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Jazz Pianist Dave Burrell to Perform Portraits of Civil War Heroes

Pianist to premiere suite in conjunction with exhibit at Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia

Dave Burrell
Dave Burrell
The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia
Elizabeth E. Fuller and Dave Burrell in reading room of Rosenbach Museum & Library

Dave Burrell knows a lot about the Civil War. Although no historian, the pianist has done enough research to support a doctoral thesis. Recently, the Philadelphia-based pianist was commissioned by the Rosenbach Museum & Library to compose a piece of music in conjunction with its upcoming exhibit on the Civil War. The exhibit is called The Civil War Begins and will feature:

• Eyewitness drawings by newspaper correspondents at the trial of John Brown.

• Robert E. Lee’s letter to Winfield Scott resigning from the U.S. Army and vowing “save in the defense of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.”

• Contemporary newspapers relaying breaking news of the attack on Fort Sumter.

• The letter book of the Confederate Commissioners who were sent to Washington in 1861 to win recognition for the Confederacy.

• A detailed official report on the Battle of Manassas by the commanding Confederate general P.G.T Beauregard.

The result of over a year of thorough research and exploration, Burrell’s suite of music is Portraits of Civil War Heroes. He will be performing the work at the opening of the exhibit on the evening of Wednesday, January 19 and a matinee on Saturday, January 22.

This is not the first time Burrell has worked with the Rosenbach on a cross-genre project, devoted to America’s past and their collection. Four years ago, he was asked to compose music connected to their exhibition, “Slavery in the Americas.” Burrell spent nearly a year researching the subject of slavery, looking at newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, with the result being a piece he called “Bill of Sale for a Slave.” In addition to Burrell on piano, it featured two Nigerian drummers. The response was so favorable that the Rosenbach then asked Burrell to be an artist-in-residence. His next assignment was to write compositions on the poems of Marianne Moore and that was followed by a commission on the Western expansion of the United States. “Each project is a year long,” says Burrell.

For the current Civil War exhibit at the Rosenbach, Burrell wrote five compositions for piano and violin in the form of portraits of Civil War heroes, including John Brown (alive and dead), Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Elmer Ellsworth (the first man to die in the war).

Burrell clearly takes these commissions quite seriously in terms of research and preparation. “I hadn’t studied about the Civil War since high school and what I was able to do was to work with the excellent librarian, Elizabeth Ellen Fuller,” explains Burrell. “Elizabeth would come out of staff meetings and expose me to material in the reading room. I stayed in the reading room two days a week for approximately six months and from my notes I would start developing motifs and concepts. Myself, the librarian and the assistant director of education would throw the ideas back and forth. They would come by my apartment, listen to my progress and make comments which I would then take very very seriously of course. And if anything needed to be collaborated on or if they felt something was extraordinarily good, we would continue from that point.”

Burrell is very much a modern jazz musician, who came up in the ‘6os avant garde era, alongside the likes of Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp. So how does a 20th or even 21st century jazz musician conjure up the personalities and lives of 19th century figures? “First I took from my own family history. My family was born in a little town in Ohio, but a lot of that family came from Kentucky on my mother’s side and on my dad’s side, from New Orleans and Alexandria, Louisiana and from Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

Burrell had to go beyond his own family background to get a real sense of the time, place and people. But it didn’t happen overnight. “After many many hours of research that was piling up on the left and in the center, I realized that I had my own thoughts and feelings-some of them pre-determined and many of them much needed to be expanded upon. And then on the right, I had to figure out: How am I going to make this sound like it’s in fact a portrait of Elmer Ellsworth or a portrait of Robert E. Lee? Well, after reading and interviewing and going up to the Historical Society of New York City and seeing the conditions and listening to the Civil War series from the great filmmaker, Ken Burns, I realized that the kind of chord structure that could be expanded on would be the kind of chord structure that’s basically a 1/4/5. And I would put the violin in another key to have a distant motif of one of the buglers actually in the field-whether in the Union Army or in the Confederate Army-and have that dissonance in a rhythm of a march of that timeframe/time period. So that was one approach.”

The figure of John Brown is one of the more complicated in this country’s history. Martyr, visionary, lunatic, extremist…his role as catalyst has often been lost in the fog of the war that followed. Burrell decided to get to the heart of the matter, literally. “With John Brown’s hanging, I took his heartbeat as my central focus and from the heart beat came the lack of a heart beat. I took into consideration the pros and cons of his hanging-the justices and the injustices that he had inflicted on Americans and I used the rhythms of hoofbeats. I used the imagery of a rope swinging and so on. A lot of what is established in that kind of a portrait of a Civil War hero is the first the emulation of church fields and then that painful scenario of a public hanging. By the time I had gotten three months into researching, I started actually to go to the piano with my motifs.”

Given the commission of “Portraits of Heroes,” Burrell was faced with having to narrow down the subjects in the face of a vast amount of material. “Some of the heroes are very well-known while some of the others are less well-known. The project was very interesting and revealing. I was very honored and proud to be assigned to this project. I’m actually now a lot better at it then when I started because now I can research it like a machine. When I first started, it was work, but now it’s very interesting to dive into any book about the Civil War. For instance, there was a book recommended to me about the music of the Civil War and how the blues came through the Civil War and was actually born through jazz and ragtime and how I could actually hear how that could be possible. It carried a lot more weight for me as a jazz musician and helped me with other areas of my international concert life.”

As an African-American and a native Northerner, it couldn’t be easy for Burrell to view the storied conflict with any objectivity. The pianist and composer recognized that he had to look beyond his own heritage and his own values to musically represent those 19th century figures. “Yes, I took that into consideration,” he confirms. “Many times I was shocked, surprised or even hurt personally. But professionally I realized that I wasn’t representing myself. All of those feelings came to the surface. It was very emotional for me. Finally I said to myself, ‘Look, I’m not on either side-I’m researching…I’m looking at it from above and I’m looking down at both sides and I see the injustices of all wars.’ I was able to do that, although not immediately. Thankfully I had support from some very giving and knowledgeable experts at the museum.”

Naturally, you can’t talk about the Civil War without talking about Abraham Lincoln, even if he isn’t one of the “heroes” portrayed in Burrell’s compositions. “I could hear stories about Lincoln’s power, about Lincoln’s feelings and about what they thought about him in a certain state. And also why that conflicted with what I learned in high school. But I started from the very beginning and how he came out of the backwoods and became a lawyer and so on and ran for legislature in Illinois. I was very surprised that people didn’t like him in many instances and I started to see how it paralleled politics today.”

War is after all a sadly universal concept and Burrell eventually drilled down to that very tragic reality. “It went on and on-the reasons beyond the wars and the money that fuels the wars and the countries that were affected, not only the United States. So I immediately stopped being thin-skinned to go on with my research and make portraits of Civil War heroes that could really be deeply truthful and acceptable to all Americans.”

As a Civil War buff myself, I can help but ask what revelations he may have had about those so-called heroes, as a result of his extensive research. “With Robert E. Lee, for example, I found out about the lineage of his family. His family history was so rich and deep, going back to 5th and 6th century England. Later the family spread out over Virginia and owned much of that state. And I learned how his father had been a hero before him and yet somehow ended up very much a disappointment in the eyes of the family. So Robert had to come through all that-the pride and heritage that was so much more important to him than it seemed to be for Ulysses S. Grant, for example who never really dwelled on his family’s legacy. Everyone’s family had come basically from the same place and yet then had taken different turns. There were differences and similarities with both of them going to West Point, with Lee becoming an engineer and Grant becoming a real soldier, during the Mexican War when they met for the first time. I was surprised to find out that Lee had even been asked by the White House to be the Commander-in-Chief for the Union Army. But he couldn’t do that because of his pride and heritage. And of course, when the states started to secede, he knew exactly where this might lead.”

But in all his research Burrell also learned about the real-life men behind the headlines of history. “We forget that these statues and monuments and heroes are also human beings,” says Burrell. “But you see it clearly, when you read the letters back and forth from the families that the museum has preserved.”

Okay, enough talk about Civil War history. This is a jazz magazine after all. Let’s talk about the music. How do you make music in this century about events in the 19th century? “Before ragtime, blues, jazz and what eventually became labeled as gospel/spirituals, you had the marches and the European influence in the fiddle-something like what we’re now experiencing with one of America’s biggest and original gifts to the world. I was really happy when I turned a corner. Having studied the music of Jelly Roll Morton a decade earlier and having the privilege to play at the Library of Congress and working with Anna Lomax, the daughter of Alan Lomax, I came to understand the way that the music of the Civil War evolved. The strains and phrases and motifs in the musical sense were very interesting to me because the music that was played at the dances, before the young men went off to war. Say if you were up in Buffalo, you went to a dance and your young man was leaving, you’d dance all night to something that was very much a 32-bar waltz . You didn’t know if you were going to see him again when he went off as a volunteer with some company. And, the letters of the generals and the ranking officers that are in the Rosenbach’s collection were very revealing.”

Interestingly, Burrell has no specific plans to record all of this creative musical work. In talking with him about the project, it becomes clear that he thinks only of the commission and the work at hand. “The music is still very new. In many cases, I had written too much-it was a lot of fluff. Often I had to go back and listen and think: ‘Oh, this is going on too long a period of time – this is not necessary.’ For a portrait, I realized it should only be half that much. Finally, it came to the point where I could call the violinist and have her come over and we would actually record it and listen to it and call the museum, sometimes over the telephone, with a motif for their approval. I’ve enjoyed so much having been brought in to what often they already knew and yet were anxious to share with me because they saw I had such a passion for the work at hand.”

That passion on Burrell’s part led to a particular sort of enlightenment few musicians get to experience. “The takeaway on so many different levels is overwhelming and you don’t want to see the country do anything except prosper further,” says Burrell. “There are so many different sides to the passion. As the centuries roll along, say, so many people are coming through with their new baggage and very few have the time or privilege to go back and see what we’re talking about in our conversation.”

Imagine trying to capture a war, a real war, with music. Imagine what that really would sound like. Burrell has done his best to do just that. In the process he came to see that his background in avant garde music was an apt training ground for the cacophony of war. “It’s very significant for me to have a much stronger foundation. Sitting with the avant garde mindset it makes a lot more sense to me because there are avant garde solos within the context in these piece. Like the hoofbeats coming from a distance when they finally got to where they were surrounding the cavalry or the army. And in some instances became deafening or the gunshots or the cannon. The direct link and the imagery between music and what you want to extract from history and insert into the music was very revealing and a process that did not come very easily.”

The sound of brass and drums provided Burrell with a unique link between music and war. “I hadn’t thought about it in that way until I thought about the polytonality of the drum and bugle corps coming over the hill to announce that the army was right behind them. War and music, especially in this war, went together like hand and glove. You can imagine the cannon fire, the music, the shouting, the muskets, the terror and the emotions… the fear of the soldiers waiting in silence; waiting and hoping to succeed in an ambush or waiting to be massacred in many cases. But how do you get that down into composition?”

Burrell drew upon his own past watching a friend go through the painstaking process of creating visual art, in order to understand how to construct these musical portraits. “When I was at Berklee College of Music in the early ’60’s, I had a friend in Boston who was in art school. I’d go over to his place in the morning and I’d see him working on the anatomy of a human hand. Later, I’d come back and see hundreds of balls of paper on the floor. They overflowed beyond the wastebasket where he was trying to perfect this hand that he had started early at breakfast. I thought about that and realized that, well, okay, you just don’t get it the first time…you have to keep going.”

For this particular project, Burrell leaned heavily on the sound of a violinist-Odessa Balan-who collaborated with him every step of the way. “We had worked together at Temple University on a dance project. I thought this sound is good enough and interesting enough to be used on other projects. She was very interesting then and even more so today.”

Even though a project like this involves such a large commitment of his time and focus, Burrell is grateful to the Rosenbach for the commission, which he believes furthers his own development as a creative musician and connects the dots between the other projects. “The Rosenbach Museum brought me a lot of closure on a lot of what I was looking at through the decades. They gave me an opportunity to really study the material deeply and build on some concepts that were just starting to get solidified at the beginning of this decade. It was a fascinating place for me to work as a jazz musician. I feel like I’ve come a long way over the last four years as a composer.”

So is pianist/composer Burrell now a pianist/composer/historian? “I’d like to be thought of really as the first two. In order to be able to do these projects, I have to do research, but I don’t consider myself to be historian, at least in the way of the Ph.D. But if there’s enough trust in me as a composer to be able to present portraits of Civil War heroes and have the kind of feedback that I would like to get…well, I will be very satisfied after the upcoming concerts in January.”

The Rosenbach Museum & Library is located at 2008-2010 Delancey Place in Philadelphia and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students and free for children under 5. For more information about this exhibit and performance, you can call (215) 732-1600 or visit their website.

Originally Published