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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


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