John Pietaro catches up with Ronnie Burrage to discuss his musical influences, St Louis's Black Artists Group, community outreach work and his most recent album Dance Of The Great Spirit
Ronnie Burrage sits at the house drumkit of Sista’s Place, the noted jazz haunt in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, leading eloquently from behind. A multi-instrumentalist wielding formidable piano skills, the kit bears an electronic keyboard hovering over its floor tom. Burrage tosses right-handed chords into the harmonic structure while maintaining a torrential rhythmic onslaught across three limbs. The evening, one of several the drummer crafted in honour of the late Hamiet Bluiett, ignites the capacity crowd. The band’s riveting take on the Bluiett classic “Oasis” culminates in a tireless montuno peppered by crushing accents which threaten, it seems, the very foundation of the room.
From St Louis, Missouri, Ronnie Burrage came of age during the height of Black Artists Group (BAG) which forged a unified mission for the arts and African American liberation. But BAG only furthered the path the drummer had largely been born into. “My paternal grandfather was Allan David Mahr, a rather unknown literary giant,” explains Burrage. Mahr was a predecessor and close associate of revolutionary writers Amiri Baraka and Shirley Le Flore. “My new album Dance Of The Great Spirit includes God’s Only Black Man, a poem he wrote 90 years ago. It’s in the archives of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill. It’s become a mantra for me”.
Burrage’s mother and five uncles were musicians and great uncle John Sanders, a saxophonist with Bessie Smith. Jam sessions were regular in the family home, exposing even the youngest to creative inspiration. “As a toddler, I was banging on pots and pans, then before age ten, began picking out melodies on piano.” He also sang with the St Louis Cathedral Choir and, at age nine, was chosen among hundreds of hopefuls to recite Sonnet Of The Apple with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra at Washington University. “I recall sitting on Mr Ellington’s piano bench. He was so kind.”
Following several years of piano studies, Burrage joined the local drum corps but engaged in no formal drum lessons. “I initially learned by watching St Louis’ great drummers up close. Joe Charles taught me how to play breakneck, which means swinging extremely fast and intense without exerting too much energy. Joe was known by Coltrane and, as he never left St Louis, subbed for Elvin on many mid-western gigs.”
Under the guidance of BAG, a cohort organisation of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), St Louis developed a creative community reflecting the wider Black Liberation Movement. Following a 1968 production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, BAG began presenting concerts, readings, dance and theatre works, exhibits, screenings and extensive tutelage in the arts, history and civil rights. “BAG programmes taught us the words of Malcolm X, King, Baraka, Angelou. It taught about the Black Panther Party and other organisations that were not radical but, rather, humane, just and egalitarian. They exposed many to beautiful black art, inspiring a sense of newness, fight, pride and standing tall,” Burrage reminisces. “Both BAG and the AACM were forged of the resistance against oppression, racism, control and stigma. They both were (and are) outlets for innovative artists needing to express themselves without limitation or stereotype. They both did work in the community to uplift people of colour and essentially anyone who wanted to be free and open about humanity.”
BAG was largely founded by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, saxophonist-flutist JD Parran and trumpeter Floyd LeFlore whose ensemble Third Circuit & Spirit featured trumpeter Baikida Carrol, guitarist Kelvyn Bell and trombone player Joseph Bowie. “Every show included the radical, socially conscious poetry of Shirley LeFlore,” he recalled. “Mor Thiam, the great Senegalese djembe player, was there too. He worked with choreographer Katherine Dunham, later with Freddie Hubbard, BB King and Don Pullen.”
It wasn’t long before Burrage found his way onto BAG’s stage. “I became involved as a youth, perhaps ten or 11, playing at poetry readings that featured Shirley LeFlore. Her husband Floyd, along with JD Parran, gave me opportunities to play in their ensemble. Papa Glen Wright, an amazing percussionist, played drums, vibes and timps. I started subbing for him as a kid.”
By age 13, Burrage was leading a club date band and a year later became the regular drummer with Third Circuit & Spirit, performing music from the avant garde to post-bop and R&B. “Fontella “Rescue Me” Bass was there too. In addition to a great singer, she was an accomplished pianist and organist.” For all of its accomplishments, by 1973 BAG experienced dubious defunding and its erosion followed soon after.
In 1978, on a North Texas State University music scholarship, Burrage made the decision to move to New York City: “I know racism. So that led me out of Texas, right to New York.” Residing in the South Bronx in a turbulent time, as the city struggled through a crushing economic crisis, he saw the rise of hiphop along with the burnt out landscape. “I lived where they were doing rap jams in school yards or on the street, so would take my drums out and jam with the rappers. This saved me several times when I was almost jacked in the neighbourhood.”
But he was compelled by Manhattan’s nightlife, travelling in frequently to meet the leading jazz artists. “I was also hanging out with Charles Bobo Shaw, then running the La Mama Theatre in the East Village. He introduced me to Billy Bang and Frank Lowe...” whom he’d later work with. La Mama was/is an underground hub for cutting edge artists. Burrage and his drums travelled back and forth by subway (“I took the bottom heads off so I could stack them in duffle bags”) until, following Kelvyn Bell’s arrival in town, the two moved into an upper floor of La Mama and were soon in the employ of Arthur Blythe.
In this same period, Burrage became a founding member of Defunkt, an original downtown band fusing improvisation with free jazz, funk and rock. “In 1978, Defunkt was a collective of Joe Bowie, Melvin Gibbs, Kelvyn Bell, Martin Aubert and me. Joe’s had many iterations since then, but we composed that first album collectively. Joe began to dictate a certain sound, but the initial concept was to be free.”
Burrage left Defunkt to join McCoy Tyner’s band, simultaneously, developing a close relationship with Amiri Baraka. “The book Blues People was the beginning for me. As a child, trying to understand Baraka’s words and writings, I often had long conversations with my grandfather, asking him to explain. Later, Amiri became a friend I could call 24/7 for advice, guidance and mentorship. I performed many times at his home nightclub (Kimako’s Blues People) and my band played for his celebrity roast in Newark, New Jersey. Many luminaries were there including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Cosby, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. Amiri and I performed in concert multiple times, he was a guest lecturer with me at Penn State University and advocated for my professorship. I miss him like mad. Amiri was an incredible truth that I needed and need to better myself.”
In this flurry of activity, Burrage began his association with Archie Shepp and became a regular drummer at Seventh Ave South, the legendary Greenwich Village club run by the Brecker Brothers. Ronnie performed frequently with either or both Brecker, also making frequent appearances at SOBs, Lush Life, the Bottom Line and Studio Rivbea and playing dates with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius (“double drumming with Rashid Ali”), Sonny Rollins and Pat Metheny. In 1983 Burrage founded Third Kind Of Blue “and then I started getting the buzz that I was going to be in Weather Report after Peter Erskine left. Jaco wanted me, Wayne too, but Joe wanted Omar Hakim [laughs]. I understand that it was because he liked his name!”
Work with Richard Davis, the Mingus Dynasty ensembles, Courtney Pine, Joanne Brakeen and Jack Walrath (including the Grammy-nominated Master Of Suspense) followed. Throughout the 90s, Burrage played with Bluiett, Eddie Gomez, Billy Bang, Bobby Watson, David Murray, Carlos Ward, Joe Zawinul, The World Saxophone Quartet and Reggie Workman’s Coltrane Legacy, as well as his own band, initially founded in 1979. Simultaneously, he taught at JazzMobile and the New School.
This rapid-fire lifestyle ultimately led to the need for solace. Following a divorce, Burrage left his East Village flat for Florida and life as a single father. “I also did a lot of soul searching.” Within a few years, he moved with his children to Pennsylvania to teach at Penn State where he met his current wife Chanda, a science professor. The pair founded the non-profit World Rhythm Academy, which, through expressive arts, serves people with addictions and children at risk. “Our vision is bridging the gap between youth and elders, incorporating social justice toward real change.” The organisation produced a programme for community organising around the case of Michael Brown, the African American college student killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the haunting series of other black youth deaths at the hands of local police. “So many young black people were being killed and my response to it was a series of videos for my graduate project at Goddard College, incorporating documentary-style footage and original music. We also established a performance series to quell brewing racial tensions on campus, Java Jam, which featured music and the Penn students’ topical poetry and artwork.”
After Burrage successfully completed his Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (music, composition and history), he and his family relocated to Brooklyn. In addition to becoming re-immersed in New York’s jazz circle, the drummer became a professor at State University of New York, Old Westbury, on Long Island. True to his social justice roots, lectures incorporate life lessons. “We talk about people’s struggles around the world and how changes in society start with young people. Recently, we were discussing ‘45’ – I won’t say that man’s name,” referring to Trump, “and I asked them to challenge the norms of their grandfathers.”
As composer and band leader, Burrage also continues to forge a new way. Dance Of The Great Spirit explores cultural fusions through his fiery international trio The Holographic Principle, featuring bassist Nimrod Speaks and Polish pianist Michal Wierba. Right now they’re preparing for an autumn tour, seeking out a higher power at each performance. “We share a passion for changing the world through music,” declares Burrage, “a tool of reckoning and awakening to tell our stories of truth.”
Dance Of The Great Spirit is out now. Proceeds go to the World Rhythm Academy.