The Bass Player … Has to Be the Strongest Musician: Remembering and Learning from Dwayne Burno


Last weekend, I learned of the passing of bassist Dwayne Burno at the age of 43. According to the obituary on the JazzTimes website, last week was the end of the musician’s long struggle with kidney disease (he had a transplant in 2010). I remember Burno as a kind, generous person off the bandstand and a consummate, thoughtful performer—accompanist and soloist—no matter the setting. He appears on countless recordings, from those by veteran and younger jazz artists to those by jazz-sympathetic hip-hop artists like Digable Planets (on Blowout Comb).

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Burno was outstanding even when he wasn’t slated to perform. On one memorable evening in November of 1994, I saw him in the audience at Bradley’s in New York for a performance by the Abraham Burton Quartet that I jokingly referred to as “Young Lions Night” in my notes. Dwayne Burno at the 2010 Chicago Jazz FestivalIn addition to the band (Burton on alto saxophone, Marc Cary on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums) and Roy Hargrove’s manager Larry Clothier, it seemed that every young (male) musician on the scene was in the club that night—Anthony Wonsey, Richie Goods, Don Edwards, Mark Whitfield and Ron Blake were among them. Of course, since it was the 2 a.m. set on a Sunday night/Monday morning and since most of the other musicians had finished weeklong or weekend engagements at other clubs, Bradley’s was the logical place for them to be if they weren’t ready to call it a night. And it was the lateness of the evening that made the date memorable. In the fifth tune of the set, an uptempo burner whose title I didn’t catch, Lundy started to look tired and motioned with his head toward Burno who was seated at the bar. Burno rose, walked over to the performance area, slipped past Cary and took a position directly behind Lundy, covering the latter’s left hand with his own and starting to finger pitches while pushing Lundy to the right. In a span lasting only two or three more beats, Burno had taken over playing bass altogether, and Lundy retired to the bar for a much-needed break. Burno wasn’t simply relief, however: he took the performance up several notches by selectively creating and releasing tension by playing around with the pulse and with pitches and inspiring Hutchinson to intensify matters in similar ways.

In accordance with that memory, I had long been thinking that I should point interested readers to the 2011 interview with Burno on pianist George Colligan’s Jazz Truth blog (which, among other items, also has an illuminating interview with Ralph Peterson, an underappreciated drummer, trumpeter, and educator ). If you care to know, reading the Burno interview will tell you more than most people might have ever guessed about how essential a bassist can be in the moment-to-moment unfolding of a jazz performance. Finally, if you’re at all interested in helping defray funeral and other expenses for Burno’s wife and seven-year-old son, this page will allow you make a donation. Otherwise, click through (and check out part two) to learn more about how a skilled and respected jazz bassist thinks about and approaches his art…

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