Remembering Burlington's Bruce McKenzie: 'He Just Never Stopped Drumming' | Life Stories | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Remembering Burlington's Bruce McKenzie: 'He Just Never Stopped Drumming'


Published December 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Bruce McKenzie with family - COURTESY OF MARY MCGINNISS
  • Courtesy of Mary McGinniss
  • Bruce McKenzie with family

This "Life Stories" profile is part of a collection of articles remembering Vermonters who died in 2023.

To those who knew him longest, Bruce McKenzie had always been a drummer. The youngest of 11 kids, Bruce was born six months after his father, Harold, drowned in Burlington Bay; he was raised by his mother, Lennie, and his eldest siblings, sister Thelma and brother Joe. It was Thelma who first noticed her baby brother's inherent sense of rhythm: He would keep time with a knife and fork on any surface he could find.

"Thelma signed Bruce up for drum lessons with Boyd Cheeseman, who ran the local music shop, Boyd's," Bruce's ex-wife, musician Mary McGinniss, recalled. "And it's really one of the most remarkable things about Bruce: He just never stopped drumming, right up until he couldn't anymore."

Bruce joined his first band, the Heartbeats, when he was a 15-year-old student at Rice Memorial High School. A trio called Coyote followed. But when he and some other local players founded the Burlington band the N-Zones in the mid-1970s, something clicked. The seminal group became the best pure rhythm and blues, down-and-dirty bar band in the area, holding court at iconic city venues such as Hunt's (now the Vermont Comedy Club) and Nectar's, where the N-Zones gave a group of scruffy college kids called Phish their first proper gig.

  • Courtesy of Mary McGinniss
  • The N-Zones

Despite that early success, Bruce's lifelong relationship with music and percussion never stopped evolving. A growing fascination with Afro-Brazilian rhythms and a chance opportunity at the 1995 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival led him to cofound the samba street band Sambatucada. More than just a band, the group has spent the decades since teaching the power of percussion. It had instructed more than 1,000 students in the art of samba drumming when Bruce died from cancer on October 14, two days shy of his 71st birthday.

His focus as a teacher wasn't limited to music. Bruce worked as a caseworker for adults with disabilities and spent time as a youth counselor at the King Street Center.

Having never known his own father, Bruce "didn't really grow up in a traditional American patriarchal-model family," his oldest son, Owen, said. His upbringing by his sister Thelma, a vivacious and bold woman, and his brother Joe, a quiet, shy gay man, "just made him such a warm, empathetic person."

Bruce and McGinniss met in grade school and married in 1978. They raised sons Owen and Willy Dee together. Their marriage ended in 1993, but they remained friends and became proud grandparents to Shannon Manchester and Noah and Colin McKenzie.

Bruce with sons Owen and Willy Dee - COURTESY OF MARY MCGINNISS
  • Courtesy of Mary McGinniss
  • Bruce with sons Owen and Willy Dee

"Part of Bruce's spirit was that he could see people as they truly were, no matter who it was," McGinniss said. "He just had a way of really seeing you with that big heart of his."

Bruce connected with people not just by playing music but sharing it. A raconteur with a voracious taste in genres, he could often be found handing out mixtapes and burned CDs to friends, bandmates, clients and anyone else he thought needed some new music in their lives.

"Bruce and I go back all the way to me watching him play in the N-Zones," said longtime friend Erhard Mahnke, a former Burlington City Council president and founding member of Sambatucada. "Every couple of weeks or so, he'd slip me a new CD and say, 'You'll dig this,' and he was usually right! It was a huge source of joy in his life to turn people on to new music."

That spirit extended to his home, where Bruce let his kids snoop around his vast record collection. Owen recalled stealing the Clash's seminal album Combat Rock from his dad, who also got him into British punk icons the Sex Pistols and American new-wave band Devo.

"His ear was just so good," Owen said, recalling his father's uncanny ability as an active listener. Bruce would often hear a song his son was listening to and almost instantly be able to tell him whom the musicians were influenced by. "I was listening to Rage Against the Machine when I was a teenager, and he walked by and said, 'These guys are obviously big Led Zeppelin fans.' At the time, I was a typical kid and scoffed at it. But then I read an interview with the band, and they kept talking about Zeppelin. I was like, 'Goddamn, how does he always know?'"

Those patient, attentive ears were part of what made Bruce such a skillful drummer, according to his contemporaries. Jeff Salisbury, a veteran Vermont musician who has played with the likes of Albert King and Max Roach and taught several generations of local drummers, always appreciated Bruce's economical touch.

"I called him the Charlie Watts of Burlington," Salisbury said, referring to the legendarily steady drummer of the Rolling Stones. "Bruce never overplayed; he always serviced the song. For me, the things that are of value in music are your heart and your ears. And Bruce was really good with both of those."

Mahnke recalled something Bruce told him many years ago when talking about life philosophies.

"Bruce always brought up what he called 'the Omnipotent Groove,'" Mahnke said. "He said there was this constant source of groove that moved all of us, all of the time, and it was very much the North Star in his life."

In the late 1990s, Bruce's groove moved away from playing blues and rock as he began to focus his musical energy on Sambatucada. His fascination with Brazilian rhythms and his love of teaching people grew as Bruce took the reins as the group's leader.

"I finally realized I couldn't really plan a summer vacation, because he just never wanted to miss a gig with Sambatucada," recalled Bruce's partner, Keiko Kokubun, whom he met in 2006. "It meant everything to him."

According to Mahnke, Sambatucada's mission was to spread the love of Brazilian musical traditions. But Bruce was adamant that the group be composed of people from all walks of life and open especially to musical novices; he wanted Sambatucada to be a true community band.

"He had such a knack for taking people with no musical experience and maybe not the best sense of rhythm and really turning them into proper drummers," Mahnke said.

Such was Bruce's devotion that even as cancer diminished him to the point where he could no longer lead Sambatucada, he couldn't stop thinking of its future. Keiko remembers Bruce being "in and out of this world" in the final weeks of his life and worrying over who would continue his legacy with the group, often saying, "I'm loading up my wagon. I'm beat. Someone has to lead the band." He would also ask after his suitcases, where he kept his assortment of instruments.

"He knew he was getting ready to leave this place," Keiko said. "And like a true musician, he wanted to know where all his instruments were."

As he lay dying, his friends and students in Sambatucada packed up their drums and drove out to visit him in his hospice home. They set up on the lawn to play one final performance for Bruce, a day Mahnke recalls with both great joy and sorrow.

"They bundled Bruce up and wheeled him out on the terrace to watch us," Mahnke said. "We put T-shirts on all the drums to keep them a little quieter because, well, we were playing at a hospice home."

Bruce wasn't having it, however. Mahnke remembered his old friend shouting, almost as soon as the band started up, "Get those shirts off the drums! Louder! And more rim shots!"

"Bruce was really lucky to know what he was going to do in his life so early on," Keiko said. "He knew what he was meant to do, and he did just that."

After Bruce died, Keiko thought about how he and his longtime friend and N-Zones bassist Mark Ransom would reminisce about their days playing in blues bands around Vermont. Bruce had dreamed of a final N-Zones reunion with all of his old friends, but it sadly wasn't to be. Ransom, who had throat cancer, died earlier this year following surgery. Bruce's brother-in-law Jim McGinniss, who also played bass in the band, died in 2022. As more and more of that generation of Burlington musicians fades away, Keiko hopes they won't be forgotten.

"What those bands did — their legacy — it's not as recognized as perhaps it should be," she said.

"I was just recently listening to an N-Zones album, actually," Salisbury said, speaking of the band's 1982 record Ain't Got You. "The tunes always fit together so nicely — 'Killer Bee Bop' was a great track. I'm incredibly sorry Bruce is gone now. He was a big piece of this city's music history."

The original print version of this article was headlined "'He Just Never Stopped Drumming' | Bruce McKenzie, October 16, 1952-October 14, 2023"

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