “One life ends, another will avail,” Laningham sings. “Carry on for me.”