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Dave Burrell: Pianist Navigating the Windward Passages

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

AAJ: Here's a question I always ask that's based on John Coltrane's statement that "Music is my spirituality." Do you have a spiritual orientation or practice, or an approach to life and the "big picture" that you think influences your playing?

DB: I've done meditation, attended various types of churches and Buddhist ceremonies. These days, however, I just go to the piano, and the piano's spirit and my spirit become one. I think that partly results from my experience with Nicherin Shoshu Buddhism. I recently did a concert for them, and I recited two of Monika's latest poems about Lincoln from the Civil War Project, "Ode to a Prairie Lawyer" and "Homage to the Martyr."

AAJ: You've had an incredible career and are truly a jazz master and creative force for the music. I'm sure you've had your ups, downs, and struggles as well. What would you like to tell to young gifted and creative musicians who would like to pursue a life in jazz?

DB: If you get disappointed in yourself or the system and you feel down and discouraged, just realize that that is part of the process, that all of us have had to go through that before we get to a place of security, maturity, and excellence. I learned a lot from the down times when things didn't go right. I asked myself what was I doing that I had to take responsibility for. Often, it was that I had not prepared properly. Also, you have to draw your inspiration from many places. And you must periodically back off and re-charge your batteries. At our country house in Sweden, there's hardly anyone around. The solitude keeps us very renewed, alive, and inspired.

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