A half century of American music

Sam Smith
2004

Last evening I went to a party for fellow musicians given by singer and trombonist Dave Burns, who for more than three decades and 2,000 gigs has headed the Hot Mustard Jazz Band, a fixture in the Washington area. Burns has been singing since the age of two when, in Pineville Kentucky “they’d put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I’d sing songs for a penny.”

As the Princeton Alumni Weekly explained it, “Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A ‘voracious reader,’ he realized he’d need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California – and Princeton. ‘I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn’t disappoint them,’ he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fulbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service.”

I realized when I looked around the room that I was looking at a half century of American music. There was the sainted Keeter Betts who has played bass for just about everyone in jazz locally and nationally, clarinetist Wally Garner who recalled playing with Louis Armstrong, the jazz writer Royal Stokes and musicians with whom I had shared gigs like Gary Wilkerson and Don Rouse. All of us were playing in the 1950s and some even earlier.

It struck me later was what an atypical Washington evening it was. I gave up my own band seven years ago and I had kind of forgotten what a pleasant, friendly bunch of people jazz musicians can be. All those breaks; all those conversations. I suspect it has something to do with the genre, which requires both individuality and cooperation, something I once described this way:

“The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one.

“The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both. Here’s how Wynton Marsalis describes it: ‘Jazz is a music of conversation, and that’s what you need in a democracy. You have to be willing to hear another person’s point of view.'”

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