Don Burrows, Australia’s most decorated jazz instrumentalist, died on March 20 and it is worth sketching out his significance.
Jazz is, self evidently, not readily associated with Australia, although there is a long history of it being played here, especially traditional jazz. Bands like the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band and the Red Onions were producing a version of Los Angeles traditional jazz from the early 1960s, generating large followings.
But if there has been a jazz superstar, it was Burrows. He came more out of the mainstream tradition of the 1950s: music that had swing but not the bebop tectonics and chromaticism of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. He became something of a jazz celebrity, an extremely uncommon achievement in Australia.
In the 1960s, he got a large following in Sydney and in the 1970s he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. About the same time, he had a gold record and a nationally televised show for six years, The Don Burrows Collection.
His greatest strength, and the reason for his popularity, was the quality of his sound. His main instrument was the clarinet, on which he had a liquid, sinuous tone that was world class. He also played the flute and alto flute. This writer, a jazz flautist (who first became aware of the instrument’s possibilities listening to recordings of Don Burrows) can attest that Burrows was the best “doubler” on the flute in the world.
Most reed players who play the flute really shouldn’t. Usually, they do not understand how to breathe properly on an instrument with no back pressure, and their embouchure (the way they hold their lips and mouth) is, frankly, rubbish. This is in part because of what happens to the lips when training for clarinet or saxophone. It works directly against what should happen to the lips when playing the flute.
These doublers’ execrable approach to the instrument is one reason why the flute has largely disappeared as a jazz instrument.
But Burrows was different. He had an outstanding tone on both the flute and alto flute. There are few purely jazz flautists who can get a sound on the alto flute like he did. If his improvised lines were rarely memorable or inspired, his sound was.
One reason is that Burrows understood, presumably from having had classical lessons, how to use the diaphragm properly. He also started out on a school fife, so had wrestled with a flute-like instrument early.
The instrument must also have “spoken to him”. He commented that being able to imagine how you want an instrument to sound is the main battle. In his case, it added up to world-class instrumentalism.
Burrows was mainly a player, not a composer, although he did some memorable collaborations with pioneer John Sangster, with whom he attempted to define an “Australian” jazz sound. It was, and is, a rather silly aspiration – trying to be “Australian” only affirms more strongly that jazz is American. Still, it led to some intriguing aesthetic explorations, especially in sound textures.
In the late 1970s, Burrows turned to teaching, possibly because it ensured more financial security than the fraught jazz world, and certainly because he had an appetite for mentoring – his most famous protégé of course being trumpeter James Morrison.
Burrows instigated the first jazz studies program in the southern hemisphere, at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, where he was appointed chair of Jazz Studies. This became emblematic of where jazz in Australia has headed for the last four decades.
Jazz was never commercially very successful, unlike Australian rock and pop music, which thrived in the so called “beer barns” during the 1970s and ’80s, making many of the musicians somewhere between a good living and a fortune. Jazz was always a fringe interest, as it has become even in its heartland, the United States.
So would-be jazz musicians have turned to education as a way out. To play jazz well requires a high level of technical and theoretical accomplishment and the universities, in offering training for that, have provided student musicians with a teaching qualification that has assured a steady living.
Problem is, it meant that the commercial connection with audiences mostly evaporated. Jazz has become even more of a fringe music, more academic than commercial.
David James is a Melbourne musician and writer.