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Ronnie Burrage: Another U.City alum brings back stellar jazz

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - The University City High School jazz program is best known for the generation of talented young musicians who graduated from there in the late 1980s. U. City High students pianist Peter Martin, trumpet player/vocalist Jeremy Davenport, bassist Chris Thomas, saxophonist Todd Williams and drummer David Berger recording an album (“Just In Time”) as the Todd Williams Quinter in 1987. And all went on to professional musical careers.

But University City High had an outstanding jazz program in the 1970s as well, and drummer Ronnie Burrage, who graduated from the school in the late 1970s, went on to achieve early success on the international jazz scene.

Almost immediately after moving to New York City while still in his teens, Burrage began recording and touring with jazz legends such as pianist McCoy Tyner, trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp, Jackie McLean and Sonny Fortune, bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny and many others.

This week, Burrage is back in his hometown for a week – mixing performances Thursday, Feb. 28 at Washington University’s Jazz at Holmes series and Friday and Saturday March 1 & 2 at the Forest Park Golf Course Clubhouse (Note: there was a last-minute change of location), with a speech at University City High and open rehearsals at Washington U. earlier in the week – and a Saturday afternoon drum clinic at Wolf Public House in West County.

According to Burrage, the weeklong series of events grew from discussions about the Jazz at Holmes date – but with a very initial different focus.

“It turned into a whole series of events I put together on my own,” Burrage says during a recent phone interview from his Maryland home. “I had been talking with Bill Lenihan (director of jazz studies at Washington University) about performing some of my big band pieces there, but it never really came together. So I put together a trio performance for this coming Thursday for the Jazz at Holmes series. And since I had already requested some time off for the whole week from my teaching schedule at Penn State, I added the speech at U. City High, the workshops at Washington U., the performances at the Office and the drum clinic.”

Burrage has been teaching at Penn State since 2006, but he still makes time to tour with his own group, Band Burrage, as well as performing occasionally with Archie Shepp and others.

Despite the national and international focus of his musical efforts, Burrage was eager to talk about his early days in St. Louis – which he sees as an essential foundation for his later success on the New York City jazz scene.

Burrage’s mother was a classical pianist, and while young he began singing in the St. Louis Cathedral boy’s choir. He was also exposed to jazz at an early age as well through several uncles and relatives who were musicians. By the time he was in high school, Burrage had already made a name for himself on the area jazz scene sitting in regularly with older musicians such as Freddie Washington, Willie Akins and others.

“I played in a lot of teenage groups with my friends,” he recalls. “But my first big break came when I started playing professionally with the Metropolitan Jazz Quintet while I was still in going to U. City High. I remember how exciting it was to sit in with the likes of Freddie, pianist James Matthews, John on bass and the others. Then I had the chance to sub for Joe Charles and it became a great learning experience playing with that band.”

That experience – combined with the connections Burrage developed through U. City High’s then annual jazz festivals– which featured visits and performances at the school by jazz greats such as Clark Terry, Woody Shaw and others – played a crucial role for Burrage when he made the move to new York City after graduation.

“At U. City High, they used to have an International Jazz Week every year,” Burrage says. “And when I was there, I remember one year they brought in Woody Shaw, bassist Rufus Reid and pianist Alan Dawson. Woody took a liking to my playing, so I already had his number when I decided to make the move to New York.

“I still remember when I first got there going to Sweet Basil’s to hear Sir Roland Hanna playing a trio with Ron Carter and Billy Hart. Billy had heard me play when he came through St. Louis, and he told Hanna that I was good enough to sit in. The next thing I know, McCoy Tyner asked me to play n his group, and then Woody wanted me to play with his band. It all started there.”

Burrage has returned to perform in St. Louis periodically. He played at Robbie’s House of Jazz in Webster Groves last summer, and also appeared at the same club in 2010 – working with guitarist Kelvyn Bell and poet Quincy Troupe. He’s also been more focused on releasing his own music in recent years.

“I was a single dad for quite a few years, and raising my daughter was the major focus for me,” he says. “But now that she’s with her mother, I’m working on getting more performances for my own group going.”

For his Jazz at Holmes concert Thursday, Burrage will be working with bassist Darrel Mixon and Ptah Williams on piano and keyboards. For his sets at the Clubhouse, guitarist Eric Slaughter and saxophonist Freddie Washington will augment the trio.

“It’ll be great to work with Freddie again,” says Burrage. “And I’ve been working more with Eric as well, bringing him back to the East coast to play in my group there.”

For more information about Ronnie Burrage, visit www.ronnieburrage.biz.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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