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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Dave Burrell is a master pianist and composer who encountered the avant-garde in the 1960s and has been following his own independent path ever since. He combines classical and jazz elements that are both "inside" and "outside" the mainstream. The title of a poem by J.V. Cunningham, "The Metaphysical Amorist" characterizes much of his playing, which is "romantic" (amorous) in both the sense of that era in music history and the influence of the American Songbook, and yet penetrates the deeper levels of logic and meaning. He is also a "monster" of a pianist. Burrell does phenomenal things on the keyboard that you can't believe are happening.

In this wide-ranging interview, Burrell reflects on his origins, fascinating moments in jazz and personal history, and his long-time relationship with his wife, the Swedish poet and writer Monika Larsson, who writes the lyrics for his "cabaret operas" such as Windward Passages and the recently premiered Civil War Project commissioned by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.


All About Jazz: In your childhood, you shuttled between Ohio, Louisiana, and Hawaii. Do you have a sense within yourself as to where your roots are?

Dave Burrell: I was born in Ohio. I consider my roots to be in Ohio, and actually in Harlem as well. I'll tell you why. Before I was born, my parents were already living in Harlem, at the Harlem River Apartments, which were relatively new. They lived in the pad right under Ella Fitzgerald's, and they danced at the Savoy on Saturday nights. They heard Ella practicing scatting, which the other people in the building didn't appreciate [laughter], so people would knock on the pipes, to ask Ella to stop! Little did they know!

But now let me bring you right to my grandfather's home in Middletown, Ohio, between Dayton and Cincinnati. And in this little town, he worked for Armco Steel, which hired almost everyone in Middletown in 1940. My granddaddy took care of the furnace, a demanding but high-paying job, and he bought a lot of property. When my mother was pregnant with me, they wanted the best maternity care, and at that time it was scandalous how babies got switched in some of the maternity wards. So when I was about to be born, my parents said, "Let's go back to mother's house to make sure we get the family doctor." For that reason, they drove back to Ohio.

My father had a desk job at Shell Oil at the time, and he had a twelve-cylinder Packard convertible, and they drove back to that house in Middletown, where my grandparents John and Bertha Washington lived (my mother is Mary Eleanor Washington Burrell). So I was born there. I was very light-skinned, while my mother is very dark. The neighbors didn't think I could be her baby, which provided a lot of local gossip. I'm their only child.

AAJ: Is your father African American?

DB: Yes, but more light-skinned like me, the Creole from New Orleans. When he was younger, he drove from Straight College in New Orleans to Fisk University in Nashville to join the Jubilee Singers, and my mom came from Wilberforce in Ohio to join the Jubilee Singers and also to work for the poet and author James Weldon Johnson. So they met there and fell in love.

AAJ: How does Hawaii fit in?

DB: I was born in 1940. In 1946, my dad was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship chartered by the Sears Roebuck Company. By then, he was an administrator of the Urban League in Cleveland. During that time, my parents met some Japanese-American folks who told them about Hawaii. For the fellowship, he proposed a thesis entitled "From Yokohama to Honolulu," in which he described Hawaii as the melting pot of the Pacific. So we took two trunks of their record collection, and when we arrived in Hawaii, I was left alone with a record player and these trunks of records. First I listened to saxophonist Lucky Thompson especially "Cat on the Keys" that I would play all the time. I listened to this collection until I graduated from high school in 1958, so it was quite an extensive exposure to that music.

I was actually playing the ukulele as a kid, not the piano, but I was listening to music all the time, including my parents rehearsing for Broadway shows or operas. And in Hawaii, they were on call to sing Negro spirituals and Hawaiian love songs. We all loved the Hawaiian culture, and I got shuttled back and forth between Hawaii and both Ohio and my father's mother in Alexandria, Louisiana. They'd ship me on PanAmerican Airlines with a name tag!

Early Musical Exposure and Performing

AAJ: Say more about what you were doing musically up until you went to college at the Berklee School of Music.

DB: Hawaii was a surprisingly hot place for music. Not only was there jazz, R&B, and rock 'n roll on the radio, there were thousands of servicemen at Scofield Barracks, Hickam Airforce Base, and Pearl Harbor, and I, as a student, started to perform at all of these facilities. Before Hawaii became a state and before integration took hold in the mainland, diverse people in Hawaii had been mixing and loving each other with out any anti-segregation laws needed to enforce it. There was no segregation, although there were occasional pockets of resistance, for instance, in the marine base everybody stayed to themselves, to their own race. There was a club on Hotel Street called the Swing Club, where most of the African American servicemen went. And right next to it was the Anchor Club that was frequented mostly by Caucasian servicemen. But the owners of the Anchor Club were friends of mine, so they allowed me, a black man and a minor, in there. I was doing a lot of things I wasn't supposed to be doing even before I was sixteen!

AAJ: What was the music you were listening to at that age or before? Were you listening to any of the stride pianists who later influenced your playing?

DB: I actually didn't like stride piano at the time. I liked Ahmad Jamal's version of "Poinciana." I played that all day. And I loved Erroll Garner's LP, Mambo Moves Garner (Mercury, 1955) with the conga player Candido. I wore that record out. Between those and my interest in Thelonious Monk, I had a base of three jazz piano players. In addition, my parents owned all of the Duke Ellington records. However, there was the jazz of the 1940s on the one hand and the 1950s on the other, and I listened only to the jazz of the 1950s. I listened to drummer Max Roach playing "Cherokee," singers Sarah Vaughan and Nellie Lutcher, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley playing "The Song is You." I also had a group of my own, and we played the hits, R&B, and in particular I remember "Blueberry Hill" by Fats Domino and "Whole Lota Shakin' Goin' On" by Jerry Lee Lewis.

AAJ: What made you decide to attend the Berklee School of Music, a few thousand miles away from Hawaii?

DB: In 1958, I graduated from University High School, which was a lab school with small classes and lots of attention given to each student. After that, I went to the University of Hawaii, but the music department was for prospective teachers, and I wanted to be a performing artist. However, I had my own band, and after two years there, I had met so many jazz musicians who came to Hawaii while in the Air Force and remained there. In particular, there was Ernie Washington, a good friend of Papa Joe Jones of the Count Basie Band. When the Basie Band came through, Joe Jones asked me to take him to hear Ernie Washington, who had his own club in Waikiki. I also met Buddy Banks, a bassist who was working in a club with Joe Castro, whose trio was the main trio on the strip on Kalakaua Avenue. They were very close friends of tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

AAJ: Did many of the jazz musicians come over to Hawaii from the flourishing jazz scenes of Los Angeles and the West Coast?

DB: Yes. I have a photograph from that time of me with Steve Ellington, who later worked with Andrew Hill, and Hampton Hawes. So I was working with guys who were more advanced than me, even though it was my band and my gigs. I brought some of them to Honolulu to work with me. The servicemen used to come to our club a lot, because they felt it was the most authentic joint to hear the music. And we were pleased about that.

Berklee School of Music and Boston in the Early 1960s

Then when I moved to Boston to go to Berklee, I got a job at a well-known after hours club called the Business Man's Club on Massachusetts Avenue. People like Cat Anderson sat in, among many others. So then I was learning a lot as fast as I could. My piano teacher, Dr. George Brambilla, was the best around. He was also Keith Jarrett's piano teacher at the time.

AAJ: When musicians talk about Berklee, they invariably mention influential students and mentors who were there at the time. Who were yours?

DB: For me it was saxophonist Sam Rivers, who wasn't at Berklee but played very good jazz piano and was at all of the jam sessions with drummer Tony Williams, who was only fifteen years old at the time! We played what you would ordinarily play at sessions, but Sam would sit down on the piano bench with me and show me alternative chords, which was very helpful. Mike Nock, who was from New Zealand and had spent time in Australia and on the U.S. West Coast, was at Berklee when I went there, and he was the master pianist at the sessions. I can remember him playing "Minority," and we all went over to watch his hands on the keyboard to see exactly what he was doing.

AAJ: They had a red hot jazz scene in Boston then. Did you hear musicians at the local clubs as well?

DB: Herbie Hancock was there with Eric Dolphy, an unusual combination. I went to listen to Yusef Lateef and Roy Haynes on a regular basis. I was part of a band at the Louie's Lounge, a rhythm and blues club which had Irma Franklin, who was Aretha Franklin's sister, as well as the "Duke of Earl" Gene Chandler, and people like that. We backed them up. They called us "The International Set," and we based a lot of our repertoire on the work of white musicians from Port Arthur, Texas who had transcribed many of Ray Charles' and Bobby "Blue" Bland's charts.

Adventures in the Big Apple

AAJ: As soon as you finished your studies, you moved to New York, which many Berklee grads do, and a lot started happening there right away. You encountered a maelstrom of activity.

DB: Definitely. I had gotten to a point where I felt ready to play, but I still felt I should wait to play with these New York guys. I got a duplex loft on the Bowery. It was a bit costly, so I would rent the upstairs to Paul Bley now and then. Soon, Elvin Jones and Gil Evans came over to find out who were these kids who came from Berklee. Then Marion Brown came over and said to me, "I have a gig and a recording session for you." It was for Fontana Records. He said, "I wanna feature you on a piece called 'The Visitor,'" and I said, "Who's the visitor?" And he said, "You are!" It turned out Grachan Moncur III was on the gig, as well as Reggie Johnson on bass, Alan Shorter, Wayne's brother, on flugelhorn, Bennie Maupin on tenor saxophone, and Beaver Harris on drums. It was a very good recording (Marion Brown Septet: Juba Lee, Fontana, 1967). So that was my first recording.

AAJ: Almost right away you were connecting with the avant garde.

DB: Yes, and my first live gig was in the East Village, at Slugs, which the owner Jerry Schultz called "Slugs in the Far East," meaning it was located way over on the East Side between Avenues C and D. I was with Grachan's group that I just described. So, on that gig, we started to play what was then considered a bit free or outside music, but Grachan's composing was so strong that it was easy for us to come back in the house, so to speak, on the inside of the tune, and make sense.

AAJ: Is that the first time you heard that phrase, "inside and outside"?

DB: It was a phrase that was dangled around the hipsters like Jackie McLean, who had been a protégé of Charlie Parker and basically had played everything that was in his way of thinking on the "inside," and was searching for something new. But none of the masters wanted to be accused of going rogue, so they would experiment, but they would always return back to the melody, so no one would think they were doing something strange that had nothing to do with the composition.

AAJ: So "inside" and "outside" referred to going in and out of the melody and chord structure?

DB: Yes, a good example of that would be John Coltrane's recording of "My Favorite Things." It was a Broadway showpiece, but his arrangement allowed him to make an interlude that was modal. So the group is in waltz time, and they vamp, then they let John play until he has exhausted his soprano solo, and then John nods to McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison that he wants to go back to the melody. So all the music critics and intellectuals were saying, "I get it! Do you get it? Well that was an interlude on the Dorian or Phrygian mode." So all of us aspiring musicians, would say, "That's cool! Can't you stick a modal thing into what we're doing?" Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it sounded ridiculous.

Pharoah Sanders, who I worked with a lot, was at the time gigging with John, and when Pharoah would come over and visit, I'd ask him "What did you and John play while you were on the road in Japan and so on?" And he would change the topic and say, "Well, while I was travelling, they gave me these saxophones and a flute, and I wanna try them all out with you on piano. So sometimes Pharoah and I would practice together twelve hours a day with him alternating alto, tenor, and flute, and then we'd play simultaneously in different keys. After all that, I said to him, "My chops are really sore! My hands are throbbing!" And Pharoah said, "That's great! It's a sign you're getting better!" {Laughter].

The days turned into years. People came by the loft all times of the day and night. Albert Ayler, Donald Ayler, Cecil McBee, Stanley Cowell. Roy Haynes and Archie Shepp did a recording session there. We all were consistently getting better and looking at each possibility, sometimes using my originals and sometimes mixing it up. See, at that time, the avant-garde was still frowned upon a lot. But we were taking risks.

Encountering and Defining the Jazz Avant-Garde

AAJ: So you came on during a period of revolution in jazz, but there was still confusion about what was what. There were Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and a host of others, each with his own approach.

DB: I had already listened to Ornette while I was in Boston. Marion Brown had written his dissertation at Howard University (Washington, DC) on Ornette.

AAJ: Do you yourself have any concept or ways of thinking about different forms of avant-garde jazz?

DB: Obviously "avant-garde" is just a term that covers many things. But let's take Coltrane as perhaps the strongest example. He'd say, "Everybody's gonna take it out now," which meant everyone would leave the stage and he would take one motif, especially if it was from an original he wrote that would enable him to depart from anything that was traditional, like his composition, "One Up; One Down" which consisted of two phrases. That would become the ingredient for taking all of what he practiced and using it. Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales gave him a dictionary, a musical language from which to choose ideas. He practiced so much that he could effortlessly take a motif and then do everything else. He'd make the saxophone scream, use circular breathing, and he would take that piece "out." And then, when he'd get ready to come back "in," the band would come back with a greater energy.

So if Coltrane could do it, we all felt it was legal now! We could do that! Could we all play "Giant Steps?" No! Only some of us could. The word on the street was that if you couldn't play "Giant Steps," you had no business playing something that was completely free because you hadn't really done your homework. Max Roach would say, "Some of them can really do it, and some are like they just got off the elevator on their own floor and didn't bother to find out what's happening on the other floors."

AAJ: So that's what they meant by "inside" and "outside." But there are musicians who don't fit that pattern, take for example, Cecil Taylor. He played consistently far out from the beginning to the end.

DB: There's no one like Cecil. And no one was doing what Cecil was doing because it was impossible to do so. Sunny Murrayhad left Cecil -they're still friends, though -and put his drums over at my place, don't ask me why. He had a monstrous drum set with all the cymbals he collected while working with Cecil and with Albert Ayler. I started going deaf when he played! It was hard to find places in the music where I could be heard, but I did. And actually my association with Sunny went very well. We were both composers, developed a lot of material, and then we went on to Africa together.

To North Africa and Paris

AAJ: Was that the same year you went to Paris?

DB: Yes, 1969. So, at the end of the sixties what Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, and Roswell Rudd were doing with their "inside/outside" was to use melodies, for example, an Ellington tune, Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile," a Sousa march, and then a poem about American aggression recited by Shepp. People thought, "My God, this is so hip!" At the time, there was an audience for almost any thing new, and theirs was one of the things that was executed properly. Of course, Shepp was to become a professor at the University of Buffalo and then at the University of Massachusetts. And Max Roach also became a professor, and the two of them started to collaborate—two different generations.

AAJ: Did Shepp go to Africa with you guys?

DB: Yes. The State Department brought us over to the Pan-African Festival as a group led by Shepp that included Alan Silva on bass, Sunny Murray, Grachan Moncur III, and me.

AAJ: It sounds like the "inside/outside" idea became absorbed into the revolutionary fervor of the time, and it all became a means of expressing socio-political ideas about race, the Viet Nam War, and so on.

DB: Exactly. The Pan-African Festival brought together Africans and African Americans who were associated with the arts and the avant-garde. Every country in Africa was represented, and so was the Black Panther Party. They had a book release party for Eldridge Cleaver, because he had just written Soul on Ice, and they got me up around one in the morning and said, "C'mon, we're playing for Eldridge's book party!" It was at a storefront in Algiers that held about three hundred people, but over 1,000 people had showed up. I played an electric piano up on the mezzanine level.

It was when I got to Algiers and heard the black Africans from the desert and the North Africans, I saw the similarities and differences in the dance, the rhythms, the music, the drums. I played with the Tuareg musicians, the nomads from the Sahara Desert. The people there were from all different cultures. Miriam Makeba had just married Stokeley Carmichael, for example. We were all happy to be the darlings of the French press, who had recently retreated from Algiers but had sent their most daring photographers who had fought in the Algerian revolution, and they became our eyes and ears. They did great coverage and excellent photography. So we matured a few notches from those experiences.

AAJ: Would you say that African music still has an influence on your playing and composing?

DB: Oh, definitely! The African and Afro-Cuban music always had an effect on me, but the trip to Africa changed everything I was doing. For example, I saw somebody on a thumb piano who played a rhythm as if on a typerwriter but with such energy! And he didn't make any mistakes! It was so primitive and yet so current at the same time.

AAJ: It sounds similar to some of your own very rapid fingerings.

DB: Someone once reminded me that the piano is a percussion instrument. You know how the hammers hit the strings—that's percussion. So I got the idea that in trying to get out of the realm of the everyday pianist, I used that notion of percussion as I was trying to find my own voice as a pianist.

The Influence of Jelly Roll Morton

AAJ: In looking back retrospectively on the development of your playing, in addition to these African influences, Jelly Roll Morton's stride piano also had a great impact on you.

DB: Jelly Roll came into my repertoire much later when Sam Charters asked me to be on a Bicentennial Tribute program on National Public Radio. Sam said, "Why don't you go to Patelson's Music Store and get the book of all of Morton's transcribed music by James Dapogny. They were very difficult to play, but I liked the ones with the Spanish tinge especially. So I learned some of them and was on the show along with Dick Hyman, Wynton Marsalis, and others. It's still played every so often on NPR. I also did NPR programs on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Leonard Bernstein. For the Armstrong tribute, in the early 1990s, I played "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" in stride. As I recall, we had John Blake, Jr. on violin, and I wouldn't say we took it very far out, because then it wouldn't be from Armstrong's period. We wanted to be respectful of Armstrong, so we didn't go way "outside," but we inserted our own ideas into it.

But Jelly Roll was the most challenging, and after I played the Jelly Roll show, I participated with author John Szwed in a re-enactment of what Jelly had done with Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, playing the music and talking about it. That gave me an opportunity to be exposed to even more of Jelly Roll's music, and I then came to love it. My dad was from New Orleans and always had wished I liked Jelly Roll, but I didn't back then, but now I love it. I played it with tuba player Bob Stewart in Germany and France, and we still have some DAT tapes of it. And I started writing a minor key twelve bar blues piece called "The Box." For that piece, I took from Jelly, I took from Monk, and I took from Duke, but I didn't hesitate to add things I learned from Lee Morgan or Tommy Turrentine about a turnaround, or something from Sam Rivers about a substitute chord for the four minor sixth, instead to have a two minor seventh flat five, and so on. And I knew from bassist Jymie Merritt when we were on the road together that you could take all of these chords and do new things with them. Like Coltrane, Jymie is very studious and looking for new things all the time.

Moving Through Windward Passages

DB: Then, after I moved to my brownstone in Harlem in 1970, Jimmy Garrison lived with me. He gave me a lot of insight. But saxophonist David Murray's approach really lent itself to the "inside/outside" concept. So I had already written Windward Passages, and I asked him if we could do something with it. He said, "Sure." Before that, I had only done those pieces with mezzo-soprano singer Hilda Harris from the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, when Hilda sang one of these arias or ballads, she sang slowly and beautifully, and it didn't have anything from what we call the "energy school." But when I played the same piece with David Murray's Octet, we tore it up! The audience liked it both ways. So I thought, wouldn't it be great if I brought opera people and jazz people together in a cabaret style jazz opera! As you know, my most recent effort combining jazz and operatic vocal has been this year in Ode to a Prairie Lawyer in my Civil War Project at the Rosenbach Museum.

AAJ: In my research for the interview, I came across two completely different recordings entitled Windward Passages: Hat Hut, a Swiss label, in1979, and Black Saint label, in 1993, with totally different tracks.

DB: The Windward Passages to which I'm referring was recorded with me on solo piano in Switzerland in 1979, released by Hat Hut. It was a live recording of a radio show. Then we did it with a studio orchestra in Sweden in the 1980s. but that was never released. The 1993 recording on Black Saint was a studio album with me and David Murray that had nothing to with my jazz opera Windward Passages. The 1993 album was mis-named by the record company for whatever reasons they might have had!

AAJ: Let's take a look at some of your other cabaret opera work. Your West Side Story is based on Leonard Bernstein's music. Another, La Vie Boheme is based on Puccini. While some of the melodic motifs resemble those of the originals, you go so far out in your own direction with these that it would be hard to tell where they came from. My impression is that you hear and play differently from others, whether mainstream or avant-garde.

DB: Oh, sure! With Bernstein, the very first thing that I discovered was that he was one of the greatest composers I ever heard. Then I saw a documentary in which he was playing the Chopin "Etudes" where he remarked that they were the most essential piano works of all. But when I heard Oscar Peterson playing West Side Story (Verve, 1962), I loved his arrangements with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. And I felt that I had something to say about it too! So I bought the Bernstein piano/vocal score and started re-arranging the standard pieces. I didn't want it to sound like the Broadway show or Peterson's version. Even though it was my first recording as a leader, I needed it to sound like my other recordings. So I decided not to give the bassist any music at all, just let him play whatever he wanted to, and use that as a painter would, to stimulate a spray of notes. The drummer and I played in time, while the bass player went all over the place! Sometimes it sounded avant-garde, and sometimes it sounded all wrong, and even I had trouble relating to it! But when I hear it today, I have no problem with it at all. I was waiting for a window to jump out of. I wanted to free myself and go outside. For example, I took the melody, the three notes of "Maria" and did what I wanted with them. My version of West Side Story was first introduced as a twenty minute track on High Won-High Two (Arista, 1968). There I started to interpolate Bernstein's themes into the rhythm, building up a lot of energy into a tornado style solo. Then I came back to the regular temperament, and my musicians followed suit.

The Civil War Project

AAJ: It sounds like a prime example of "inside/outside." Over the decades, you've had such a productive career and pushed the limits of music in many wonderful ways. We've been talking mostly about the early days. Let's fast forward to recent times. For the past five years you've been doing what you call your Civil War Project in conjunction with the Rosenbach Museum's collection of Civil War documents and photographs, and in which your wife, Swedish poet and writer Monika Larsson, has written the lyrics. It is a combination of composed and improvised music about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, composed for piano, additional instruments, and singers. What would you like to convey to our readers about this important Project?

DB: It's intended ultimately to be a full opera, but for the past five years, we've written and premiered sections of it at the Rosenbach. Up until last year, the focus was on piano and instrumentalists like Odessa Balan on violin and Steve Swell on trombone. Then in the last two years, we began to add the vocal parts. For that purpose, Monika and I did the historical research, and then she wrote the poetry. We already knew our singer would be lyric soprano Veronica Chapman Smith. The three of us worked together. I had always found that setting Monika's words to music was highly rewarding , as in my album Windward Passages that we discussed earlier. The Civil War Project has been a wonderful venture for Monika and me, and I want to thank the Rosenbach Museum, which is part of the Free Library of Philadelphia, for such a life enriching experience.

The first year we did Portraits of Civil War Heroes. We poured through books and documents and visited museum exhibits. We even went to see the bullet hole in Elmer Ellsworth's uniform, from when he got shot taking down the Confederate flag in Virginia.

AAJ: So you became Civil War buffs!

DB: We did! We came to experience how cruel a war it was. The second year, I composed Civilians During War Time. We read the soldiers' letters to their families. I wrote songs like "Mama, I'm Still Hungry" and "Have You Seen My Son?" Odessa Balan played the violin part. The third year was a turning point in the war and also for my composing, which reflected the turmoil of the war. It felt like we were witnesses to this fury of war. We looked at the original Emancipation Proclamation, I imagined the slave trade, recalled the torture devices and shackles I'd seen in the museums. Monika helped me find out that my father, born and raised in Lousiana, was the great grandson of Mamie Davis, wife of Earl Davis, who was a freed slave. We found the whole genealogy, showing that I was a descendent of freed slaves. So I was the "real thing," and the Rosenbach staff loved it! It was so moving for all of us, that we decided to continue the program.

So for the third year, I asked trombonist Steve Swell to participate in Turning Point (No Business Records, 2014), a suite of music about the horrors of the war. That concert was highly praised by the critics, which provided further encouragement to complete the series with a homage to Lincoln, for which Monika provided the lyrics based on historical documents, and I composed for myself on piano and Veronica Chapman Smith singing the lyrics with some improvisation.

AAJ: One thing that struck me about the music was the connection of the musical motifs from the Civil War period with the earliest origins of jazz.

DB: Exactly! You can hear both the African American and European influence in that music. As a pianist, I had two references of composers from around the Civil War period: Blind Tom and Blind Boone. Blind Tom was a slave and savant who lived on a Georgia plantation. He could hear anything once, embellish it, improvise and create fugues and counterpoint! Someone notated some of Blind Tom's playing, and later on, Blind Boone was inspired by Tom's music. There are monuments to Blind Boone in Missouri resulting from time he spent in St. Louis. He was more musically progressive than Blind Tom, including a little bit of boogie, and in some ways anticipating W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin and ragtime. So I used ideas from Blind Tom and Blind Boone in my composing and playing.

AAJ: What message would you like listeners to take from your Civil War Project?

DB: I want people to know that so many of us Americans descend from the pain of being born into the Civil War and its aftermath. If your ancestors were in the dungeons in chains, or starving to death on the battlefield, or even a poor white southerner, you were victimized, you bear that legacy. When you think of the shame of slavery for America globally, it still affects us today. And we inherited the upheaval of the Civil War and afterwards. I try to convey all that in the music. There's a book by Drew Gilpin Faust entitled This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008). It is a hard-hitting book and very credible in describing the tragedy.

AAJ: Your Civil War compositions are so relevant to America's history and should be played at concert halls and public events all around the country. But I am concerned that musicians other than yourself and your cohorts couldn't perform it.

DB: But that's good because I get lots of gigs! [Laughter.] More seriously, Veronica did one piece with her usual piano accompanist, and it worked well. There's enough written down that a good pianist with some improvisational capability could do my part in his or her own way.

AAJ: So under the right circumstances, it could become a repertoire piece.

Looking Towards the Future

AAJ: Tell us what you envision for your self down the pike?

DB: I'm wanting to develop more cabaret opera works that could be performed in various intimate venues. They would include the Civil War Project and other works of mine that could be jazz operas, cabaret style. I'll flesh out more vocal parts and instruments and a plot. Monika will be writing more lyrics to make a complete opera. We will be working on all this during our summer stay at our country house in Sweden.

Then, on July 9th, Steve Swell and I will perform at the famed Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. We'll do the pieces we did from the Civil War Project in a series featuring the avant-garde. David Murray will also perform there.

But my big dream is eventually to create a cabaret in Europe specifically for jazz opera in a more intimate setting than a concert hall or opera house. There's a hotel in Northern Italy near Milano where Monika and I have been invited to be artists in residence, and that may provide some inspiration for our own venue.

I have been performing on a regular basis at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, and I wish there were more venues like that in Philadelphia and elsewhere that similarly provide an environment where people can really hear serious jazz in a friendly setting.



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