by Erin Graffy de Garcia

laurierecent.jpgOne of Santa Barbara’s musical talents,
Laurie Zeluck — pianist, composer, arranger — passed away recently
after a two-year struggle with lung cancer. With a prodigious
talent and plucky spirit, she single-handedly crafted her career
and took her place in the music world. Laurie Z, as she was known
professionally, was slim, sexy, and smooth, but also smart, savvy,
and self-possessed. She was uncommonly poised, even as a teenager,
with a Mona Lisa smile and a quiet twinkle in her eye.

At four-years-old, Laurie started piano lessons and fell in love
with playing. At five, she performed before a school assembly of
several hundred people; she never blinked and never looked back.
Soon after that, her family moved from New York to Santa Barbara,
where she attended Cathedral Oaks School. At San Marcos High
School, her sight-reading ability put her in demand. She played for
all the music groups and sang in madrigals. One of few girls in the
area’s jazz bands at the time, Laurie also played in the school’s
jazz band.

As a student, Laurie was “a prodigy,” according to her friend
Julia Baroni. “Music was clearly her destiny, and nobody was going
to stop her. When we went to her house, she would just hit the
piano and go crazy. Not like other kids, who would just sit and
play one song. Laurie would go to the keyboards, and
wham — classical, jazz, or anything else. Improvising, standing
up — it just came out of her like there was no time to sit

Laurie began composing at the age of 16, and her skills were
compared to those of Chopin. She pursued a music major at S.B. City
College and CalState Northridge. She then played keyboard at
Disneyland, where she perfected her self-taught knowledge of
songwriting. By playing the latest tunes accurately and repeatedly,
she developed an ear for melody, and providing, as she said,
“something the listener can take home.” She also had perfect pitch,
which served her well in composing.

By the time she was ready to launch her solo career, Laurie had
seen many friends get burned by their recording deals, and was
determined to put out her albums herself. “My parents absolutely do
not support me making music my career,” Laurie told me at that
time. Her father would have preferred her to go into business. As
it turned out, she did — melding both her musical gifts and
business acumen by launching her own record label, Zebra
Productions. Laurie Z was not afraid of taking on a male-dominated
industry to pursue her passion. The epitome of determination and
perseverance, Laurie thoroughly researched all aspects of
production, including promotion, distribution, radio airplay, and
album pressing.

Laurie Z’s debut solo album — Window To The World
(1991) — garnered rave reviews from music critics and trade
magazines. Next, Life Between the Lines (1995) was named new age
album of the year by Scott Brodie. Laurie complained to me that she
was bothered by labels, and her music was hard to define — it was
most frequently described as new age jazz with classical technique.
In 1997, her third CD, Roots, was considered for eight Grammy
nominations. It showcased her musical roots with solo acoustical
piano. On the cover, Laurie was photographed among the roots of her
hometown, Moreton Bay Fig Tree. In a delightful turn of irony, she
featured a song whose “roots” she had written in a music
composition class at SBCC, for which the instructor gave her a

By now, Laurie had sold 20,000 albums, hit the Top 20 on many
instrumental music charts, and made a solid number one in many
markets. Intriguingly, her music was quite popular throughout
Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Z’s music was heard on more than
200 radio stations across the globe — amazingly so, as she was an
independent label with just three titles. Her fourth CD Heart of
the Holidays (2001) featured Jack Palance. She composed the music
in a fifth CD — The Heart’s Journey (2003) — which was considered
for seven Grammy nominations. Keyboard Magazine featured Laurie in
its cover story on independent success stories.

Through all these successes, I noticed that Laurie was
unfailingly generous in sharing her expertise with other
independent musicians. She even taught her trade secrets at
seminars, drawing standing-room-only crowds. Her music was licensed
by Dolby and by Digital Satellite radio, but when I told her I used
her “City Lights” for my radio show on KTMS 1250, she was just as
pleased to learn her music was used by a hometown friend as by a
national corporation.

Laurie played national tours (Alexis, Yamaha); she performed at
major clubs (Troubadour, Roxy); she opened for top instrumentalists
(Herbie Hancock, Leo Kottke); she was even featured in solo piano
for Yamaha at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And then, because she
hadn’t forgotten her local fans, she slipped in a hometown concert
at SOhO five years ago. Laurie was happiest just pouring out notes
on the keyboard, energetically and effortlessly. At the piano, she
sang through her fingertips.

When Laurie married Michael Carter in 1999, I could see she had
found her prince. Her music was their shared passion: he not only
performed with her (his vocal talent was showcased on her holiday
album), but worked as her business manager, promoting her albums
and concerts.

The year 2004 was not a good one. Laurie — a non-smoker — was
diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. In the spring, her father
Louis was killed in an automobile accident, and her father-in-law
passed away in December. During the year, Laurie’s cancer entered
her spine, causing debilitating pain. Her greatest fear was that
she would lose her ability to play. I was amazed that while she
underwent horrific cancer treatments, she was never bitter. She
took her treatments in stride, telling me pragmatically, “Michael
and I decided this is something awful we have to go through. But
hey, we’re fighting it and we’ll beat it.”

Her husband literally carried her through the treatments. She
told friends, “Michael’s encouragement keeps me going when I think
I just can’t get the energy. I’m so very lucky he’s by my side
through it all.” Then, in March 2005, Michael suffered a massive
heart attack and died. Without Michael, Laurie drew strength from
her first love: music. Even in the midst of her cancer, she
mustered the energy to teach a course on how to release an
independent CD.

In January 2006, Laurie suffered a debilitating stroke. She
slipped into a coma, and passed away four weeks later. A friend
wrote about her, “If asked, Laurie would probably tell you that her
gift to the world was her music. If you ask me, her gift was
teaching. She taught us that no obstacle is too great. You can be
anything you want, if you just don’t give up.”

Laurie, thanks for the lesson.


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