Ronnie Burrage stepped into the jazz scene when he debuted at the age of 8 years old, when the legendary bandleader and pianist, Duke Ellington invited him on the stage to accompany him at a performance in St. Louis, Missouri. Over thirty-five years later, he has stamped the genre as one of the most sought after drummers in the world by some of the greatest musicians who have ever lived. Legends such as Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, McCoy Tyner, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Jaco Pastorius, Frank Morgan, Pepper Adams, Pat Metheny, Archie Shepp and many others have required his versatile talent and skill on the drums.
Recently, I sat down with my longtime friend to have a long overdue conversation about his life and music in jazz. It came just at the right time following the latest release of his seventh album on his label, Mimikalana Records, Heal. It is a revolutionary, multi-genre project fueled by his signature approach, compositions and technique, with his new band, Band Burrage. The personnel, Rick Tate on alto saxophone, Eric Slaughter, guitar; Nimrod Speaks, bass; Shenel John, vocals; Cajon Djembe, percussion; DJ “Talk” Sean Prosser; and the great Henry Grimes on bass, collectively bring an uplifting energy not often found in music today.
There are drummers and then there are drummers! Ronnie’s drumming skill and timing are rare and full of high octane, it is of no coincidence that he remains at the top of his craft.
Gigi Brooks: Lets start from the very beginning of your life in music. You’ve been playing drums since you were about 8 years old?
Ronnie Burrage: Yes, around there. I did a concert with Duke Ellington when I was nine and from there things started to take shape. I wanted to be involved in the music.
Gigi: That’s wonderful! How did that happen for you? Duke Ellington is one of the greatest composers, bandleaders and pianists who ever lived! How did that happen where you had the opportunity as a child to be in his presence and asked to perform with him?
RB: He was bringing people into the Word of God through his Revival Orchestra and he was doing concerts with choirs and his big band. When they got to St. Louis, I think at that time he was traveling with his nephew and the little child got sick. So, when they came through St. Louis, my aunt was working at the university and somewhere down the wire they held auditions and there were 100 kids who auditioned and he chose me.
Gigi: That is fantastic ! What was it about you that he saw and heard?
R.B.: I have no clue…I’ve gotta be honest! I was nine years old…I have no clue! [laughs]
R.B.: All I know is that I’m so blessed from that experience, because, you know, at that time I was aware of his music, because my grandfather and uncles and other people in my family played Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington was a household name. So, I knew his name…but again, I didn’t know so much of who he was…I was too young. After that experience, later on in my teens, I started to research who he was, that’s why it was such a blessing to me. I had the opportunity to meet him one other time and before I said something to him, he knew who I was from that time when I was a kid. Also, learning about him and all of the languages and everything that he did for his band members and being such a prolific composer and a caring bandleader, impacted me and is part of who I am by learning his legacy.
Gigi: That was a priceless experience for you at such a young age. What was it about the drums that attracted you so early in life?
R.B.: I don’t know. I remember my uncle saying I was always beating on pots and pans and all that stuff. My mother is the oldest of five and she played the piano, which is also a percussionist. I also started on the piano at the same time, but my heart was more on the drums. I wasn’t too much of an aggressive little kid, but I liked to beat on things. My uncle, Noel, gave me my first snare drum, so after playing that to death, they got me my first small drum kit for kids and boy I tore that up in like two days! [laughs]. Then eventually I got another set of drums, you know, a real set of drums. I think the rhythm…all of the rhythm, because I like to multitask as you know, my mind is all over the place and to be able to have the different sounds and tones of the drums, cymbals and other types of percussion to play is what really drew me into the music. It’s what I’m supposed to do.
Gigi: Looking at all of the things you’ve done in this industry, especially jazz, not many jazz drummers have become as successful as you have. I have to ask what you’ve done or what things were in place for you to help you attain the level of success that you have? It’s not very easy to go from level one to ten in jazz. Jazz is an art form and very unique in the sense that even though we have many musicians who play very well, not many reach your level of success. Tell me what you’ve done over the years and how you were able to travel and play with some of the greatest jazz legends of our time?
R.B.: I don’t think it was me so much as again, it was my calling into the music. I have to go back and give a lot of the credit to my family, because there was so much music in the house. I grew up listening to so many different styles of music, not just jazz; but what drew me to jazz at a very young age was the fact that it was freedom. It was FREEDOM! This is the music where I can express myself more than any other idiom. That being said, once I set my goals on various artists to work with, I believe that God made a path for me to be able to be in their presence and for them to like the energy that I possess when I play music. There is a level of energy, intensity and concentration in playing jazz. Like you said the other night when we were talking about how people involved in physics and science ultimately come to get into the music, they look to jazz. Jazz the music itself…it’s so interesting, because it’s a natural progression for freedom, but it’s also a very high level, scientific type of music when you start to learn the different emotions and the different ways to interpret harmony and melody in jazz through your musicality, it becomes very high level. So, for me that’s what drew me to the music and like I said when I had my eyes set on playing with people like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Fortune, there was nothing that was going to keep me from playing with them. [laughs]
R.B.: When I got to New York I think they understood that kind of energy was there and they related to it, so I got an opportunity to play with them as well as others. Primarily, again I have to give the credit to my family for introducing me to so much music at a young age. You know, being in St. Louis you have so many great musicians who are not just jazz musicians, you have people who are great musicians in the church and then Rhythm and Blues and Funk is big…Rock n’ Roll…all of those types of genres of music I grew up playing and playing them not just so I could have a gig, but really playing the music and understanding it. Again, for me jazz just opened up, there were no limits to it. It is the ultimate way of expression and freedom.
Gigi: You’ve toured the world with the greatest jazz legends who have walked this planet. What is it that you bring to the table that they were looking for in a drummer? They’ve wanted you on their recordings and their tours; they could have chosen to work with someone else. Why do you think so many of them have chosen you?
R.B.: I think from the relationships and talking to the artists who I’ve played with…it’s again my energy level. When I play music I don’t hold back…it’s my ultimate opportunity to play to the best of my ability each time I perform. I think with most of the artists I’ve worked with, especially Woody Shaw and Jaco Pastorious, what they required from me was to play like I’ve never played before. I believe some of the things which happened in the industry, changed that type of attitude and has been outlawed. A lot of musicians are profiling, they’re not really not putting their whole self into the music, they’re playing to a certain level or they’re playing things to get the audience revved up, but it’s not anything that’s musically taking the music to a higher level. I want to advance the music every time I play. I don’t want to play the same way I played the night before. I want to take the night before as a platform to go higher. So, I think most of the artists who I’ve played with are that vested in the music…at that time period was what I was able to give them, we were able to interact on that level.
Gigi: With that experience you’ve taken on another form in your own right as a bandleader, although you’ve been in this for a very long time. However, I’d like to point out specifically your work with Band Burrage and the history of your work for over 35 years. What have you found in the members of your band that you needed to make it work?
R.B.: I think what I really look for in musicians and artists who work with me is the commitment to the music. Again, they must have that drive to want to do something different and not just be looked at as just an ordinary vocalist or saxophonist; what they bring to the table in my music is an original voice. I don’t look for artists who sound like other artists. I look for artists who are developing their own voice. Again, from what I got from other people who were really close friends of mine who have gone on like Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, Dannie Richmond, Freddie Waits…these drummers who had their bands brought young musicians onto the scene and allowed them to develop who they were in terms of their voice and their sound. Through Art Blakey everybody came…Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard and all of these legends.
Gigi: Art Blakey was your mentor.
R.B.: Yes, he was my mentor and a very close friend. What I look for is artists who are not really that developed. I don’t like that real smooth sound, I still want the rawness. What I liked about Jackie McLean, until he passed away, was that he sounded like a young musician, because he was not afraid to try something new every time. So, you hear that edge in his sound, it wasn’t like that totally refined smooth sound. I don’t want that. I want something RAW! I like my musicians to hone their craft to where they can get to the things they want to get to, but not necessarily sound like they were trained to get to it. Instead, come to it through the experience of playing and the experience of life. The way I compose and play, I bring everything that I’ve experienced into a composition or the way I perform, it’s not where I’m performing some technical piece of music and then we all have to come together and play it like that. I’ll talk about a concept of what a song is about and share my experience of what made me write that composition and I like musicians who can interpret it through their own voice.
Gigi: Speaking of Art Blakey, share with us your years with him. I remember some of the funny stories you told me. Will you share some of them that we can print? [laughs]
R.B.: [Laughs] Oh Yeah! You gotta be careful with Buhaina boy! [laughs]
Gigi: That was his nickname?
R.B.: Yeah, Buhaina. We had great times. There was a period when I was with McCoy Tyner, we had over a year or so when we were playing opposite each other a lot. Either Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers would open for McCoy Tyner or vice versa, there was never a set way which was great, because sometimes you want to play…what I appreciated about Miles was that he never played behind anybody, he would open up the concert no matter what it was. So, I understand that concept too, you know? You play and set the level up here and then whoever is coming afterwards would have to raise the bar. While we were on the road, Buhaina and I would talk every day, not always just about music, but about life; that’s where you learn to bring your experience to the table when you’re playing music. We had a lot of different situations where we were playing…and I remember when we were sitting a the table at a dinner and afterwards he said, “Yeah, I’m gonna play somethin’ you’ve been tryin’ ta’ play.” [laughs] I was like, “What are you talkin’ about?’ So, we get to the concert and he’s playing before we play, I’m sitting there on the side of the stage looking at the band and listening and grooving. Then he does this thing around the drums “da da da da da doom!” and he looked at me and licked out his tongue and said “Ah, hah!”. I’m like, ‘that’s exactly what I had been working on’! He did it like it was nothing! I’m like, “Okaaay!” [laughing]
R.B. : But…what he was showing me was how to move around the drums, the breathing and when to put it into the music, you know. We didn’t have those talks like “Yeah well… you’re going to do the drum fill here.” He would just demonstrate, because he was observing what I was doing and he saw the difficulty I was having with it, so then he just put it in one of his songs and then I was like “Oh! Now I get it!” Things like that you can’t explain in a book, you can’t notate it, you have to be there to get that experience and I got numerous experiences like that with Art Blakey and also with Elvin Jones. Anytime Elvin would play at the Village Vanguard in New York City…what happened in the Vanguard was like… the drums were here and right there was a row of seats along the wall. There was a drummer in every row! [laughs]. There was me, Billy Hart, Dannie Richmond, Al Foster and whoever! All of these great drummers always sitting there looking at Elvin. [laughs]
R.B. He played all of this incredible music, but you don’t go up to him and ask ‘how did you do that?’ You just have to observe, but what I would get from the conversations with Elvin was he would just talk about life. He’d say, “Well, how ya’ doin’? You know you swingin’ great, but you ain’t got no foot! Come by my house, I got a bass drum pedal for ya’… and by the way I got a cymbal, I think you’d swing better on it….” So, I’d go to his house and he’d give me this stuff…those were just beautiful experiences. [laughing]
Gigi: [Laughing] What a beautiful relationships you had with them. Let’s talk about your new release and seventh album, Heal with Band Burrage on your label Mimikalana Records.
R.B.: Yes, Mimikalana stands for my three daughters, my oldest, Michelle, my youngest, Mika and my middle, Alana.
Gigi: Let me brag on this album just a little, it is a beautiful and thought provoking project. There’s so much variety, it’s not just jazz or rock, it covers so many genres of music. It sounds like a labor of love for you. What place in your heart did it come from?
R.B.: It absolutely is a labor of love and healing…that’s why we called it Heal. Each composition represents a healing process. There were two compositions that I didn’t write, one from my bass player, Henry Grimes and then one from my saxophone player, Rick Tate. I don’t know how else to say it…it’s simply that.
Gigi: Let’s talk about the song “Martinique.”
R.B.: You’re right, the music is not just jazz. You know, from my influences and my experiences with all of the people who I’ve played with and the places I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to encompass them in these compositions. This particular recording was one I needed to do. I had been traveling to Martinique quite a bit and the festive energy I felt each time healed me from all of the things I was going through in my life. I wrote that composition to represent the feeling that it gave me and as a result we were able to perform it there before we recorded it and the people there went nuts over it. You can hear the island flavor and it allows you to be free and bop or dance to the music. Music that allows people to feel that kind rhythm…it heals them even though they may not realize it.
“In Nebular Nexus” takes us to a place where it’s kind of like the birth of a new planet or a star. The idea for it came from this festive atmosphere to then introspect, to think about a place that is new, like the birth of a star or “The Big Bang” or something. It is also a place of duality. You know I’m a big Sci-Fi fan, so there’s this part in one of the Star Trek episodes where they talk about the Nexus Ribbon, where you can see your life in this Ribbon and if you get in this Ribbon you never want to come out. It’s like a rebirth where you can see a place where you want to be in your life. I have to mention that I had the great Henry Grimes playing bass and violin on a piece of the record. A lot of jazz buffs probably know the story of him, he was Sonny Rollins’ bassist and recorded all of these phenomenal records and then he disappeared from the scene, nobody saw him for over twenty something years and then they found him and now he’s back on the scene. Henry and I had played a duet gig several months before, as I was working on this record and I so thought to myself Henry is like a baby, it’s like he’s living a rebirth of life every time he gets on his instruments. I thought what a perfect sound and energy he would bring to this introduction in the song. Henry and I created this great concert from nothing, we just started playing, something we had wanted to do for years. Anyway, I explained to him what the piece was about and I asked “Can you do this?” and he says, “Yeah!” I went to his house and picked him up and he was just like a little kid in the studio. I put the headphones on him and he’s doing these takes on the bass and his eyes were so big and I said “O.k. I’ve got enough Henry.” and he says “Can I do it again?” [laughs]
R.B.: I said “Yeah!” So he does it again and it’s better! I asked him to do some on the violin and it was the same experience every time he heard the music he brought something else to the piece, which made it hard for me to choose which take I wanted, because they were all great. It was a great experience for me having him in the studio and seeing his eyes so big and this big smile on his face; that in itself is a healing. Anytime you have that type of fulfillment in the music, something inside of you is healing. I’m hoping that piece can take people to a place where they can listen and reflect on their lives.
Gigi: The tracks on this album require the listener to open their minds and really think. It expresses the emotions of humanity and brings out the impurities of the world and then propels us back into a calm and a healing of all that has impaired us as a people in the earth. I believe this is one of your best recordings to date.
Tell me about your teaching at Penn State.
R.B.: Well, I’m a Professor of Arts and Humanities. Penn State is a “love-hate” relationship for me. I’m just being honest. [laughs] We started out where I did several master classes for different departments for Penn State: The School of Music, Integrative Arts and African and African American Studies. I was told that I would be hired for the School of Music. Unfortunately, after about six or eight months it didn’t happen, but I got a letter from the people in Integrative Arts and a department head from African and African American Studies and they appreciated what I did and that’s eventually how I started teaching at Penn State. I designed courses, one was called “A Closer World Through Art.” The students learned about different cultures through music, literature and actual arts studies. The premise of the course I created and designed was to expose the students…there’s a commonality amongst our cultures and it’s easily understood, once you understand various art forms, so that’s what that course was built on and it was successful. From there, I created and developed a “Hip-Hop, Music & Culture” course. It became very popular, I had upwards of ninety students each semester and of course it’s not about Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop was the title to get the students in there. It was an actual history course, mainly about American History and I used the music as the platform to show them the things we’ve gone through as an American culture. I developed a “Jazz and Poetry” course, which was supposed to be taught, but was not.
My teaching in universities started long before Penn State. Just the idea of me teaching is almost like playing music. I think the Lord had an idea for me to do this, because I love to teach, I didn’t know it at the time when I started. I think my first teaching experience at a university was because a good friend of mine, the great drummer, Billy Hart, had the opportunity to teach a jazz ensemble in Berlin, with a great vibraphonist, who played with Miles Davis named Dave Friedman. Billy Hart didn’t feel comfortable teaching. He was older than me, so I guess at that time he said, ‘There’s this young guy named Ronnie Burrage’, and I was in my early twenties and Dave said, “I know Ronnie.” So, he called me and I went to Berlin and taught for several months on the jazz ensemble. What was going on at that time was… in order to get your degree in music, you had to have jazz studies in Germany, we’ve since just caught up to that requirement in the American academic system.
Gigi: I didn’t know that.
R.B.: Yes, but this was back in the early 80’s. What’s so funny…it’s like there’s always these things happening in my life…like when I got to Penn State the principle bassist there was one of my students in Berlin. [laughs] He’s from Australia. After that I put together something with an Austrian musician, where we taught at the University of St. Polten in Austria, we had that going on for a few years. I then was a substitute teacher at the New School in New York, for the great bassists, Buster Williams and Reggie Workman, teaching different music classes and I loved it. I found out that it’s a really good calling for me to be able to teach music in a hands-on way, I don’t teach from books or academically, I teach from my experience. After that I taught at the University of Arts in Philadelphia for several years and then ended up at Penn State and so it’s been a long trail of over twenty-five years teaching at various universities.
Gigi: You have a young student named Xavier Quartermain, you began teaching in 2007, who has become quite known.
R.B.: Yes. Xavier has been acknowledged and received a plaque from Quincy Jones and is a new and up and coming musician. He’s an exceptional talent, he plays keyboard and drums. I introduced him to that, because you know I do the drum and keyboard thing. He was actually taking drum lessons and dabbling at the piano, so I said to him, “Why don’t you put them together?”, so he started working on that and as a result he has devoted a lot more time to developing his keyboard skills.
Gigi: Thanks to you.
R.B.: Yes. There have been several musicians who have come through my tutelage, who are now great professionals.
Gigi: Why do you think they are afforded great opportunities after being under your tutelage?
R.B.: I think what I’ve instilled in them is to have a great appreciation for the music, first of all, and not to look at the music as a way to play gigs, but a way to express you inner feelings. I think they’ve all developed that.