Lawrence studied clarinet in his youth before switching to saxophone. He played from age 12 in clubs in the Catskills, and by age 17 was performing at Birdland, at one point working a double bill with John Coltrane. He played with Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry and Duke Pearson but did not make his first recordings until 1966, playing on Chico Hamilton's The Dealer. He worked for several years with Hamilton, and became a soloist on The Tonight Show from 1967 to 1972. His first records as a leader appeared in 1968.
In the early 1970s Lawrence played with Willie Bobo, then joined Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1974. He did a world tour with Liza Minnelli in 1978–79, and released a few more records under his own name before touring with Louie Bellson in the early 1980s. He composed a symphony entitled Red, White and Blues, which was premiered by an orchestra in Williamsburg, Virginia; Lawrence, Dizzy Gillespie, and Julius Hemphill all soloed in the performance.
Lawrence had taught from the middle of the 1970s, working as an artist in residence in Kentucky and Kansas. In 1986, he stopped recording and touring and founded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City; among the program's students were Roy Hargrove, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, John Popper, Peter Bernstein and Spike Wilner of Smalls Jazz Club. He moved to Israel in 1997, where he founded the International Center for Creative Music, an education facility open to both Jewish and Arab students. He played regularly in Israel and owned his own nightclub called Arnie's Jazz Underground. He suffered from lung and liver cancer late in life, and died in Jerusalem in 2005.
- You're Gonna Hear from Me (Project 3, 1966)
- Look Toward a Dream (Project 3, 1968)
- Inside an Hour Glass (Embryo, 1970)
- Unobstructed Universe (Adamo, 1976)
- Renewal (Palo Alto, 1982)
- Arnie Lawrence and Treasure Island (Doctor Jazz, 1983)
With Chico Hamilton
- Ratliff, Ben (29 April 2005). "Arnie Lawrence, 66, Mentor and Teacher on Jazz Scene, Dies (Published 2005)". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
- "Arnie Lawrence, 66; Sax Player, Jazz Educator in New York and Israel". Los Angeles Times. 1 May 2005. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
- Silkaitis, Katherine (25 April 2019). "Saxophonist Arnie Lawrence Dies". JazzTimes. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
- "The Jazz Kibbutz: A Brief History of Israel's Jazz Scene". Moment Magazine. 2017-06-22. Retrieved 2017-11-26.
- "Jazz from the Promised Land". The Tower. Retrieved 2017-11-26.
- "Jazz Standards". Tablet. Retrieved 2017-11-26.
- "Arnie Lawrence". JazzTimes. Retrieved 2017-11-26.
- "Arnie Lawrence: 1938-2005". jazzhouse.org. Retrieved 2017-11-26.
- "News Brief". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 2017-11-26.