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Sax Appeal

Big Joe Burrell is 80 and still blowing strong


On a recent Thursday night in Burlington, an arctic wind is funneling up Pearl Street from the lake, whipping around corners and separating caps from their owners. It's a nice night to stay in and seek what cultural consolation can be found on the tube, or maybe from a hot-and-heavy novel. Indeed, few humans are visible on the Church Street Marketplace, so it's a surprise to find about a hundred of them crammed into Halvorson's.

But it's not just these brave souls who are steaming up the windows. Past the full booths and a clot of patrons by the bar, a band at the back is in maximum swing: guitarist Dennis Willmott, drummer Nick Aloi, bassist Justin Rose and pianist Rob Guerrina. Smack in the center is Big Joe Burrell, directing the other players with a wiggle of a finger, and producing enough heat on his tenor sax to stop a chilly draft at 30 paces.

When he's not blowing, he's singing — with a big, growly hallelujah of a voice — and the response is the same: The doting crowd hoots and claps, cheering him on, grins all 'round. The music is a mixture of traditional jazz and Chicago-style blues — old-school, but with timeless appeal.

The same might be said about "Big Joe" himself, who has just turned 80 this week. On stage, his only capitulation to age is a stool, where he sits until he gets really wound up; then he stands, forgetting for the length of a tune about his bum knee. At 6-foot-2, with long legs and broad shoulders, Big Joe is an imposing figure even without that saxophone strapped around his neck. Snappy dresser, too. He might look intimidating if not for the warm smile, the frequent friendly nods to friends and strangers alike, and his habit of inviting other musicians, seasoned or otherwise, to share the limelight on stage.

This night is no exception. Fellow saxophonist Joe Moore — of The X-Rays and Pork Tornado — is up there, weaving his explosive riffs around Burrell's mellifluous runs. Silver-haired Walt Elmore, usually a trombonist, has brought along a trumpet; he trades solos with a snazzily proficient younger trumpeter named Camuel Cross. At one point Burrell spies a burly UVM student who has apparently sat in before and cajoles him to sing a jazz standard. The kid has a high, sweet voice and wins loud applause. Burrell beams like a proud daddy. It's an especially good night.

The college-aged and the middle-aged, black and white, come to hear Big Joe at Halvorson's, or wherever he performs. But some of these fans may not entirely grasp just what it is they revere about him. Yes, the voice, the sax, the avuncular kindness with other players. But guitarist Paul Asbell, who has played with Burrell for 25 years in the Unknown Blues Band, surmises there's something larger at work, and it's no less than the compelling history of black American music.

"When I first met him, musically what was clear to me was Joe had the older vocabulary of jazz players like Ornette Coleman as well as the blues vocabulary as played by jazz players," Asbell muses. "As soon as he started singing, it was clear he was much more than a blues player — he had the feel of a real r&b singer. You don't typically hear that in the sax players of his generation… He occupies both of those worlds. It's like hearing someone who plays like Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery at the same time.

"There's something iconic about people who are born professional entertainers," Asbell continues. "I think [Joe's fans] are aware this guy is the real deal… Here's a person who is so patently and obviously from a culture; people in Vermont are fascinated with him."

Asbell also notes that, while jazz is becoming more recognized and taught in schools, contemporary players come out technically skilled but often lacking in that ineffable quality called soul. "Joe and others of his generation have this intuitive sense that a solo tells a story," he says. "I still don't know to this day how he thinks what to play over the band. It's a gift to be able to check it out up close."

And it's a "real honor" to be on the same stage, according to Justin Rose. The youngest of the Halvorson's lineup at 35, the standup bassist says, "It's like going to school, a real education, to play with him. He'll let you know when you're messing up… but he's also very supportive. Passing on the jazz, sharing the music with younger people is what it's all about."

Who is Burrell passing the music on to? "Anybody who listens to him, really," Rose reflects. "He always says he's playing for the people; he's not playing to impress other musicians. I think people pick up on that."

At 58, Dennis Willmott has been playing blues for decades — his other band is Left Eye Jump. He'd never played jazz before Burrell invited him to join the Halvorson's crew. "He's been very patient and extremely encouraging," Willmott says. "He really values his people who play with him." The guitarist notes that Big Joe brings to the stage "a mastery of all blues and jazz, and a real classiness to it."

"Joe learned from the older guys, too," says Larry McCrorey, Burrell's oldest friend in Vermont and another saxophone player. "Not only the music but how to dress, how to act on stage. Now he's a beautiful enough person to do the same thing for those coming up."

McCrorey, 76, has played in the Burlington area since 1966, alongside his full-time gig as a professor of physiology and biophysics in UVM's med school. He's of the same era as Burrell, and notes the parallels in their careers. For starters, he went to college at the Univer-sity of Michigan — Burrell's home turf — and during that time played in some of the same Detroit clubs, with some of the same people, as did Burrell, although they never met back then. During World War II, both men got to play out with some great older musicians when the younger ones were being drafted, and when they finally had their turns in the service, each played in the Army jazz band. "We came from the same background, had the same idols," McCrorey says. "Ours is a very close musical relationship."

Big Joe Burrell shows his years a little more while ensconced in his easy chair at home. His cramped but cozy apartment is in Burlington's Cathedral Square, a senior living facility where he moved about four years ago. During an interview he gets up only once, stiffly and using a cane, his leg bothering him, and puts on his newest CD. It's a release by Vermont blues diva Sandra Wright entitled After Hours, on which he performs along with pianist/producer Michael Sucher. The playing shows a side of him people don't usually hear on stage, Burrell says: "How I can play pretty." He seems quite pleased with it, and for good reason — the sound is gorgeous, soft and sensual.

Neat stacks of jazz and blues CDs, records and videotapes vie for space in Burrell's tiny living room. Around the entire apartment, the walls are filled with photos spanning decades and documenting highlights in his life. Most prominent is a faded but jaunty picture of Burrell at Atlantic City in the early 1960s, dressed in a spiffy suit, hair slicked back, and full of sass. Around the corner are more recent accolades, including a mayor's proclamation for "Big Joe Burrell Day" on May 27, 2000, and a poster from last year's Discover Jazz Festival featuring him on "Kansas City interpretations."

Burrell gladly reminisces about his life, pausing only occasionally to search his memory for an elusive name. Born in Port Huron, Michigan, on February 9, 1924, he was the youngest of seven children. Even as a child he was fascinated by music, especially that of Count Basie. Despite the family's poverty during the Depression he managed to acquire a saxophone, and by age 15 was performing. Formal schooling ended with eighth grade, but his musical education continued in venues around the U.S. and Canada for the next five decades.

It was a grueling life on the road, but rich with musical relationships, a few recordings, significant regional success and a string of romances — suffice it to say Big Joe has been as smooth with the ladies as he has on a horn. (Now, he's married but amicably separated, a topic he firmly declares off-limits.) One proud memory is playing at Count Basie's club in Harlem, another is touring and recording with B.B. King — both in the early '60s.

Over the years there was also suffering: a two-year bout of tuberculosis and a badly broken leg, both of which echo now in the form of chronic bronchitis, circulation problems and the ever-bothersome knee. "Some-times I don't feel like going out, but I'm OK once I get out," he says, and like a true showman adds, "People don't come out to see you not feeling well."

Burrell's engaging odyssey unfolds, in a casual, rambling fashion, in a "memoir" painstakingly taped and transcribed by his nephew Leon Burrell, a Burlington resident and retired UVM professor of education. We Call Him "Big" Joe was published in 2002. The younger Burrell only saw his Uncle Joe four times as a child, he later tells me, remembering the family's excitement when their "famous" relative would return to the Port Huron area to play.

The two found each other serendipitously some 25 years ago when, after a long stint in Quebec, Big Joe happened to come to Burlington for a gig at the former Roostertail (now the Ground Round on Williston Road). "I intended to stay for two weeks," Burrell says, "but I just stayed here… I didn't want to go back to the city; I like to be where I know people." Instead, he rented an apartment from his nephew and in very short order met Larry McCrorey and Paul Asbell.

At the time, the late '70s, Asbell, keyboardist Chuck Eller and bassist Tony Markellis formed the core of a contemporary jazz band called Kiliman-jaro. They were in regular rotation at Hunt's, then Burlington's premier nightspot. Asbell asked Burrell to sit in for a monthly blues night; before long, lines were forming down the block, and Kilimanjaro wisely switched the focus to their other persona — The Unknown Blues Band with Big Joe Burrell.

The name stuck, but UBB became quite well known in Vermont and beyond. For years they were the state's most in-demand band for weddings (including two Phish member nuptials), and were a regular at Ben & Jerry's company functions as well as its annual One World One Heart festival. Along the way UBB recorded a couple albums — Live at Hunt's (1985) and Every Time I Hear That Mellow Saxophone (1992).

Everyone in the band fondly recalls a trip to Russia in 1991. "When we played in Moscow at the jazz club, it was the closest thing to what I imagine it was like for The Beatles in the Cavern Club," recalls Eller. "People went nuts. As soon as Joe sang, people recognized it as the real thing and were kind of uncontrollably screaming."

UBB has scaled way back on performing these days, as its members have been involved in other projects. Eller runs a perpetually busy recording studio in Charlotte. One of his long-term projects is a jazz CD featuring Big Joe; the sale of it, he says, would help support Joe's retirement.

No doubt he could use the money, but for Burrell, "retirement" looks like this: a weekly gig at Halvorson's; a new monthly gig at Chow! Bella in St. Albans; frequent gigs with Jenni Johnson, including this Saturday at the Burlington Boathouse; and the odd gig with a resurrected Unknown Blues Band, like the one last Saturday in Saranac Lake. "I'm having a ball," Burrell says. "I'm doin' pretty good for an old man."