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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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.

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