BY ZIVIT SHLANK Composer/pianist Dave Burrell is an American original. He first made his mark at the inception of the avant-garde and free music movements in the 1960s. Over 30 years, 115 recordings and counting, numerous television and radio appearances, countless performances worldwide, Burrell shows no signs of slowing down. January features Burrell in two very different settings. Artist-in-residence with the Rosenbach Museum and Library since 2007, his latest task was to create music for an elaborate five-part research project on the Civil War. Part 2 entitled Civilians During War Time, made its world premiere on January 18, with two encore performances on Saturday at the Rosenbach. Thanks to Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop, Burrell will also be performing a rare duo show with Dutch instrumentalist and fellow avant-garde madman Han Bennink tonight at the Art Alliance. Phawker recently sat down with Dave in his private studio in Center City.
PHAWKER: The 60s were a transitional time for jazz. It became a free form search for something honest and spiritually satisfying. A lot of musicians, present company included, ventured over to Europe, where the music was met with a more appreciative reaction. What was it like being a musician during that time?
DAVE: I went to Paris, recorded with many of my colleagues from Berkeley and New York and we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. Most of the musicians I played with were older than me were also teaching me. Guys like Archie Shepp, Grachan Moncur III, Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders, among others. That was not happening on the avant-garde scene in New York. So we thought Paris was the most wonderful place in the world until we realized we signed these contracts in French and that we weren’t going to get any royalties. I was fighting for Civil Rights, for Women’s rights and fighting for a voice as a composer trying to figure out “Well, what was I going to write?” I really liked Puccini and rearranged one of his operas, La Boheme. I also liked West Side Story and Oscar Peterson’s Jazz version of it. I wanted to do an avant-garde version and a producer named Alan Douglas picked up the idea. He had recorded Jimi Hendrix, Malcolm X speeches and Lenny Bruce stand-up. I had played with Lennie Bruce the couple times he performed in Hawaii. Alan recorded me along with Richie Havens. I was in this company that was very progressive, with a very hip producer and was being bounced around off these different ideas, back and forth to New York and Europe in the late 60s, early 70s. I went to Japan and played with some of the best improvisers there. I traveled to many places like to Algers for the Pan-African festival and had this underground following. I went into stations like WKCR with my grant-funded projects of all sorts of odd ensembles that had cello, trombone and piccolo. I don’t why I was doing that, but I could never just do the standard piano, bass and drums. I got funded to do a jazz opera called Windward Passages and put it on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Some people were saying “change this, change that” while others said “this is a great opera for children” which it was not, and it was surprisingly successful. Suddenly what had been appreciated in Europe for decades, finally caught on here. After a while, I realized that it’s just one big, international scene. A lot of things were done and not done, said or not said. When you’ve enjoyed the longevity that I’ve had, you get to play with the greatest of every country, explore and evolve.
PHAWKER: I know you come from an eclectic background. Your parents were pioneering, progressive types in many respects. They were both singers. Your mom was a very popular Candy Girl DJ for KNDI in Waikiki Beach, so you got exposed to all kinds of music. Can you recall the first record that inspired you to play?
DAVE BURRELL: I had very good parents and they were trying to get me on the right track. They had to do their thing, so most of the time we were together. We had to be to survive. I went to lectures, musical rehearsals, and I didn’t mind being with them. My mom hosted a radio show, where she played the latest jazz records, but she also played classical music, Southeast Asian music and folk music. I had a rough time with bullies, because they hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me. So my parents put me in martial arts classes at this community center. Everyone one there was so warm and friendly. The curriculum at this center was very sound, and my mom thought, “piano lessons”. I wasn’t ready to take piano lessons but I went with it. We didn’t have much furniture, but we had a ukulele and a 33 and 1/3 hi-fi that played LPs. There was one LP of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin etudes. I didn’t have any friends, so I’d listen to it over and over and I would think “I could never do that” but I loved piano and was really into what he was doing. Later on I realized that he was one of the best in the world, that that body of work by Chopin was very significant to piano repertoire and something that I would later play and enjoy the process of learning myself.
PHAWKER: Hawaii, while beautiful and rich with history, is a very isolating place, hundreds of miles from the mainland. Having spent a good part of your childhood there, how did you get off the island to make your musical mark?
I remember as a kid, hearing older kids saying, “I gotta get off this rock, I got Rock fever”. It was seeping up on me because when I got to my teens, I was very aggressive, wild, no respect for authority. I did learn how to play piano well enough to have my own R&B band. We always had gigs on army and military bases. I was on TV and local variety shows every Saturday afternoon, but I couldn’t play jazz. I had a friend who could play jazz, but he learned it from a teacher who played guitar. I wanted a teacher for piano that could teach me jazz, especially chords and I found one. He was a man who played with Miles Davis, named Ernie Washington, the king of piano in Waikiki. He had his own club, too. And when Count Basie and the like came through from Japan, they went to his club. I’d be in the back playing all night, while they’d be up front reminiscing. I began studying music at the University of Hawaii. 2 years later, I went off to study at Berkeley College of Music in Boston. I moved to New York in the mid 1960s, I had an array of bands to choose from, I was doing my solo and duo stuff. I had a good experience and was lucky on getting grants. I got involved with teaching, bringing downtown musicians to teach in Harlem like Gato Barbieri. I became rundown in NY, made a lot of foolish mistakes in business and didn’t stick with the people that were helping me. I was being offered 3 year contracts, but they got frustrated with me for being unreliable. I couldn’t stay there and do what they wanted; I needed to find out more. One thing would taper off, something else would pick up and I didn’t really have any control over my destiny. I needed someone to tell me “that’s enough of that, you need to get your repertoire going so you can go out and make a living”. I walked up and down Broadway and auditioned. I got a gig as a solo pianist at a supper club where nobody was listening to me, but I got to play away, standards and tunes like “Misty”, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”, that kind of thing. Meanwhile at night, I was terrorizing the Loft Scene on the lower East Side and Brooklyn clubs like The Eastern. There was a lot of misinformation, a lot of ignorance. Certain people weren’t allowed into clubs to play., people like Elvin Jones got turned away. With radio stations like WBAI and WKCR in existence, the movement that Martin Luther King had cultivated and Bob Dylan playing at the Million Man March, on TV it seemed like “Oh, everybody’s cool”, but then you went to get a job somewhere, and the establishments were ice cold. After a while, it became more clear that I should be playing with or having groups that went to Europe and join the Civil Rights Movement.
PHAWKER: You’ve been commissioned by the Rosenbach to do several projects, most recently a 5-part research project on the Civil War. You began that journey focusing on Civil War Heroes, and are now on part 2 called Civilians During War Time. Telling the tales of those away from the battlefield, but living in intense fear and uncertainty. How do you approach a project of this magnitude and complexity? What compositional challenges did that present?
DAVE: I went into the reading room at the Rosenbach and said to myself “I don’t know anything about this other than what I learned in high school, and that was not very much. Who’s going to mentor me, guide me?” That person became the librarian, Elizabeth Fuller, among others. I talked to people at the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Union League, searched through their collections. There were a lot of circumstances to consider. There was 9 months of research, wrote 6 pieces totaling 45 minutes. It’s an intimate, saloon-style setting with me on piano and violinist Odessa Balan. The first piece, “Have You Seen My Son?” stems from the libraries collections of letters from sons to their families. Some were never heard from because you couldn’t rely on the mail system. If your son went off, you might never see him again and maybe he never fought, he could’ve been killed on the way down to, for example, Alabama to join a regiment. The letters showed this fear of “What should we do?” A conflicted, anxious feeling of wanting to be patriotic but also being fully aware that what was happening was shameful. There’s “Three-Way Tie” which is about the connection of the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission with the Civil War that I had never heard of. The fourth piece called “Mama, I’m Still Hungry” focuses on families both in the North and South. It could be a slave family, a regular family from the south with no slaves or one participating in the fighting machine. Moms were forced to stretch out what little they had. I thought that I would write a letter to myself pretending to be a boy with a little sister. I know she’s hungry, I’m hungry and mom would give us what she had, but I’d give it back to her, even though my stomach is grumbling. I’m in tears, but mama can’t do anything about it until papa comes back. As a composer, I’d always be thinking “Is it Blue enough? Is it Dark enough?” “Code Name: Cheap Shot” is about female civilian spies and we use the Morse code sound. We needed a theme song to represent the entire war, and that became a song called “One Nation”. It’s a march that as it grows, becomes more contrapuntal to represent the years going by. I took a motif from “Yankee Doodle” to represent the North, and I took motif from “Dixie” to represent the South. I found out Lincoln had been banned “Dixie” countrywide, and it couldn’t be performed until the war ended. We play with that, a brief drum roll followed by an improvisation of the free jazz idiom. The hope of this exhibit is that it will open eyes and minds, for the audience to leave inspired. We want people to look further, to encourage question and answer discussion as well.
PHAWKER: Switching gears, you’ve got a highly anticipated upcoming duo performance with Dutch drummer/band leader Han Bennink on Jan 30th presented by Ars Nova Workshop and the Philadelphia Art Alliance. A welcome return to the music you began exploring in the 60s. How did that come about? Have you played with him before?
DAVE: Back in Paris, when you were called in to do a session, you just said, “Yes”. After you said yes and you show up to, like, a radio station and the piano is far away from everyone else, you don’t get to look around to see who came in. I found out later that on some of those sessions, Anthony Braxton came in for instance. It might’ve been like that with Han, but I’m not sure. You knew these French or Dutch or South African musicians were good, but not much else. You just played together and enjoyed what you had in common. Anyway, with regard to the future, I was thinking recently to myself “well, what’s left for me to do here in America, play Supper Clubs?” I don’t wanna fade out; I wanna go further. And then this show came up. To be doing with Han Bennink , he’s the ideal survivor from around the time I was in Europe. I know a little bit about him from other Dutch players, saw him in Italy three years ago. He’s a drummer, actually multi-instrumentalist and composer. So with this collaboration, hopefully we can get out of it what everyone is expecting from it. I never want to disappoint. I‘m going to say during the sound check “Let’s go in this direction” and do whatever Hans wants to do, see how that comes into my world and vice versa. It’s going to be a lot of fun.