In 1993 Don Burrows was part of an Australian fly-fishing team competing in Cuba. The members were in their hotel bar when a local band began to play, and, Burrows – being Burrows – had a flute on him, and joined in. The amazed musicians asked through an interpreter how he knew the songs. Burrows explained that some he’d heard on radio, and otherwise he was a jazz musician just using his ears. The Cubans were keen to play more, but the competition took Burrows away for the next week.
Upon his return the musicians were waiting on the hotel steps to bundle him into what he described as “a terrible old car, with bits falling off it”, taking him to a classic swing-door cantina in central Cuba.
“We went in,” he told me for a 1998 Herald interview, “and there’s all these little round tables, and to my astonishment there’s a band at every table. They’d told every bunch of musicians for miles around that this guy from the other side of the world must be a pro, he knows our songs, and will play with anybody. So they’ve all come, and they’ve been waiting all bloody afternoon. They had a microphone set up in the middle of the little dance floor, and they’re sort of giving me the idea: ‘You stand there. Every band wants to play two tunes with you.'”
Burrows was both exhilarated and exhausted by the end. “The thing that touched me was this was the bond of music,” he said. “They didn’t know me, but the fact I’d just gone up and started playing with them was enough. I’m one of them, you see? And it led to that unforgettable night.”
That story encapsulates much about Burrows, who has died at the age of 91: the eagerness to engage, share and communicate through music, and the easy warmth with which this was done. As a consequence he arguably did more than anyone to popularise jazz in Australia.
Donald Vernon Burrows was born in Sydney’s inner west on August 8, 1928, the only child of Vernon and Beryl. By the age of four he was using his mother’s comb and tissue paper to play along with music on the radio, and remembers Russ Colombo’s melodramatic Paradise as the first song he learned. He progressed to tin whistle and ukulele while attending Bondi Public School, where, when he was nine, he heard flute virtuoso Victor McMahon, and was hooked. His parents bought a little black wooden flute on instalment – which Burrows would play at Carnegie Hall in 1972. He rang his mother after that concert to tell her it had been a pretty good investment. She was in tears at the news.
The Gypsy swing of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli were early influences. Burrows had success in talent quests and on children’s radio, and progressed to the clarinet, performing in public three weeks after acquiring one. At 15 he began playing in Sydney’s nightclubs, soon abandoning school because he was working six nights a week. His first recordings, made in 1944 with George Travare’s Australians, sold prolifically in England.
He joined the ABC Sydney Orchestra and ABC Dance Band, worked in studios, radio and television, composed and continued to play live jazz. In 1959 he began a partnership with guitarist George Golla that lasted for 38 years. Their various bands toured Asia, North America, Europe and Australia. A notable incarnation, with bassist Ed Gaston and drummer Alan Turnbull, was the first Australian band to perform at both the Montreux and Newport jazz festivals.
Over the years Burrows played with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Stephane Grappelli, and said he could be “as nervous as a cat” in such company, although most listeners could only hear his seeming effortlessness. He inhabited a stage as though it were was his living room: the persona affable, the chat good-humoured, and the playing on any of his 15 instruments (by my count) able to speak to a wide audience. The music, itself, was broad, if usually restrained, with his sinuous clarinet curling through New Orleans jazz, a saxophone crooning across a swing tune, or his flute wafting over a bossa nova. Burrows was probably at his finest doing the latter, especially on alto flute.
He held a six-year residency at the Wentworth Hotel in the 1970s, before moving to the Regent’s Don Burrows Supper Club. In 1973 he was the first Australian jazz musician to earn a gold record for his album Just the Beginning, and in the same year, concerned about waning live performance opportunities for young players, he initiated the Jazz Studies course at Sydney Conservatorium, and took over running it in 1980. His emphasis – practical rather than academic – was to let “the two ears on either side of your head be your teachers”. The course’s impact has been monumental, nurturing almost every significant Sydney jazz musician of the last 45 years.
For six years from 1981 he presented live jazz performances on ABC TV’s The Don Burrows Collection. Meanwhile awards and acknowledgements flowed in: AO, MBE, National Living Treasure, ARIA Music Awards Hall of Fame, to name a few. Some elements of Burrows’ vast contribution flew under the radar, however, such as providing music education to people in remote communities. He usually visited each place for a week, and loved witnessing the children’s exhilaration at playing in a cohesive musical unit.
His outback adventures dovetailed perfectly with his love of photography, for which the Imaging Council of Australia made him Special Ambassador. As with the fly-fishing, Burrows applied a commitment to excellence that echoed his musical ethos. In 2008 he told radio presenter Andrew Ford that if he was “playing to one child under a tree in Arnhem Land, I’d still be trying as hard as I would anywhere else”.
Other important musical relationships across his career included with pianists Julian Lee and Kevin Hunt and with multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. Morrison went from Con student to band-member to peer and close friend. Burrows’ final album, In Good Company (2015), was made with Morrison and bassist Phil Stack. Morrison fondly remembers the way he looked when he played: “A smile that said he was doing what he loved, and a glint in his ye that meant he couldn’t believe his luck to be a jazz musician.”
In 2004 he moved from his beautiful Church Point home in northern Sydney to Paynesville, Victoria, and there, as the arthritis with which he had been afflicted since he was 38 worsened, took up trombone and bass trumpet. “It’s true that arthritis is not the greatest for playing a musical instrument,” he once quipped. “But playing a musical instrument is very, very good for arthritis.”
In 2013 he suffered a stroke that paralysed his left side, and was diagnosed with dementia soon afterwards. Morrison helped him to start playing again, back where it all began on flute. Morrison and his wife Judi were pivotal in Burrows’ final years, which were spent near them in Sydney. Although married and divorced twice (with two estranged children from the first marriage), his true family consisted of fellow musicians.