Dwayne Burno is one of the great bass players of his generation. Originally from Philadelphia, Burno has been on the New York and international jazz scene since 1990. He has played with so many of the great legends of jazz: Betty Carter
, and so many more. Burno is truly a musician's musician in that the integrity of the music comes first and last. Burno seems to possess perfect pitch and photographic memory, so if he hears something, he can pretty much play it. It's hard to stump him when it comes to music: he has done a tremendous amount of homework, as well as having a ton of high-level experiences with countless bands. His harmonic and melodic sensibilities transcend the bass. He plays walking lines and solo lines with the fluidity of a saxophonist. I was lucky to have Burno play on my first two recordings for Steeplechase Records (Activism and The Newcomer respectively).
Burno is passionate about music, opinionated, articulate, and extremely insightful. I got him to do this interview recently and as you will see, he had a lot to say.
George Colligan: What are your earliest musical memories?
Dwayne Burno: My earliest musical memories revolve around my mother and older siblings and phonograph records. My mother, the late Juanita Burno (1935-2001), was an accomplished pianist and choral director from her teens until her life's end. I was likely paying heavy attention to music in uterus. Once I arrived, my mother played services every Sunday with me, seated or laid across her lap while she played. I literally saw the keyboard and the hand-eye coordinated formation of sounds right before my very eyes. My older siblings all played a musical instrument. They all played and continue to play, well. My oldest brother (Jeffrey Bundy, b. 1953-) plays trumpet and can be found playing in local Philadelphia clubs or traveling the globe with such acts as Billy Paul
. My brother Tim (the late Rev. Timothy L. Burno, Jr. 1959-1993) played the clarinet and was a heck of a singer, especially when he'd get excited in the middle of preaching a sermon. My brother (Dr. Derrick K. Burno, b.1964-) plays flute. All three of them played at such a high musical level that I carried that inspiration and aspiration into my own life in music. My mother set aside every Saturday morning as her practice time at the piano. This showed me a lot. Obviously, my mother's main job was parenting and running a household which entailed cooking, meal planning and shopping for a family of sevenwhich expanded to nine for a time after an aunt suddenly passed, and two of my cousins stayed with our family until custody was awarded to another aunt with less responsibilitywashing, drying and ironing of family clothing and household fabrics, sewing, and haberdashery. This full time devotion meant little to no time for the necessary maintenance a musician must have to keep in good musical form. I would listen intently as my mother ran her major and minor scales in octaves and diminished exercises and arpeggios in all keys. Then she may play some Beethoven, Brahms, or Chopin. Then she would do her vocal exercises. She might then sing the recent popular tunes and Broadway tunes of the day since she performed weddings and funerals along with her regular schedule of church services. If my mother heard a tune on the radio that she liked, she would immediately go downtown to the music store on Chestnut St. between 17th and 18th Streets and purchase the sheet music, and set about learning it. My mother was in love with music and I, in turn developed the same if not more obsessive affinity for it. The phonograph or "hi-fi" factors in to my love of music in a strange way. It was popular to have a hi-fi stereo system in your house. It was sort of a middle class black status symbol, which signaled class and sophistication. We had one but I noticed that it was rarely played. I was always told and warned not to touch it. I, of course, defied that edict consistently. The hi-fi was also like the plastic covered sofa that was there to look good to company but not for family seating unless in a photograph. I was always a tall child. So by the time I was walking, I was tall enough and strong enough to open the cabinet doors of the hi-fi. That was like opening Pandora's Box. For whatever strange reason, the vinyl albums I was drawn to were jazz records. My mother had albums by Nancy Wilson
There was one Columbia Records compilation entitled Jazz Omnibus, which I fell in love with. The cover features a white woman of upper crust, high-brow, dressed in an evening gown with mink stoll, carrying a trombone case in one hand and walking a leashed toy dog in the other, approaching a door which reads "Jam Session Tonite!" The doorman is smiling at her as she sets to enter the club. This compilation has selections from artists that were on the Columbia Records roster in the mid to late 1950's like Louis Armstrong
, and Louis Armstrong. These records were familiar to me by age two.
The other thing that helped along my hearing and listening to the music was my eldest brother, Jeffrey. He had the records of the day because he was checking out trumpet players like Miles, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard
. He would practice and play his vinyl [and] I would quietly just sit and listen. He was cool enough to let me hang out because I was cool enough to not touch anything or bother him and just listen. My brother also held rehearsals in the living room with his friends. This is probably around 1973-75. It was a popular thing in our region to have band battles, especially about 40 miles up the road in Trenton, New Jersey. Trenton- based bands like Kool and the Gang were popular as a result of winning these contests. My brother would assemble a horn sections worth of musicians and a keyboard player and run through covers of current hits. This always impressed me.
The other thing that made the biggest impression on me was seeing sheet music and making the correlation that there was a system to the notation. I was as quiet as a church mouse as a child but when it came to music, my curiosity and fascination led me to ask many questions. My mother attempted to make a sensible explanation of key signature and time signature to me when I asked but I was much too young to completely grasp the theory behind the rules. I did however come to the realization that music can be written for all to understand, and that some day I would compose music as my form of personal musical expression.
GC: When was the moment you knew you would be a professional musician?
DB: I think music decided that I was going to play it rather than there being a conscious decision of mine. Music is a business I entered with no knowledge of how one's life or time in it is supposed to go. One particular experience as teenager in Philadelphia gave me confidence to believe that I must be proceeding in a correct direction. I had a friendship with an older Philadelphia pianist, Raymond King. I knew him trough my teacher at Overbrook High School, Dr. George Allen
. When we convened, our talks would last for a good long while. The talks were either eye-opening revelations about the history of music and musicians from Philadelphia or a discussion of how to help me get where I was trying to go musically.
In one conversation, which led to this particular experience, I expressed to Raymond that I felt I was at a musical standstill. I felt I needed a teacher to continue growing and learning my instrument correctly. I had met with some teachers to discuss lessons but the best was out of my price range and the others frankly didn't measure up as teachers. Raymond called me up and told me he talked to someone on my behalf and I was told to go meet this musician at his gig. The musician I was set to study with was Arthur Harper. Harper was a funny, lovable guy. I showed before the first set of the gigit was a school night and we talked. He told me to stick around, he wanted to hear me play and he'd allow me to sit in on the second set. I listened to Harper deal the entire first set. He sounded wonderful. I felt like I was listening to someone play on par with the recordings I heard of Paul Chambers
. He had the language in his playing but another, entirely personal way of saying what he was saying.
The band always took a long set break. They left the club to sit in their cars and relax that's the best way to put it. When the trio returns to play the second set, Harper turns to me and says, "I'll play the first one then you come up." I patiently waited. Something had changed in Harp's demeanor so he began telling me he was going to play another. Then he said," Come back next week." I'd sat there, waiting to play but now I was frustrated and annoyed. Then, the moment of divine intervention arrived. The tune "What is This Thing Called Love" was called. The activities of the long, relaxing break had taken their toll on Harper. He still had good moments but he was sluggish and falling behind. When he heard the speed of the tempo, he frantically motioned for me to get up and play. I actually finished out the rest of the night. The others on the gig in the rhythm section were organist/pianistplaying only pianoShirley Scott and drummer Mickey Roker
. They talked to me at the end of the set and laid such heavy compliments on my abilities and the level I was playing at the time. I was sixteen years old and was more than adequately keeping up with seasoned musical veterans. Their words, coupled with the fact that they began hiring me for the gig most weeks for the next year and one half before I left town for college, inspired me and made me proud. I don't think I ever really made the choice to be a musician. I think I'm more of an eclectic Renaissance man with numerous talents and abilities but that music has risen to the fore as the most viable to support my family and self. I cook, study some foreign languages, compose and arrange music, write a heck of an essay or letter, play a few different instruments for self- entertainment and fulfillment, build and design furniture. I entered into music never knowing the full scope of what it entailed. I never knew I'd travel as extensively as I have the last 22 years. I was scared to fly on airplanes. I didn't take my first flight until age 19. My first flight was to New Orleans for attending an IAJE convention to perform in 1990. I was petrified, terrified! What has sold me on music is it's healing capabilities. We as musicians, put the spirit of others in turmoil and conflict at ease with our sounds. It doesn't matter if it's a happy romp or if it's a moody ballad that forces one to reminisce. We are chicken soup makers, we are physicians, [and] we are old grandmothers with remedies, concoctions, and old wives' tales.
GC: Did you do more practicing or listening when you were younger? Do you think playing is as important as practicing? Why or why not?
DB: I didn't begin playing double bass until I was a high school junior. When I jumped in the pool, I felt like I was behind and needed to catch up. I felt I had a good foundation in terms of listening. I had a variety of resources at my avail. I had my mother's collection of vinylminus some Duke Ellington albums I'd broken around age five and my brother Derrick began collecting while away at college so I had access to his collection after he'd bring albums home at semester ends. About age seven, I began collecting jazz, pop, funk and rap albums and singles. I had 16 years of musical listening in my ears and soul and consciousness before I played a note on bass. I had been listening to jazz from birth but I also had learned how to listen, feel, and appreciate many of the other divisions of music.
I practiced in a focused but random manner. I was self-taught on bass as a result of the manner in which the instrument made its way into my musical life. I had studied violin from fourth grade through the completion of high school. I never felt the instrument was spiritually or physically for me but my mother wouldn't allow me to quit and I became more than quite proficient at it.
In my junior year of high school, I was approached by a wise man, the head of the Music and Art Magnet programs, Dr. George E. Allen. He looked into my personality and knew my interest, knowledge and love for jazz as well as the depth of my talent. Though it made absolutely no sense to me at the time, it made perfect sense for him to give me an acoustic bass and tell me to learn it and join the jazz quintet. The program had two freshmen [that] didn't know their instruments or music well enough to jump into making the school's quintet happen right away. I didn't know a thing about double bass other than the fact it was the lowest pitched member of the family of string instruments and it was strung in intervals of perfect fourths. What made me a "go" with my teacher was he knew the speed I could grasp anything musical. Consequently, when my teacher handed off the instrument, he also gave me a tune list to learn so we'd have a full repertoire as a band. I was given two weeks to get it together before our first gig. As a working unit, we played numerous professional gigs. I was earning a better than average wage not only were we earning money but we were learning lessons for our futures. My teacher also taught us things like being early to places to set up and to tip waitpersonsI digress.
The summer before I entered Berklee College of Music [in] 1988, I altered my regular summer routine, much to my mother's dislike. I had worked a city sponsored summer job since age 14 and this kept money in my pocket and kept me out of the house. I knew I was entering a new frontier based on the level of success spurned and spawned at Berklee. I had already made gigs with alums like Wallace Roney
. Coincidentally, they both factored greatly in my musical development and had hands in pushing me in directions that led me to where I am now. Wallace wrote a letter to Berklee, which aided in my acceptance and a small scholarship. Donald is who I give the credit for actually getting me to New York with work. I had played in his band since June of 1989, which preceded both Betty Carter and Jesse Davis as the reason I ended up in New York. Once I began working with Betty Carter, she forced me to move to New York with the lame excuse that if I wanted to keep her gig, I had to move immediately. What if she wanted to have a rehearsal? Of course I pointed out to her that I lived in Philly and came to her house from Philly on the train at a moment's notice whenever she called a rehearsal. But I digress.
Back to practicing and the summer of '88. I geared up for what I figured would be my greatest musical challenge to date in my life. I had only been playing my instrument for two full years at the point of entering college. I knew folks that had been on their instruments for over ten years and sounded like it. I felt like a babe in the woods and a deer in the headlights.
More things helped. My first day/night in Boston after moving into 98 Hemenwaythe all- male dorm off Berklee's campusI met my roommate, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake
, and one of the baddest left-handed drummers with purest beatsfrom Baltimore, MD areayou'll likely never know about, Alphonso Giles. That was inspiring and gave me the nerve to go out to Wally's that night to the jam session. I was so green back then that I didn't know that bass players shouldn't and don't as a matter of etiquette, bring their own instrument to a jam unless they are on the gig. So, here Seamus and I go walking down Massachusetts Avenue to Wally's before 9pm. We go in and wouldn't fate have it that the bassist scheduled to play didn't show up for the gig! So I lucked into a gig my first night in town. That ended up causing some local bass players angst. From that first night, I went back to sit in on all of the jazz nights the club used to have which was essentially Wednesday through Sunday and every bandleader fired their regular guy and hired me. Need less to say, I found myself a not well-liked guy in town very quickly, but just by bass players. The gig was five hours long9pm to 2amand caused me to develop a routine. When I could manage to sleep or wake up to make scheduled classes like 9am English or any of the early day academic courses, I would attend school. Otherwise, my focus was on my participation in ensembles and after class jamming. I was sought out for the higher-level ensembles. At Berklee, you had a ratings audition during the first or second week of school which helped decide where you would be placed to participate and fulfill your ensemble participation and receive course credit. The rating scale went from 1-9. All whom are familiar with this know that the rating system means absolutely nothing. Branford Marsalis
had a rating of 2's while he was at Berklee but we all know when new listen to him that those numbers mean nothing. The ratings are a four-category judgment/assessment of your level, according to faculty professors. Anything on any given day could be reflected in your score. You could feel nervous or ill, have a bad day sight reading, be subjected to unwarranted personal judgments, biases or feelings of a professor like jealousy or their feeling threatened by a student's talent versus their own mediocrity; many factors and variables. I scored a mix of 2's and 3's, which is low and you're regular reduced to participating in low-level ensembles.
I had the good fortune of knowing Peter Washington
and Wallace Roney. Before entering Berklee, I had the opportunity to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This opportunity developed out of going to hear the band when they came through Philly every few months or so to perform. I knew Wallace from him coming to play with my high school jazz quintet. I would go hear Art and the band, and Wallace introduced me to Peter Washington. Usually after the gig we'd stand around and talk music, bass, recordings, things I needed to learn, know, and grasp. Then, Peter would usually hand over the bass and ask me to play something for him. I'd usually walk some choruses of a tune or play a solo chorus of something. I guess Peter liked what he heard. He was and still is encouraging to me with regard to what he hears in my playing. Peter had made the decision to leave the Messengers and strike out on his own as a sideman. He called me on the Friday before I was to drive to Boston and enter Berklee. I was leaving the next dayLabor Day Saturday with my dad and all my belongings. Peter says to me "All right, Burno. The gig is yours. I've told Art about you. He knows you're coming. I've given notice. All you have to do is come up. The band is playing Mikell's. If you're ready, you've got the gig." I found myself in a serious quandary. I wanted to join the band. I had bought all of the records and learned most of the old Messenger book. I thought I was ready enough. I'll never know. I had to broach the subject of Art Blakey with my Dad. I brought it up to him that Friday night. My father's response was "I don't give a fuck about anybody's Art Blakey. You're taking your ass to college!" I was sad that I had to pass on what could have been a great opportunity but the wisdom of life also told me that it could have been the worst decision I ever made. I've always felt that not knowing, either way is the best thing for me. I was freshly eighteen years old, never lived on my own, paid a bill, paid rent, properly maintained a bank account, extremely naïve, and common rather than worldly. I might have been chum for the sharks in a city like New York. This city has chewed up and spit out more people without so much as an afterthought or a Kleenex. I think of the fellow comrades that came here and developed bad habits or simply got sidetracked and strung out while in pursuit of that very gig. So I took my ass to school, where I was asked to join the Art Blakey ensemble. Apparently, all things work together. After I told Peter I couldn't make it since my Dad laid down the law and put the kibosh on my chance to be a Messenger, I suspect Peter told Bu. Bu called up Bill Pierce, a former Messenger, teaching at Berklee and essentially told him to groom that bassist and get him ready for Mikell's in December. Bu used to play at least two weeks at years end at this Upper West Side club, Mikell's every year. This was when a lot of band changeover occurred. He allowed guysand dollsto sit in and stake their claim for a band chair. He expected Bill to teach me the book and get me ready to make the sit in at semester's end. By December, I was primed and ready, having played the actual charts in the ensemble, checked out the recordings more thoroughly and in depth and having the knowledge and confidence that at least I could handle the gig on a musical level. I found myself in the same predicament, twice over in December. This time, I had to get my mother's permission to go to New York. My mother, while being a musician, was not one for the jazz lifestyle. She was a God-fearing, churchgoing lady that knew folks firsthand that were in the music and their bad habits. My mother's best friend going in to adulthood was her girlfriend, Estella Timmons, who happened to be married to pianist and composer of Messenger fame, Bobby Timmons
. She knew the pitfalls of jazz nightlife and was bound to steer me clear of them. Aside from making my voyage to Mikell's to sit in, I was sounded about participating in Roy Hargrove's debut recording by Roy himself. We played a fair amount while both in Boston. He still loves to play all the time. We found ourselves on the bandstand at Wally's or in the school ensemble and piano practice rooms for many an impromptu jam. He told me at the close of the semester that he was recording and he wanted e to make his date with him. I was totally down. He said he would be in touch. I later learned that I was vetoed, shot down as an option because management didn't know who I was. I laugh and cringe when I hear that disc. Two bass players and two bands made up the disc from two sessions. Neither of them had a personal or musical relationship to Roy, and you can hear it.
Practicing is vital in a young musician's formative stages of growth and development. While in attendance of Berklee College of Music for my three full semesters there, I had my bass in my hands on a daily basis on average of 13 hours, per day. I was forced to develop my ears and eyes with sight reading in every new situation and new sonorities each new composer introduced. Once you begin working as a musician, your focus on practicing diminishes. You're concerned about sleeping, making enough money to afford where you live, food for your sustenance, and honoring and handling your commitments to work as a musician via rehearsals and recordings. Then add in dating and you're making more time for your paramour and trying to balance your schedule with their schedule and your feelings with their feelings. It comes to virtually a complete halt if you go for the brass ring of starting a family.
The only folks that succeed in practicing are those who make a conscious decision to be completely selfish in their musical dedication. Usually, their other relationships suffer from the selfishness. Get it in while you're young, unfettered, free and single because if your family means as much to you as it does me, then I gladly accept the diminishment of my practice time. The problem or my biggest pet peeve I have with most bass players today is their overzealousness to be thought of as a soloist with ever giving enough care, detail, and concern to their real and true task at hand; harmonically underpinning the band while swinging the band, ad infinitum. It's bass players everywhere. I see it here in America. I see it all throughout Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and Scandinavia. Bass players just rip roaring ready to go, begin their solos in thumb position and solo on every tune. You don't get the gold watch for great solos.
GC: What gigs or apprenticeships were most valuable to you as an up and coming musician? Do you think there are still possibilities for apprenticeships in jazz nowadays?
DB: Every apprenticeship or hiring was valuable to me. I learned everything from minutia to major in scale and detail. I was fortunate enough to have played with the last bastion of true masters and innovators. My career was never indebted so much to the '90's hype of the Young Liars movement. The young person in generations after me can't say they met, heard, knew, or played with Clifford Jordan
is/was and what he played. I wholeheartedly believe the music industry fucked up everything within the music and mostly through the Young Liars movement. This created or exacerbated the schism between the generations, which has remained and will never go away. In the late '80's, the record companies started chasing and promoting young talent. They had kids like Christopher Hollyday
, Imani Murray, and Peter Delano ready to go. The companies are here, pushing a young, inexperienced child to lead a band of veteran musicians to play. This is already a powder keg. How is some snot-nosed brat who was in diapers when the guy he has on piano, bass, or drums, was 45 years old, supposed to take direction from a child or his ignorant parent and respect the parent, child or himself enough to suppress his ego and anger to get through the gig? It has to be humiliating and frustrating as an older, wiser musician to kowtow to a child. I moved to New York in 1990 at the age of 20. I had hopes and dreams of playing with the true greats. What I found was I got stuck playing with everybody because everybody needed decent bass players. What I hated was that I couldn't get the eyes and ears of the older musicians that I adored and wanted to learn from and make music with. Barry Harris, Milt Jackson
wouldn't look my way or call me at all. I found the viewpoints varied with the older masters. Some were willing to a chance on you which is how I came to work with Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes
. I believe the tide has gotten worse in the music. I don't want anything to do with today's young musicians that claim to play jazz. Straight out the box, they are liars. Eighty percent of them can barely play a decent chorus of blues, rhythm changes, know tunes, play a correct melody, play for the music without masturbating, play a ballad, or just swing. I've encountered more young musicians that are more concerned with living a secure lifestyle but are not in the least vested or invested in the music. They all want the suburban, two-car, house, collegiate teaching position with the white wife fantasy. They are not concerned with how they sound. They are happy to play with their peers from Music College rather than playing with others that know more. For me that's essentially the difference.
When I was coming up, I and my peers wanted to play with the older guys, earn their respect, get the nod from them or the encouraging words that maybe you were headed the right way or on to something or also get the straight brutal honesty that there was something wrong in your sound, articulation, the changes you played, the weight or length of your beat. The older guys weren't afraid to tell it like it is or to put it right because even if some of it was coming from anger or insecurity or prejudice, it truly came from a place of perpetuating and fostering growth and development in terms of the music and having the music played and treated correctly. There is no deference between the generations. Today, these piece of shit young mother fuckers who've never changed a light fucking bulb or wiped their own musical ass try to talk to me like we're equals. The fucking, unmitigated gall! My feeling is that the moment these youngsters decide they truly want this music as their focus and conclusion rather than as an afterthought and really want to play it, learn how to make it well and make people feel good and get to swinging, will be the moment they are ready to learn from those of us that still can and do. As a generation lumped together as a whole, they seem to have no collective interest in being humble, shutting the fuck up and wanting to actually learn. Most of them seem to suffer from know-it-all syndrome or this collective nonchalance or they keep searching for this easy button, which we all know does not exist.
GC: Do you have a philosophy of "the role of the bassist in a jazz group?" Do you think a musician should be more concerned with blending with the band? Or working their style into the band? Or both?
DB: I believe you have a sound that has many components and many things that challenge it's production every time you play your instrument. You have your own physically manufactured components of your sound like consistency, attack, nuance, inflection, the inherent instrumental sound qualities and nuances, theoretical and intellectual qualities, and properties that govern the mental aspects of your sonic production. If you tie them all together and you can only play that what projects from the instrument feels and sounds good, clean, clear, intelligent, logical, meaningful, and emotionally relevant. If your physical, mental stamina, focus or clarity are not up to par while your instrument is in hand, what you produce likely will not feel and sound good to you so the chances are just as certain that to an educated listener, your flaws will be noticeable. The regular layperson with nothing more than a slight sense of musicality or artistic taste or appreciation might not discern anything.
made a statement that I've lived by from the moment he uttered or rather screamed it at me during a lesson. "You are the one with the bass in your hands. If you sound like shit, it doesn't reflect on me. It reflects on you! You're the one who'll be identified by and with that sound! You have to be able to accept and live with every note that comes out of your instrument. I can live with my notes!" I developed my philosophy of the bassists' role after reading a few interviews of Ron Carter. I've been familiar with Ron since I met him during Philadelphia's Mellon Jazz Festival in 1987. The festival would have a day where they hired the masters on each instrument and they held a few hours of a master class and question and answer session before that master chose one or more persons to participate in the assembled student big band which would rehearse then play a concert on the festival a few evenings later. What he said has always made the most sense and is what I've patterned my musical interaction and conceptualization after. Basically, I feel the bassist in any group has to be the strongest musician. Your time has to be more solid that everyone, your understanding, knowledge, usage, and placement of harmonic choices has to be solid but equally as flexible. It's like being able to use a big word in a sentence. You had better full well know what that $20 word means and how to correctly and smoothly inject it into your conversational usage or you'll sound like a true idiot. You have to know what you're playing at all times and why you're playing it and consequently how it affects the music and how those making music with you react as a result of what you've played. Everything you think, play and feel will somehow alter the musical proceedings.
One characteristic of my playing has always been to play bass notes that differ from the accepted norm. I've been able to make this practice work as a result of research, analysis, trial and error, and experimentation. It is educated and informed experimentation. I don't just look up to the heavens and pick an abstract or random note. I've done the homework in harmony to completely understand the effect of my chosen note in relation to the harmony of the moment. This challenge doesn't always work or make the others you play with feel good. My greatest example of this occurred while participating in the debut recording of a young tenor player. This saxophonist composed a tune and one of his chords in the harmonic structure of the tune was Dmaj7#11. I chose a few choruses into his solo to play Ab as my underpinning bass note when we reached the Dmaj7#11 chord. The saxophonist froze because he didn't know how to react to or process the musical information that passed his ears. He eventually regained his musical composure and jumped back into the changes and finished his choruses of solo.
After the take was completed, the band other than myself was listening to the playback in the engineer's booth. I remained in the bass booth, fully aware of what was coming. I rarely listen to playbacks since I'm fully aware of what I played and if it hit or missed the mark. In my headphones came the voice of the saxophonist, asking me to do a punch of about four bars of walking bass over the section of the tune where he didn't improvise. I asked him "Why?" He answered "Well, you played a note and it caught me off guard. I didn't know what to play or how to react to it. It threw me off so I didn't play anything for a couple of bars." I replied, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with the note I played. It is a correct note, played in the musical moment with good intonation and intent and is a perfectly sound harmonic choice. He then says, "Well, I didn't know what note you played and couldn't react, so it made me stop playing for some bars." I said "What's wrong with that? You're not a typewriter. We're playing music here. You're not supposed to know how to react to every note." Then, he asked the unthinkable. He asked me if I could alter, ruin, and ultimately destroy a moment in music to clear up and mask his musical deficiencies for appearances sake. I refused. I held out for about ten minutes in silent protest before I voiced my opinion again. I said, "I can't believe what you're asking me to do. This is so against the spirit of jazz music and what I stand for." I begrudgingly played a kosher few bars with no musical surprise or spice. The saxophonist failed the litmus test for me. I've never looked at or listened to him the same since. He's a dear friend and plays the saxophone very well. I've never considered him an improviser after that. I have one more similar incident to share. About twenty years ago when I moved to New York, there was a venue in SoHo named Greene Street, located on (duh?) Greene Street between Spring and Prince Streets. I used to make duo and trio gigs with a certain pianist. I believe this time the gig was a duo. The pianist was very rigid in her programming and intent with regard to what she covered in her tune selections and improvisations. It's like she planned her sets of the night around what she had been practicing and even played her solos like she was covering ground she had unearthed while practicing at home and wanted to test out her shovel on the gig. This pianist called Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." It is one of my favorite compositions but can become boring and monotonous if you don't do something to make it interesting, especially if you play the same descending, chromatic dominant chords in bars two and four of the tune's three A sections. So, we play the tune. A few choruses in, I begin to play different bass notes as chord roots, which suggest substitute chord changes. Nothing off the wall, pretty standard formulaic substitution Patterns like fourths, tritones chromatic lead ups, chromatic step downs. The pianist became undone while we were playing and admonished me. On the set break, the pianist walks over to me and begins to ask me what exactly I was playing on "Sophisticated Lady." I've always been able to explain the musical choices I make because my choices are based in knowledge and understanding of harmony. These are the things I think of while you are watching television and I'm walking around with headphones on my ears. I fully explained the bass notes and changes implied in what I played. The pianist begins to tell me that she needs me to just play the changes. I then said I thought we were here to make music together. If you want a music minus robot, then I'm not the person to call. She continued to tell me how inappropriate what I played was so then I said If I played those notes or implied those substitutions with Cedar Walton
, they wouldn't have had a problem because they would be listening. I think that was one of my last gigs with this pianist. I believe the best way is for a bassist to be capable of having and using the flexibility to capture and portray the entire scope and gamut of the music he or she encounters in every musical situation. That statement in itself implies that your knowledge of many different facets of music must be vast and all encompassing. You can't just be about swinging if someone wants an ECM feel. You must know the difference between a pure Latin beat and a bossa nova or samba.
Some reading this, especially bass players may understand what I'm about to write. As a bassist, I field calls from everyone "looking for a good bassist" or simply, "a bass player." The truth is, most people don't know what a good bassist is or does. Anyone that play four notes in a bar and moves sound out of the bass is not necessarily a decent, good, or competent bassist. A couple of points.
If you telephone a bassist and you're specifically trying to hire the bass player you've called because of the way he or she plays, you should not telephone anyone else for the gig for at least 24-48 hours if you have that kind of time to wait or make a decision. If you need to know quickly to immediately, give us the respect and the parameter of the time frame you can afford to wait before making other calls. Quite often, it is revealed that not only were you not looking to hire me, specifically, but that you were willing to hire anyone after throwing names at the wall and seeing what sticks.
I played a gig over this weekend past in New York and after the gig, another trio led by pianist Johnny O'Neal
made a late night set. The bassist in this trio has become a guy that is getting lots of calls, these days. I have listened to him, know him and quite frankly will never understand what makes his phone ring. I simply don't believe that people know enough about what the bass is or should be doing in a musical performance situation so they in turn haven't a clue what they need or should be listening for in a bassist.
They don't know how to judge a bass sound unamplified or amplified. They can't hear the quality of the bass lines or harmonic note choices. They don't care if the bassist is really playing solid, unwavering, swinging time. They don't really care if the bassist is doing his job correctly or not. I think a lot of people just are satisfied enough with the feel of a thump without ever going or getting any deeper.
If you can't hear, feel or understand what I'm playing, do you honestly think you can understand Ron Carter, Buster Williams
, The Sidewinder (Blue Note, 1963). I've fell in love with this record in 1982, at age 12, when my brother brought it home between collegiate semesters. The funky, infectious, dance-inspiring 15-minute groove laid down by Billy Higgins
. The compositions are "The Sidewinder," "Totem Pole," "Gary's Notebook," "Oh Boy," "What a Night," and "Hocus Pocus." I always felt the Sidewinder was one of the most complete and fulfilling recordings ever made. It has five tunes of with varied flavors, characteristics, and feelings. Though there are three looks at the blues formtwo long meter blues and one in a minor keyand two standard-based form compositionsone, loosely based on Duke Ellington's "The Mooche" and the other, a take off on "Mean to Me"each composition has a feeling unto itself. Also, you have five, distinct and diverse improvisational styles and voices that work together as one and this recording is one of the best examples of this.
Number two is Edvard Greig, Piano Concerto in A minor. I was lucky enough to grow up in Philadelphia when receiving a public school education as a student was still worthwhile, attainable, and possible. Our school had music classes. Our schools had music programs. I learned Latin beginning in fourth grade through my senior year in high school. We (teachers with classes of students) took an interesting variety of field trips. A few I fondly remember were a trip to the Acme bakery where we witnessed the bread making process in a plant. My second grade class went to an Asian exhibit at the Philadelphia Civic Center. This was my first encounter with Asian cuisine items like nori, wakame, and my introduction to chopsticks. This planted the seeds of my affinity for Japanese culture and cuisine. This continued for me through high school and specifically as a result of being in the music magnet program. A few times throughout the school year, the members of the orchestra were afforded the opportunity to attend open rehearsals of the world's (at least it was considered as such, at that time in history) greatest symphony orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra. I saw it under two conductors, Eugene Ormandy and Ricardo Muti. One such rehearsal was my introduction to a composer and his well-known piece. This theme caught my interest and his never left me. This three movement piano concerto has always moved me to tears or tears upon every listen.
, Here's to Life (Verve, 1992). Just to hear this lady sing and accompany herself on piano or hear her sing with orchestra or big band is heaven for me. Her voice, timing, and vocal phrasing are like her lush piano harmonies. Rich, sublime, subtle, and quietly suggestive while intense that it feels like the lid on a pot of boiling water is threatening to fly off. I took my now, wife (then, girlfriend) to hear her at the Blue Note in New York City on a magical night when Ron Carter substituted for her regular bassist, Charles Ables
, who was ill and passed away shortly after. The disc, Here's to Life, contains great songs like Bruno Martino's "Estate" (Summer, in Italian), Mandel's "A Time for Love," and magnificent orchestrations by Johnny Mandel. Here's to Life, the disc and the title song, bring me to tears almost upon every hearing. I was listening to my iPod while riding New York City public transportationas I often do which serves as a soundtrack as well as a great and necessary diversion from the chaos and strangeness of the everyday subway or bus ride. This particular day was the anniversary of my late mother's death. Born September 24, 1935, she passed away May 30, 2001. The blow of her passing has waned and the pain decreases with time. Usually, these commemorative thoughts don't even raise their heads. But this May day in 2009, I was on the B54 (a Brooklyn bus route) and these two songs served as the setup of an emotional one-two punch that left me on the canvas reeling. I'm actually welling with tears as I type. I would take the B54 bus from downtown Brooklyn as the final leg of whatever journey home. This particular day, as I listened to my iPod, the music dragged me to the memories of my mother. The first song that got to me was "A House is Not a Home" recorded by Ronald Isley and it's composer, Burt Bacharach
. The words and feeling of the recording made me think of home, which naturally made me think of my mother. Then, as that song ended came the knockout punch, Shirley Horn's version of "Here's to Life" as arranged by Johnny Mandel. This song began about three blocks before my stop so I knew if I didn't stand up immediately and get off this bus, I'd be a blubbering idiot and I preferred not to leave folks with that image of myself. After leaving the bus, I continued to listen to Shirley while the tears streamed in a steady flow on my half block walk home. I was about thirty feet from my house when I noticed my downstairs neighbor was standing on the brownstone stoop. She clearly noticed my blubbering and asked out of concern if I was okay. I tried to gather my composure bit couldn't. I actually sobbed harder and lost.
Now, most that know meor think they dothink of me as a quiet, mostly nice but sometimes gruff, honest and sincere but maybe not the warmest or fuzziest person that doesn't hesitate to speak his mind if he believes or thinks something. Some may think or term me in sensitive. This would only be because they really don't know me at all. To know me is to know that I cry when the wind blows and am one giant, emotional teddy bear. Our (former, since both families vacated that building) downstairs neighbors, the Jones family (Ervin, Nicole and Cydni) had been my wife's neighbors for her entire thirteen years and the six years I resided there. Over time, they became family to us and hopefully, vice-versa. The mother in Nicole led her to rest my head on her shoulder and comfort me through my tears. I'm sure seeing me in a broken state was unnerving for her. Even with my times of illness with kidney disease, I must have appeared like some pillar of strength because I was always up, moving, headed out the door with bass and suitcase to go make music in some distant part of the globe. I, again, made an attempt to gather myself and stop crying to explain why I was crying. I explained the significance of the day and date and the torrent of emotion that overtook me on my bus ride and walk home which culminated in an outpouring of tears. All of it really was an acknowledgment of how much I truly love and miss my mother and selfishly wish she were still here for me. She never met her two grandchildren or one great- grandson or my wife. There were questions I never asked. Recipes I wish I'd gotten or not lost over the years. There are thank yous I would say especially now that I'm a parent and truly know what she went through and why and what sacrifices and decisions were made. Nicole said some things that put the experience in a different light for me. She told me that maybe hearing these songs was my mother's way of communicating with me that day from the great beyond. This experience made me respect and appreciate Nicole Jones as a warm, caring nurturing mother and parent and also reaffirmed my belief in the spirit and power of music, both earthly and ethereally.
My fourth choice would be Juan Carlos Laguna's Brasileiro: (Heitor) Villa- Lobos (Urtext, 2000). I have always loved the music of other countries South of our North American borders, but most especially, Brazil. Of course we all know Antonio Carlos Jobim
. I became aware of the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos through a jazz guitarist friend of mine, David Moreno. We were rehearsing in preparation of a concert performance. Included amidst the repertoire was an adaptation or arrangement of a classical compositionmore likely a guitar etude- -of Villa-Lobos' that Moreno entitled "A Day of Orchids." The musical richness, depth and beauty of this piece made we want to know more of Villa- Lobos' music. The next person to bring me to Villa-Lobos in a roundabout fashion was jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham
. There is a quite popular guitar etude that trumpet players have adapted as a practice/chop warm up exercise. Dorham recorded this piece on the recording "Inta Somethin'/Matador."
Nothing brings me closer to the unknown in music than having idle moments with nothing but time on my hands. My summer touring schedule during the year 2000 took me to Suomi, Finland. The band spent five days in the country and four of them were off days. Because of Suomi's physical relationship and positioning in such close proximity to the northern polar axis, the city experienced daylight for about twenty hours of the day and about a three to four hour period of twilight before returning to daylight. The band was scheduled to perform one set at the Pori Jazz Festival but our days off were spent sitting in Helsinki. Our hotel happened to be adjacent to a music store. I was so bored that I decided to go to the music store and purchase a nylon string guitar and a disc of Villa- Lobos etudes. I was determined to learn how to play that one etude, in particular. And I surely did.
My favorite piece in particular of Villa-Lobos' is "Bachianas Brasileras no. 5." You've got to hear it to feel, understand, or believe it. Wayne Shorter
's Like a Flower Seeking the Sun (NYC, 1999). This is my vanity moment. This is the only recording I listed that includes my musical participation. This is one of the recordings I've made that I truly walked away feeling proud of. There are a few others like George Colligan's The Newcomer, Bright Nights (Enja, 1993) by tenor saxophonist Johannes Enders, the three discs I've recorded with Jeremy Pelt (November (Max Jazz, 2008), Men of Honor (HighNote, 2010), and The Talented Mr. Pelt (HighNote, 2011)), David Hazeltine
's Tug of War (Criss Cross, 1999). I have known Myron since he was a reverent, respectful, inquisitive 17 year old. I watched this talent grow, develop and mature into the genius that presently occupies his mind and body. I have participated in a great deal of the incarnations of his working bands. I appreciate his dedication, work ethic, and his commitment to music. Myron has this uncanny ability to conceptualize and eventually realize or actualize his musical ideas. I've seen him think of a grouping of instruments and hit the compositional drawing board and return with ten or twelve tunes specifically for that grouping and its sound qualities and characteristics. We recorded Myron's debut disc as a leader, Hypnosis (NYC, 1996), through a collection of sessions which were used to satisfactorily complete the entirety of the project.
I must admit that our personal and musical friendship and relationship were experiencing tense challenges. Myron had one drummer that he regularly hired for which I shared an ironclad musical and personal affinity. He and this drummer were having struggling with issues of maturity, professionalism, and boundaries and it was affecting our group unity. At this point, Myron brought three other drummers into the fold. This began to start a divide between us. One drummer was perfect. The three of us had a great kinship and trust and shared personal and musical history together. The second, though talented and a nice enough guy, doesn't play modern jazz drums. Basically, this drummer plays with characteristics of swing era drummers, loud and heavy bass drum ala four on the floor style as opposed to the bebop technique of feathering the bass drum, the reasons and significance of which is because the low tonal and sonic register and frequency levels a of the bass drum when played hard rather than lightly feathered, makes the notes of the double bass virtually inaudible. This drummer played a style, which incorporated a mix of older era elements and more contemporary elements but my feeling was this style was ill suited for the trio's sound and feel. Then, the final drummer was brand spanking new to town. Within the week Myron brought this drummer to my attention, I heard this drummer for myself, rehearsing with a guitarist for a recording date. What I heard was potential but what most of us term "not ready for prime time" playing. This drummer's time feel and sound were wrong. So wrong that almost an entire two days of session takes were rejected and to complete Hypnosis, sessions that were demos were used to round out and complete the project. I felt like I was pulling the most obstinate of mules. Then, came Myron's next project idea. He wanted to incorporate another voice into the trio but he wanted them to function differently than what would be normally expected of this instrument. Myron choice of instrument was guitar and his musical foil, Kurt Rosenwinkel
. I knew Kurt from Philadelphia. I did not at all know him well but had heard him once or twice before we both exited Philly for Boston's Berklee. Kurt was always leaps and bounds beyond the rest of the pack. This sounds like a great idea and the music that could be created and realized would likely astound. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the end result, the music on the released final product, one might think it was a ride on easy street with caviar and roses but I can tell you it certainly was not. Myron is a visionary. The best and worst of Myron's vision is that he knows exactly what he wants and will not budge until he receives it. We began about two months of intermittent rehearsals interspersed with Myron's regular night (the first Wednesday of every month) at Smalls to iron out the material. Kurt was into the idea of meshing and integrating with the band. Kurt believed he would comp and interject more like the role a pianist takes since he was the only chordal instrument. Myron's idea of Kurt's role was completely different and put the two at odds during the entire process of preparing to record. Myron wanted Kurt to play some doubled melodies, very sparse chordal comping with more sonic effects for the creation of drama. Kurt felt there was more he could contribute and more he could and should be doing to make the music happen. Myron would simply say, "That's not the concept. Don't think of yourself as part of the band. Act ike you're listening to us and you hear us. But every so often, you play a chord or long melodic line to suggest or direct but don't comp. Remember, you're not part of the band. You're separate from what's going on over here." This seemed to infuriate and frustrate Kurt to no end. There was a point where I though Kurt was literally going to bag on Myron so I prepared to suggest guitarist Ben Monder
who has a similar creative and artistic greatness and I knew might handle the directives with less frustration. We finally made it to the finish line, Avatar recording Studios, to put the music down. The one thing about the date that nags and haunts me was the chosen recording methodology. There are some musicians that I've recorded with that cling to this fool's notion and belief that recording today like they did forty to fifty years ago is the best way to go. I thoroughly disagree. However, because I'm just the bassist rather than the executive producer, big- baller, shot caller, my thoughts usually remain in my pocket with my lint and change.
We recorded in one room with very little separation from baffling yet I can't remember if we used headphones or not. The bass sound on this recording is lower than I felt it should be in the group mix. This will haunt my soul forever. Other than that, it is one of the greatest musical statements I've ever been a part of. The beautiful melodies and thematic dramatics are the captivating qualities of this recording. I feel like I've sat through an hour-long saga on Broadway after listening to this from end to end. There are three varied treatments of the title track. We play it initially as an up-tempo piece, then in the disc's middle, we play it as a lilting waltz and then we bookend the disc by playing it rubato. Other highlights are As Night Falls," "Pulse," "Path Of The Sun," "Tears Of the Fallen One," and "Momentum."
GC: What advice do I give to young jazz students?
DB: I try to tell whatever students I come in contact with to never stop listen and learning. The moment you think you know it all is the point where you plateau. There is more than enough inspiration within the history, science, theories, sounds, knowledge and information of music to keep you busy forever. Keep going beyond. Learn tunes. Buy recordings. Buy sheet music. Learn the lyrics, forms, verses, melodies, changes, and harmonies of tunes correctly. Consistently, investigate; you hear a quote in someone's solo, ask where it comes from. Don't stop at the Real Book and take the changes to any tune as gospel.
I tell any young musicians that ask anything of me, to never stop listening. Investigate everything. Do your homework. Learn tunes, buy recordings, read and learn great and not so great artist's histories. Practice and develop things that put you atop the call list and separate you from the herd. Things like sight-reading, intonation, quality instrumental tone, sonic production and projection, and development of your ear so that you can hear and still perform if there is no music. Do the intangibles. Dress appropriately and correctly for your engagement. Take pride in your appearance. Respect yourself, your craft and your audience. Arrive early to work, which may require leaving earlier. Speak well which means courteously and without vulgarity or profanity. Know when to speak on and off the cuff and to whom you're speaking and judge whether it is time to speak in a professional or more relaxed manner. Remember, you are in business. You ultimately work for the persons or commercial entities that hire your services. They are not your friends. At the end of the day, they are more concerned with their job and their families than you and your job and family.
I recommend remaining respectful, courteous and professional when addressing those that employ you but I also recommend that you stand up for yourself and your band and accept nothing less than what is correct or fair and proper treatment. If you erode the face of professionalism with profanity, candor and off color commentary, you risk not being taken seriously when it's time to talk money. Do not drink alcohol until the gig is over; especially if you can't handle yourself well after one or more drinks. This you should know about yourself. Treat and take your music and work as seriously as you expect those in other serious professions and positions. Do you want a drunk or high airline pilot, heart or brain surgeon, train conductor, bus or livery driver?
I urge all young musicians to stay fit, spiritually, mentally, physically and musically. This has been what I personally discuss, especially with younger, black musicians. Knowing that we as an ethnic grouping experience more disease and illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke as a result of stress, dietary and lifestyle choices, and lack of exercise. I urge young musicians to engage in healthier eating, trying to eat at healthier times (like not eating after your gig then going to sleep), exercise which could be as involved as hitting the gym three or four times a week or simply walking a mile a day, getting the right amount of rest and sleep, eliminating salt and saturated fat from your diet, participating in a stress relieving activity like a yoga class. I helped one friend, a pianist, James Austin
to do what it took to take the steps to get a handle on his blood pressure. This was through me detailing what my life and routine were when I was doing daily kidney dialysis over a meal. He called a couple of months after hearing what I said and thanked me because after hearing what I was going through, he knew he had to regain control of his health and proactively make sound and necessary adjustments in his behavior and choices.
I urge all of the young musicians to get some form of health care and maintain it. You will never know if or when you'll need it. It should be as primary a concern as paying rent. I urge them all to see a doctor for blood work and a physical twice a year and the same goes for the dentist. If the body in part or in whole begins to break or shut down, we literally can't function properly as people or musicians. I've heard the excuses from all of the young musicians (and made the same bullshit ones when I was their age). I used to spend more on compact discs and vinyl records over two to three months and easily could have sacrificed and afforded and should have paid for health insurance instead. If you're lucky enough to be working, do yourself a favor and make the sacrifice.
GC: How has fatherhood affected your outlook on jazz, the jazz scene or on life in general?
DB: Fatherhood completely changed my life. Most don't know, but I suffered with kidney disease and eventually did six, straight years of daily, kidney dialysis. I underwent a much needed and successful kidney transplant on December 15, 2010. I have now re-entered the realm of normalcy. Most of my life, I hemmed and hawed and straddled the proverbial fence about fatherhood and deciding if it was indeed for me. Everyone that knew me would say or tell me I'd be the perfect father. I would see children one day and think them to be so cute and tell myself I wanted that experience. Then, I'd see a child while walking down the street, giving his parent or parents grief or hear a news story about an abduction or some cruel act perpetrated against a child or children and ask myself how could I ever consider bringing a child into this pit of a world? I give a great deal of credit to my son, Quinn for keeping me alive. He literally gave me something to live for. I was diagnosed with kidney disease at the start of 2004 and began dialysis in September 2004. There were many times in my first year that I felt I was going to die or possibly not make it through to illness but once he came along, my focus was regained. I knew I had a great new job. I now had to help shape a kind new citizen of the world. I want to help guide him through to being a great man. I want to see him graduate schools, college, work, and become a generous, productive, law-abiding member of society and the human race. I came to the conclusion and still hold fast and strong to it that if I never played one more note of music from this moment forward, I would hope that I am more if not equally fulfilled by doing the best job of raising my son to be the finest possible human being on this or any planet. I take raising him that seriously.
I actually believe that having or starting a family is more to the heart of the question. I juggle. I am home with my family, in spirit, at all times. Probably even more so when I am physically absent. It has become increasingly more difficult to want to leave my house to play gigs that I may be less enthused about. There were some nights this past winter where I absolutely hated walking out the door and leaving the warmth of my family and apartment to make music. Ever since my son's birth, I have genuinely hated traveling. It doesn't help that the American airline industry has gone to shit behind 9/11 with their lies and terrorism hysteria and fuel price excuses, baggage charges, and having to suffer the ignorance and ineptitude of the TSA all designed to gauge the consumers. I am in service of my family and then I am in service of the music. My health and my family are my top priorities.
The jazz scene is almost nonexistent to me. I'm the last one to hear the rumors or latest gossip. I feel like I live in a bubble. I learn of things now from reading them on Facebook. Otherwise, I'm trying to scrape the pennies together for food, ren,t and child and home related expenses. I also try to maintain my fire and desire to grow within my dream of what music is and could be to me.