Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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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 Julian "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.
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