A Portrait in Words
A gentle giant of a man, a musician of great depth and versatility, a jazz legend in his own lifetime. For us all, a living treasure. Don Burrows passed away on March 12th, 2020.
Followed only by Dizzy Gillespie in Edinburgh. Of all the famous and talented people I’ve had the privilege to photographed over my career, Don Burrows is closest to my heart.
In no chronological order to go with this gallery of images in memory of the maestro, my heart goes with you.
I’ll start with the one lasting image that I sadly do not have a neg or file of but it is indelibly imprinted in my minds eye.
I was photographing the Paynesville Jazz Festival many years ago and on the first night on the back of the flat of tray truck, a high school orchestra was about to play when news came that the lead saxophonist wasn’t going to make it.
Don was asked to step in which he graciously did, not as the legendary sax player but as a fellow musician. He did it with such humility, fitting in with the rest of the student musicians, playing his parts as conducted and also being the wind beneath the other young players encouraging and supporting. I could see the joy in his face as I photographed the performance. But this is not the image I speak of just the background.
Here is my lasting and favourite image of the Don for which there will never be a print. So come close, shut your eyes and see this image.
The performance is over all the instruments packed up. The truck tray is cleared, people are leaving and it’s dark. Everyone’s gone except Don, having finished talking to the students as he has packed up his sheet music, stand and saxophone.
There is no car to get the great man. He simply places his music and stand under one arm and his old well work sax case in the other. It has just one word written in his hand on the end: DON. He walks into the night on his own. A vertical shot with lots of dark sky, Don seemingly small and quite content at the bottom centre of the road.
The AIPP’s Bruce Pottinger was a good friend of Don and Don was a very good photographer (mainly film Tri-X.) In latter years, Bruce brought Don slowly and gently to a digital world for his images.
He would occasionally accompany projections of his images as he did at the “Last Barossa” in the Goulburn. That was a wonderful four-day gathering of AIPP and ACMP members to crown a decade of meetings at Yalumba arranged by Milton Wordley and the SA members (sadly the 10th had to be move as Yalumba was closed for renovations.)
The local council and I arranged for the “Barossa” to be held in Victoria and for Milton to be honoured for his years of effort to a very special event.
For that special year we had a stunning program of speakers, including the late Lewis Morely, Graham McCarter, Sam Haskins, and Sydney’s Gary Heery. Don was guest of honour. This came about by chance as Bruce and I were dancing (as you do!) at the AIPP PICA Gala dinner and discussing the upcoming event of which Bruce and L&P were a sponsor.
I can’t recall all the details but suffice it to say I mentioned how good it would be to have Don Burrows play (as I’d had the pleasure of photographing and meeting him on several occasions.) Bruce suggested we ask Don, a Fuji ambassador (he did so much work with underprivileged indigenous children teaching music and taking pictures.)
We sashayed across the room, dropped to our knees and popped the question. Don said if he didn’t have to play he would be delighted to come and show his work and be our guest of honour for the four days at “Barossa,” Mitchelton.
All was set. Don turned up on Thursday for a Friday night start, but the small hotel at Avenel, near Mitchelton winery, made him welcome regardless. That year we began a night earlier with drinks and dinner as a casual get together before the start of the main program on Saturday.
That same evening the late Ian Mackenzie persuaded my wife Sandra to play the piano spontaneously – not something she did often or readily but she obliged; not her well-honed classical repertoire but more contemporary music she found in the piano stool. At the end we all applauded but Don got up and quietly went over to compliment and thank her for playing.
One last image from my memory bank: on the first morning as we were setting up and resolving all the usual technical problems when you present in an old curved bare redbrick tunnel of a Champagne cellar. We were all stressing! Rob Anderson was leading the technical charge and I was welcoming sponsors and attendees.
Suddenly, a hauntingly beautiful Clarinet riff floats through the acoustically perfect dome and we see Don playing. We hadn’t asked for or expected this magic! He’d brought his clarinet of his own accord and it was just so beautiful. He turned and asked me if we minded. I said, “Not at all,” and that we could cancel our program and happily listen to him play in such an intimate and unusual setting. ‘Twas a beautiful image.
To close this written picture of the man behind the legend, I take you to the Sunday night of this four-day festival of photography and photographers. I’d managed to persuade Brian Gracey of CPL to sponsor a jazz band (a trio for the Sunday dinner at Mitchelton’s main winery.) After dinner the trio was in full swing and sounding great.
When they stopped to take a break, Don went over and asked if they’d mind if he joined them in the next bracket. You couldn’t keep him down! If only I’d know this when booking the band I could have had them play for nothing, they may have even sponsored the dinner. So that night we had a Don Burrows quartet after all.
I hope you enjoyed this collection of images to go with my memories of this special man. Thank you Don Burrows.
All images © David Simmonds APPLM MPhotogII