Laws is one of the very few to specialize on the flute in jazz, using it as his primary axe, and in doing so he has become the premier musician on the instrument. In three decades of playing, he has also mastered pop, rhythm-and-blues, and classical genres.
Laws grew up in a musical family, with his grandfather playing the harmonica and his mother the piano (which influenced his siblings as well as Laws — his brother Ronnie is a well-regarded saxophonist and Eloise, Debra, and Johnnie are vocalists). Laws started on flute for his high school orchestra, initially to play the William Tell Overture. He also became enamored with jazz at this time, and began playing regularly with a Houston group that eventually became known as the Crusaders.
Laws won a classical scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, studying with master flutist Julius Baker. At the same time, he was gigging at night, playing with jazz and Latin musicians such as Mongo Santamaria, Lloyd Price, and John Lewis, as well as with classical orchestras such as Orchestra USA and the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra.
In 1964, he began recording as a bandleader, amassing more than 20 albums as leader. Laws is also an accomplished session musician, and has worked on recordings with Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sarah Vaughan, and Stevie Wonder, among others. He also worked on film scores for The Wiz and The Color Purple and collaborated on film soundtracks with Quincy Jones, Bob James, and Claude Bolling for California Suite and with Earl Klugh and Pat Williams on the music for How to Beat the High Cost of Living.
In addition to his jazz work, Laws has appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta, and with the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, and Los Angeles, and the Stanford String Quartet. He performed in a sold-out Hollywood Bowl concert with fellow flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and in the same venue in 1982 with the Modern Jazz Quartet. While a member of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras, he also was featured at the Playboy Jazz Festival (Los Angeles), Kool Jazz Festival (Rhode Island), and Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival. In addition he has recorded with opera singers Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle (on the 1991 release Spirituals in Concert).
DownBeat readers’ polls have selected him “Number One Flutist” for 12 years and a Critic’s Choice for seven consecutive years. He has performed annually at Carnegie Hall.