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Dwayne Burno: Tradition

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

Dwayne Burno is one of the great bass players of his generation. Originally from Philadelphia, Burno has been on the New York and international jazz scene since 1990. He has played with so many of the great legends of jazz: Betty Carter, Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Chambers, and so many more. Burno is truly a musician's musician in that the integrity of the music comes first and last. Burno seems to possess perfect pitch and photographic memory, so if he hears something, he can pretty much play it. It's hard to stump him when it comes to music: he has done a tremendous amount of homework, as well as having a ton of high-level experiences with countless bands. His harmonic and melodic sensibilities transcend the bass. He plays walking lines and solo lines with the fluidity of a saxophonist. I was lucky to have Burno play on my first two recordings for Steeplechase Records (Activism and The Newcomer respectively).

Burno is passionate about music, opinionated, articulate, and extremely insightful. I got him to do this interview recently and as you will see, he had a lot to say.

George Colligan: What are your earliest musical memories?

Dwayne Burno: My earliest musical memories revolve around my mother and older siblings and phonograph records. My mother, the late Juanita Burno (1935-2001), was an accomplished pianist and choral director from her teens until her life's end. I was likely paying heavy attention to music in uterus. Once I arrived, my mother played services every Sunday with me, seated or laid across her lap while she played. I literally saw the keyboard and the hand-eye coordinated formation of sounds right before my very eyes. My older siblings all played a musical instrument. They all played and continue to play, well. My oldest brother (Jeffrey Bundy, b. 1953-) plays trumpet and can be found playing in local Philadelphia clubs or traveling the globe with such acts as Billy Paul. My brother Tim (the late Rev. Timothy L. Burno, Jr. 1959-1993) played the clarinet and was a heck of a singer, especially when he'd get excited in the middle of preaching a sermon. My brother (Dr. Derrick K. Burno, b.1964-) plays flute. All three of them played at such a high musical level that I carried that inspiration and aspiration into my own life in music. My mother set aside every Saturday morning as her practice time at the piano. This showed me a lot. Obviously, my mother's main job was parenting and running a household which entailed cooking, meal planning and shopping for a family of seven—which expanded to nine for a time after an aunt suddenly passed, and two of my cousins stayed with our family until custody was awarded to another aunt with less responsibility—washing, drying and ironing of family clothing and household fabrics, sewing, and haberdashery. This full time devotion meant little to no time for the necessary maintenance a musician must have to keep in good musical form. I would listen intently as my mother ran her major and minor scales in octaves and diminished exercises and arpeggios in all keys. Then she may play some Beethoven, Brahms, or Chopin. Then she would do her vocal exercises. She might then sing the recent popular tunes and Broadway tunes of the day since she performed weddings and funerals along with her regular schedule of church services. If my mother heard a tune on the radio that she liked, she would immediately go downtown to the music store on Chestnut St. between 17th and 18th Streets and purchase the sheet music, and set about learning it. My mother was in love with music and I, in turn developed the same if not more obsessive affinity for it. The phonograph or "hi-fi" factors in to my love of music in a strange way. It was popular to have a hi-fi stereo system in your house. It was sort of a middle class black status symbol, which signaled class and sophistication. We had one but I noticed that it was rarely played. I was always told and warned not to touch it. I, of course, defied that edict consistently. The hi-fi was also like the plastic covered sofa that was there to look good to company but not for family seating unless in a photograph. I was always a tall child. So by the time I was walking, I was tall enough and strong enough to open the cabinet doors of the hi-fi. That was like opening Pandora's Box. For whatever strange reason, the vinyl albums I was drawn to were jazz records. My mother had albums by Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Chico Hamilton, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, and Duke Ellington's Big Band.

There was one Columbia Records compilation entitled Jazz Omnibus, which I fell in love with. The cover features a white woman of upper crust, high-brow, dressed in an evening gown with mink stoll, carrying a trombone case in one hand and walking a leashed toy dog in the other, approaching a door which reads "Jam Session Tonite!" The doorman is smiling at her as she sets to enter the club. This compilation has selections from artists that were on the Columbia Records roster in the mid to late 1950's like Louis Armstrong, J.J. Johnson, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington Big Band, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, Erroll Garner, Donald Byrd/Gigi Gryce Jazz Lab, and others I can't recall. This was my indoctrination to the sounds of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Max Roach, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Gonsalves, Donald Byrd, Gigi Gryce, Julius Watkins, Art Blakey, Spanky De Brest, Sam Dockery, Jackie McLean, Bill Hardman, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Eugene Wright, Joe Morello, Paul Desmond, Wendell Marshall, Arthur Taylor, Milt Hinton, and Louis Armstrong. These records were familiar to me by age two.

The other thing that helped along my hearing and listening to the music was my eldest brother, Jeffrey. He had the records of the day because he was checking out trumpet players like Miles, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Blue Mitchell, and Eddie Henderson. He would practice and play his vinyl [and] I would quietly just sit and listen. He was cool enough to let me hang out because I was cool enough to not touch anything or bother him and just listen. My brother also held rehearsals in the living room with his friends. This is probably around 1973-75. It was a popular thing in our region to have band battles, especially about 40 miles up the road in Trenton, New Jersey. Trenton- based bands like Kool and the Gang were popular as a result of winning these contests. My brother would assemble a horn sections worth of musicians and a keyboard player and run through covers of current hits. This always impressed me.

The other thing that made the biggest impression on me was seeing sheet music and making the correlation that there was a system to the notation. I was as quiet as a church mouse as a child but when it came to music, my curiosity and fascination led me to ask many questions. My mother attempted to make a sensible explanation of key signature and time signature to me when I asked but I was much too young to completely grasp the theory behind the rules. I did however come to the realization that music can be written for all to understand, and that some day I would compose music as my form of personal musical expression.

GC: When was the moment you knew you would be a professional musician?

DB: I think music decided that I was going to play it rather than there being a conscious decision of mine. Music is a business I entered with no knowledge of how one's life or time in it is supposed to go. One particular experience as teenager in Philadelphia gave me confidence to believe that I must be proceeding in a correct direction. I had a friendship with an older Philadelphia pianist, Raymond King. I knew him trough my teacher at Overbrook High School, G. Thomas Allen and avant-garde tenor saxophonist Sabir Mateen. When we convened, our talks would last for a good long while. The talks were either eye-opening revelations about the history of music and musicians from Philadelphia or a discussion of how to help me get where I was trying to go musically.

In one conversation, which led to this particular experience, I expressed to Raymond that I felt I was at a musical standstill. I felt I needed a teacher to continue growing and learning my instrument correctly. I had met with some teachers to discuss lessons but the best was out of my price range and the others frankly didn't measure up as teachers. Raymond called me up and told me he talked to someone on my behalf and I was told to go meet this musician at his gig. The musician I was set to study with was Arthur Harper. Harper was a funny, lovable guy. I showed before the first set of the gig—it was a school night— and we talked. He told me to stick around, he wanted to hear me play and he'd allow me to sit in on the second set. I listened to Harper deal the entire first set. He sounded wonderful. I felt like I was listening to someone play on par with the recordings I heard of Paul Chambers and Ron Carter. He had the language in his playing but another, entirely personal way of saying what he was saying.

The band always took a long set break. They left the club to sit in their cars and relax— that's the best way to put it. When the trio returns to play the second set, Harper turns to me and says, "I'll play the first one then you come up." I patiently waited. Something had changed in Harp's demeanor so he began telling me he was going to play another. Then he said," Come back next week." I'd sat there, waiting to play but now I was frustrated and annoyed. Then, the moment of divine intervention arrived. The tune "What is This Thing Called Love" was called. The activities of the long, relaxing break had taken their toll on Harper. He still had good moments but he was sluggish and falling behind. When he heard the speed of the tempo, he frantically motioned for me to get up and play. I actually finished out the rest of the night. The others on the gig in the rhythm section were organist/pianist—playing only piano—Shirley Scott and drummer Mickey Roker. They talked to me at the end of the set and laid such heavy compliments on my abilities and the level I was playing at the time. I was sixteen years old and was more than adequately keeping up with seasoned musical veterans. Their words, coupled with the fact that they began hiring me for the gig most weeks for the next year and one half before I left town for college, inspired me and made me proud. I don't think I ever really made the choice to be a musician. I think I'm more of an eclectic Renaissance man with numerous talents and abilities but that music has risen to the fore as the most viable to support my family and self. I cook, study some foreign languages, compose and arrange music, write a heck of an essay or letter, play a few different instruments for self- entertainment and fulfillment, build and design furniture. I entered into music never knowing the full scope of what it entailed. I never knew I'd travel as extensively as I have the last 22 years. I was scared to fly on airplanes. I didn't take my first flight until age 19. My first flight was to New Orleans for attending an IAJE convention to perform in 1990. I was petrified, terrified! What has sold me on music is it's healing capabilities. We as musicians, put the spirit of others in turmoil and conflict at ease with our sounds. It doesn't matter if it's a happy romp or if it's a moody ballad that forces one to reminisce. We are chicken soup makers, we are physicians, [and] we are old grandmothers with remedies, concoctions, and old wives' tales.

GC: Did you do more practicing or listening when you were younger? Do you think playing is as important as practicing? Why or why not?

DB: I didn't begin playing double bass until I was a high school junior. When I jumped in the pool, I felt like I was behind and needed to catch up. I felt I had a good foundation in terms of listening. I had a variety of resources at my avail. I had my mother's collection of vinyl—minus some Duke Ellington albums I'd broken around age five —and my brother Derrick began collecting while away at college so I had access to his collection after he'd bring albums home at semester ends. About age seven, I began collecting jazz, pop, funk and rap albums and singles. I had 16 years of musical listening in my ears and soul and consciousness before I played a note on bass. I had been listening to jazz from birth but I also had learned how to listen, feel, and appreciate many of the other divisions of music.

I practiced in a focused but random manner. I was self-taught on bass as a result of the manner in which the instrument made its way into my musical life. I had studied violin from fourth grade through the completion of high school. I never felt the instrument was spiritually or physically for me but my mother wouldn't allow me to quit and I became more than quite proficient at it.

In my junior year of high school, I was approached by a wise man, the head of the Music and Art Magnet programs, Dr. George E. Allen. He looked into my personality and knew my interest, knowledge and love for jazz as well as the depth of my talent. Though it made absolutely no sense to me at the time, it made perfect sense for him to give me an acoustic bass and tell me to learn it and join the jazz quintet. The program had two freshmen [that] didn't know their instruments or music well enough to jump into making the school's quintet happen right away. I didn't know a thing about double bass other than the fact it was the lowest pitched member of the family of string instruments and it was strung in intervals of perfect fourths. What made me a "go" with my teacher was he knew the speed I could grasp anything musical. Consequently, when my teacher handed off the instrument, he also gave me a tune list to learn so we'd have a full repertoire as a band. I was given two weeks to get it together before our first gig. As a working unit, we played numerous professional gigs. I was earning a better than average wage not only were we earning money but we were learning lessons for our futures. My teacher also taught us things like being early to places to set up and to tip waitpersons—I digress.

The summer before I entered Berklee College of Music [in] 1988, I altered my regular summer routine, much to my mother's dislike. I had worked a city sponsored summer job since age 14 and this kept money in my pocket and kept me out of the house. I knew I was entering a new frontier based on the level of success spurned and spawned at Berklee. I had already made gigs with alums like Wallace Roney and Donald Harrison. Coincidentally, they both factored greatly in my musical development and had hands in pushing me in directions that led me to where I am now. Wallace wrote a letter to Berklee, which aided in my acceptance and a small scholarship. Donald is who I give the credit for actually getting me to New York with work. I had played in his band since June of 1989, which preceded both Betty Carter and Jesse Davis as the reason I ended up in New York. Once I began working with Betty Carter, she forced me to move to New York with the lame excuse that if I wanted to keep her gig, I had to move immediately. What if she wanted to have a rehearsal? Of course I pointed out to her that I lived in Philly and came to her house from Philly on the train at a moment's notice whenever she called a rehearsal. But I digress.

Back to practicing and the summer of '88. I geared up for what I figured would be my greatest musical challenge to date in my life. I had only been playing my instrument for two full years at the point of entering college. I knew folks that had been on their instruments for over ten years and sounded like it. I felt like a babe in the woods and a deer in the headlights.

More things helped. My first day/night in Boston after moving into 98 Hemenway—the all- male dorm off Berklee's campus—I met my roommate, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake. There was an impromptu jam gathering in the basement of the dorm that afternoon. I played with Geoffrey Keezer, Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Roy Hargrove, and one of the baddest left-handed drummers with purest beats—from Baltimore, MD area—you'll likely never know about, Alphonso Giles. That was inspiring and gave me the nerve to go out to Wally's that night to the jam session. I was so green back then that I didn't know that bass players shouldn't and don't as a matter of etiquette, bring their own instrument to a jam unless they are on the gig. So, here Seamus and I go walking down Massachusetts Avenue to Wally's before 9pm. We go in and wouldn't fate have it that the bassist scheduled to play didn't show up for the gig! So I lucked into a gig my first night in town. That ended up causing some local bass players angst. From that first night, I went back to sit in on all of the jazz nights the club used to have which was essentially Wednesday through Sunday and every bandleader fired their regular guy and hired me. Need less to say, I found myself a not well-liked guy in town very quickly, but just by bass players. The gig was five hours long—9pm to 2am—and caused me to develop a routine. When I could manage to sleep or wake up to make scheduled classes like 9am English or any of the early day academic courses, I would attend school. Otherwise, my focus was on my participation in ensembles and after class jamming. I was sought out for the higher-level ensembles. At Berklee, you had a ratings audition during the first or second week of school which helped decide where you would be placed to participate and fulfill your ensemble participation and receive course credit. The rating scale went from 1-9. All whom are familiar with this know that the rating system means absolutely nothing. Branford Marsalis had a rating of 2's while he was at Berklee but we all know when new listen to him that those numbers mean nothing. The ratings are a four-category judgment/assessment of your level, according to faculty professors. Anything on any given day could be reflected in your score. You could feel nervous or ill, have a bad day sight reading, be subjected to unwarranted personal judgments, biases or feelings of a professor like jealousy or their feeling threatened by a student's talent versus their own mediocrity; many factors and variables. I scored a mix of 2's and 3's, which is low and you're regular reduced to participating in low-level ensembles.

I had the good fortune of knowing Peter Washington and Wallace Roney. Before entering Berklee, I had the opportunity to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This opportunity developed out of going to hear the band when they came through Philly every few months or so to perform. I knew Wallace from him coming to play with my high school jazz quintet. I would go hear Art and the band, and Wallace introduced me to Peter Washington. Usually after the gig we'd stand around and talk music, bass, recordings, things I needed to learn, know, and grasp. Then, Peter would usually hand over the bass and ask me to play something for him. I'd usually walk some choruses of a tune or play a solo chorus of something. I guess Peter liked what he heard. He was and still is encouraging to me with regard to what he hears in my playing. Peter had made the decision to leave the Messengers and strike out on his own as a sideman. He called me on the Friday before I was to drive to Boston and enter Berklee. I was leaving the next day—Labor Day Saturday— with my dad and all my belongings. Peter says to me "All right, Burno. The gig is yours. I've told Art about you. He knows you're coming. I've given notice. All you have to do is come up. The band is playing Mikell's. If you're ready, you've got the gig." I found myself in a serious quandary. I wanted to join the band. I had bought all of the records and learned most of the old Messenger book. I thought I was ready enough. I'll never know. I had to broach the subject of Art Blakey with my Dad. I brought it up to him that Friday night. My father's response was "I don't give a fuck about anybody's Art Blakey. You're taking your ass to college!" I was sad that I had to pass on what could have been a great opportunity but the wisdom of life also told me that it could have been the worst decision I ever made. I've always felt that not knowing, either way is the best thing for me. I was freshly eighteen years old, never lived on my own, paid a bill, paid rent, properly maintained a bank account, extremely naïve, and common rather than worldly. I might have been chum for the sharks in a city like New York. This city has chewed up and spit out more people without so much as an afterthought or a Kleenex. I think of the fellow comrades that came here and developed bad habits or simply got sidetracked and strung out while in pursuit of that very gig. So I took my ass to school, where I was asked to join the Art Blakey ensemble. Apparently, all things work together. After I told Peter I couldn't make it since my Dad laid down the law and put the kibosh on my chance to be a Messenger, I suspect Peter told Bu. Bu called up Bill Pierce, a former Messenger, teaching at Berklee and essentially told him to groom that bassist and get him ready for Mikell's in December. Bu used to play at least two weeks at years end at this Upper West Side club, Mikell's every year. This was when a lot of band changeover occurred. He allowed guys—and dolls—to sit in and stake their claim for a band chair. He expected Bill to teach me the book and get me ready to make the sit in at semester's end. By December, I was primed and ready, having played the actual charts in the ensemble, checked out the recordings more thoroughly and in depth and having the knowledge and confidence that at least I could handle the gig on a musical level. I found myself in the same predicament, twice over in December. This time, I had to get my mother's permission to go to New York. My mother, while being a musician, was not one for the jazz lifestyle. She was a God-fearing, churchgoing lady that knew folks firsthand that were in the music and their bad habits. My mother's best friend going in to adulthood was her girlfriend, Estella Timmons, who happened to be married to pianist and composer of Messenger fame, Bobby Timmons. My mother grew up knowing and going to middle school with Albert "Tootie" Heath. She knew the pitfalls of jazz nightlife and was bound to steer me clear of them. Aside from making my voyage to Mikell's to sit in, I was sounded about participating in Roy Hargrove's debut recording by Roy himself. We played a fair amount while both in Boston. He still loves to play all the time. We found ourselves on the bandstand at Wally's or in the school ensemble and piano practice rooms for many an impromptu jam. He told me at the close of the semester that he was recording and he wanted e to make his date with him. I was totally down. He said he would be in touch. I later learned that I was vetoed, shot down as an option because management didn't know who I was. I laugh and cringe when I hear that disc. Two bass players and two bands made up the disc from two sessions. Neither of them had a personal or musical relationship to Roy, and you can hear it.

Practicing is vital in a young musician's formative stages of growth and development. While in attendance of Berklee College of Music for my three full semesters there, I had my bass in my hands on a daily basis on average of 13 hours, per day. I was forced to develop my ears and eyes with sight reading in every new situation and new sonorities each new composer introduced. Once you begin working as a musician, your focus on practicing diminishes. You're concerned about sleeping, making enough money to afford where you live, food for your sustenance, and honoring and handling your commitments to work as a musician via rehearsals and recordings. Then add in dating and you're making more time for your paramour and trying to balance your schedule with their schedule and your feelings with their feelings. It comes to virtually a complete halt if you go for the brass ring of starting a family.

The only folks that succeed in practicing are those who make a conscious decision to be completely selfish in their musical dedication. Usually, their other relationships suffer from the selfishness. Get it in while you're young, unfettered, free and single because if your family means as much to you as it does me, then I gladly accept the diminishment of my practice time. The problem or my biggest pet peeve I have with most bass players today is their overzealousness to be thought of as a soloist with ever giving enough care, detail, and concern to their real and true task at hand; harmonically underpinning the band while swinging the band, ad infinitum. It's bass players everywhere. I see it here in America. I see it all throughout Europe, South America, Central America, Asia, and Scandinavia. Bass players just rip roaring ready to go, begin their solos in thumb position and solo on every tune. You don't get the gold watch for great solos.

GC: What gigs or apprenticeships were most valuable to you as an up and coming musician? Do you think there are still possibilities for apprenticeships in jazz nowadays?

DB: Every apprenticeship or hiring was valuable to me. I learned everything from minutia to major in scale and detail. I was fortunate enough to have played with the last bastion of true masters and innovators. My career was never indebted so much to the '90's hype of the Young Liars movement. The young person in generations after me can't say they met, heard, knew, or played with Clifford Jordan, Idrees Sulieman, Art Taylor, or heard Miles, or could tell you who Harold Vick is/was and what he played. I wholeheartedly believe the music industry fucked up everything within the music and mostly through the Young Liars movement. This created or exacerbated the schism between the generations, which has remained and will never go away. In the late '80's, the record companies started chasing and promoting young talent. They had kids like Christopher Hollyday, Imani Murray, and Peter Delano ready to go. The companies are here, pushing a young, inexperienced child to lead a band of veteran musicians to play. This is already a powder keg. How is some snot-nosed brat who was in diapers when the guy he has on piano, bass, or drums, was 45 years old, supposed to take direction from a child or his ignorant parent and respect the parent, child or himself enough to suppress his ego and anger to get through the gig? It has to be humiliating and frustrating as an older, wiser musician to kowtow to a child. I moved to New York in 1990 at the age of 20. I had hopes and dreams of playing with the true greats. What I found was I got stuck playing with everybody because everybody needed decent bass players. What I hated was that I couldn't get the eyes and ears of the older musicians that I adored and wanted to learn from and make music with. Barry Harris, Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, and Hank Jones wouldn't look my way or call me at all. I found the viewpoints varied with the older masters. Some were willing to a chance on you which is how I came to work with Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Junior Cook, Clifford Jordan, Ronnie Mathews, and Joe Chambers. I believe the tide has gotten worse in the music. I don't want anything to do with today's young musicians that claim to play jazz. Straight out the box, they are liars. Eighty percent of them can barely play a decent chorus of blues, rhythm changes, know tunes, play a correct melody, play for the music without masturbating, play a ballad, or just swing. I've encountered more young musicians that are more concerned with living a secure lifestyle but are not in the least vested or invested in the music. They all want the suburban, two-car, house, collegiate teaching position with the white wife fantasy. They are not concerned with how they sound. They are happy to play with their peers from Music College rather than playing with others that know more. For me that's essentially the difference.

When I was coming up, I and my peers wanted to play with the older guys, earn their respect, get the nod from them or the encouraging words that maybe you were headed the right way or on to something or also get the straight brutal honesty that there was something wrong in your sound, articulation, the changes you played, the weight or length of your beat. The older guys weren't afraid to tell it like it is or to put it right because even if some of it was coming from anger or insecurity or prejudice, it truly came from a place of perpetuating and fostering growth and development in terms of the music and having the music played and treated correctly. There is no deference between the generations. Today, these piece of shit young mother fuckers who've never changed a light fucking bulb or wiped their own musical ass try to talk to me like we're equals. The fucking, unmitigated gall! My feeling is that the moment these youngsters decide they truly want this music as their focus and conclusion rather than as an afterthought and really want to play it, learn how to make it well and make people feel good and get to swinging, will be the moment they are ready to learn from those of us that still can and do. As a generation lumped together as a whole, they seem to have no collective interest in being humble, shutting the fuck up and wanting to actually learn. Most of them seem to suffer from know-it-all syndrome or this collective nonchalance or they keep searching for this easy button, which we all know does not exist.

GC: Do you have a philosophy of "the role of the bassist in a jazz group?" Do you think a musician should be more concerned with blending with the band? Or working their style into the band? Or both?

DB: I believe you have a sound that has many components and many things that challenge it's production every time you play your instrument. You have your own physically manufactured components of your sound like consistency, attack, nuance, inflection, the inherent instrumental sound qualities and nuances, theoretical and intellectual qualities, and properties that govern the mental aspects of your sonic production. If you tie them all together and you can only play that what projects from the instrument feels and sounds good, clean, clear, intelligent, logical, meaningful, and emotionally relevant. If your physical, mental stamina, focus or clarity are not up to par while your instrument is in hand, what you produce likely will not feel and sound good to you so the chances are just as certain that to an educated listener, your flaws will be noticeable. The regular layperson with nothing more than a slight sense of musicality or artistic taste or appreciation might not discern anything.

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