Walking around Binghamton University’s campus, Laurence Elder may look like any other professor going about his day as a mentor for students. However, Elder’s time as a music teacher was preceded by an illustrious career in jazz that includes work with Grammy award-winning artists.
Originally from New York City, Elder comes from a musical family, and music has been a part of his life since as far back as he can remember.
“My mom was a folk-blues singer, I like to say I had Bob Dylan infused into me in the womb,” Elder said. “My dad was a classical pianist and I grew up playing a lot by ear and I was really attracted to jazz and blues and rock.”
Elder has toured internationally with his backup band, headlining with and opening for jazz artists like Spyro Gyra, Mike Stern, Dianne Reeves, Al Di Meola, Kenny Werner and Betty Buckley. While Elder’s long career in the music industry includes acclaim from outlets such as The Miami Herald and JAZZIZ Magazine, he started from humble beginnings. Elder’s first experience playing in a real band came when he was about 20 and joined Absolutely Curtains, which mostly played at keg parties and clubs. Performing an eclectic blend of rock and funk, the band also dabbled in jazz.
While Elder grew up in a musical household, he said it wasn’t until after his time playing with Absolutely Curtains that he realized there was a lot more he needed to learn.
“That experience is where I really got the inspiration to go to music school — I wanted to learn what I was doing,” Elder said. “I think I realized from being in that band that I didn’t know enough about music to do what I wanted to do.”
Elder went on to earn his master’s degree in jazz piano performance from the University of Miami, where he met Carlomagno Araya, the co-producer of his first album, “Surrounded,” which was released in 2005. Elder identifies his first album as a mix of many different genres and styles.
“This album is a blend of jazz, blues, rock, funk and pop wrapped up in a singer-songwriter package,” Elder said. “As my first real entrance into taking my work and putting it into the world, it was a lot of hard work, a real labor of love.”
The album features guest appearances from two Grammy award-winning artists in saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and drummer Peter Erskine. The profile of these artists helped Elder secure a distribution deal in Europe with ESC Records, and his album is still receiving airplay to this day. His success led to a long tenure as a performer playing at prominent venues such as New York City’s Blue Note and the Philippine International Jazz Festival.
Although he achieved success, Elder said he still recognizes the struggles of the music industry and what it takes to earn one’s place.
“It really makes you work for your goals because it is a lot of work and a lot of frustration and a lot of rejection,” Elder said. “You need to have thick skin because you want to stay connected, so you have to maintain a sort of vulnerability and openness.”
After coming to Binghamton from Miami, Elder didn’t plan on teaching, but a job offer at SUNY Broome led to him working at BU.
Elder said he now cherishes these past five years he’s spent as a professor, and teaching is a great way to pass on what he’s learned and “pay it forward.”
“I feel like I’ve been given so much from my teachers and mentors and to be able to pass that on, I don’t think it gets any better than that, it really comes full circle,” Elder said. “The other thing is, it actually makes me better at what I do because it forces me to think about these concepts in a way that I can teach them.”
After all that he’s experienced in the music world, Elder said he truly believes in his music’s ability to impact whom it’s meant to.
“You really want to try to have your own satisfaction from what you’re doing first,” Elder said. “More than ever, I really trust that it’s going to touch who it’s supposed to touch.”