Q&A with saxophonist Sam Burckhardt - from jump blues to Thelonious Monk in a lively mix of jazz, blues and swing

"What I miss from the past are the musicians I knew and played with who passed away. The music itself is a function of the people who play it, and thus will always change. As long as there are people, there will be music. It’s up to me to play the music I like and find like-minded people to play it with. I just hope we can get beyond this pandemic and start playing in front of people, again."

Sam Burckhardt: Storyteller Saxophone

The Sam Burckhardt Combo brings together influences from jump blues to Thelonious Monk in a lively mix of jazz, blues and swing, and has been described as one of the best bands in Chicago. Their album, Chicago Swing, was ranked number five in the Sun-Times list of the Top 10 Chicago Albums of 1999. Their new CD, A Walk In Time, which was released in 2002, received three out of four stars in the Chicago Sun-Times. Born in Basel, Switzerland, Sam Burckhardt played his first gig at age 14 sitting in on drums for blues pianist Eddie Boyd. In 1975 he accompanied legendary blues pianist Sunnyland Slim in two concerts in Europe, and in 1982 Sam moved to Chicago to join Sunnyland’s band as a saxophonist. Prior to Sunnyland’s death in 1995, his band performed as the Big Four in concerts here and in Europe.                                             (Photo: Sam Burckhardt)

In 1994, Sam was an original member of the Mighty Blue Kings, one of the biggest bands of the neo-swing movement. Over 60,000 copies were sold of their CD, Meet Me In Uptown. Sam left the Blue Kings to help form a 10-piece jump-swing band, The Big Swing, touring with them from 1996 to 1998. He formed his own group, the Sam Burckhardt Combo, in 1999 and now plays regularly in Chicago, nationally, and abroad with a line-up ranging from duo to quintet, and occasional performances with a nine-piece group.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Jazz Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music, at least for most of us who make a living playing it, is a joint venture. You depend on your fellow musicians, you have to trust them, you have to respect them to get the best out of them. It’s an attitude or approach that also holds true for everyday life. I have been very lucky in as much as I have encountered and gotten a chance to play and record with a lot of really great musicians. From each I have learned something new, not just musically but also just for life.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the saxophone?

I think of my saxophone playing as an extension of my voice. Telling stories is how I would describe my approach. Some of my role models are Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, or Hank Mobley. Another reed player I really admire, and I learned so much from is Ron Dewar.

The saxophone can express all kinds of emotions, anything from a raucous joyful up-tempo tune to a slow and mournful ballad.

""Music, at least for most of us who make a living playing it, is a joint venture. You depend on your fellow musicians, you have to trust them, you have to respect them to get the best out of them. It’s an attitude or approach that also holds true for everyday life. I have been very lucky in as much as I have encountered and gotten a chance to play and record with a lot of really great musicians. From each I have learned something new, not just musically but also just for life." (Photo: Sam Burckhardt)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When I was ten years old, I took drum lessons from Chester Gill who had settled in my hometown. He played just about any instrument you can think of. During my first lesson, he showed me how to set-up the drums and how to play a simple 4/4 beat. At the end of the lession the doorbell wrang. I got up and wanted to say goodbye to Chester but he told me to hang on. The next student was a trombonist. Chester had him get his trombone ready, put a piece of sheet music in front of him, sat down at the piano, instructed me to play the rhythm he had shown me and proceeded to count in the tune: one, two, one two tree four––and I went “boom chack boom chack” on the drums. At the end of the first lesson, I was playing music! It was such a great feeling, something I never felt in three years of classical instruction on the violin. Secondly, meeting and playing with Sunnyland Slim in 1975, was huge. It made me dream about becoming a musician which finally became a reality when I joined Sunnyland’s band in 1982. Sunnyland had lots of good advice. For example, when someone was playing a solo for too long, he would say: “Get in and get out."

Are there any memories from the late great bluesman Sunnyland Slim which you’d like to share with us?

When I first moved to Chicago, I lived with Sunnyland on the Southside. He lived on the first floor, his cousin Willie Bea who later married Hubert Sumlin, lived on the second floor of the same building. After a few weeks, Sunnyland had me drive his car when he wasn’t in the mood to drive himself. We played at B.L.U.E.S. every Sunday night, and after a while he had me drive us home. He would always explain what route I had to take and what lane I should be in. One night––I could have driven the route blind––after getting the usual instructions and admonishing me for being in the wrong lane, I had enough. I told Sunnyland that the car had only one steering wheel. Since I knew how to get home, there was no need constant instructions. Otherwise, I would be happy to pull over and let him drive. He didn’t respond at all, and when we got home, and I said “good night” he just mumbled something. I was very upset and slept badly since I thought I had insulted him, and he was angry with me. When I got up the next morning, I heard him calling his cousin. He said: “You know, Bea, that Sam, he really knows how to drive. You don’t even have to give him directions."

"When I was part of the blues scene in Chicago it seemed very tight knit. You knew most of the other musicians, and there were plenty of opportunities to sit in with other bands. I don’t know the blues scenes in other cities well enough to comment, however most musicians in Chicago were friendly and happy to have you play with them." (Photo: Sam Burckhardt & Sunnyland Slim, Germany 1975)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss from the past are the musicians I knew and played with who passed away. The music itself is a function of the people who play it, and thus will always change. As long as there are people, there will be music. It’s up to me to play the music I like and find like-minded people to play it with. I just hope we can get beyond this pandemic and start playing in front of people, again.

Are there any exclusively specific memorable moments with people that you’ve performed with either live or in the studio?

I had the great fortune to play with Othella Dallas, a dancer and singer who studied with Kathrine Dunham and performed with Duke Ellington and his band in 1959 and 1960. She was a very energetic woman. When I met her she was already in her eighties. She was 88 years old when we played for a crowd of young kids at a youth center in Berne, Switzerland. We were supposed to play two 45-minute sets. After 45 minutes and the kids loving the show, she turned to me and said “[Expletive] the break” and launched into the next song. We played 90 minutes straight, and played four encores. At the end, all the kids were waiving their lighters in the air. Othella bid them goodbye by saying “Grandma loves you madly.” Sadly, she just passed away this past December at the age of 95. She did her last public performance that spring.

What would you say characterizes Chicago blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

When I was part of the blues scene in Chicago it seemed very tight knit. You knew most of the other musicians, and there were plenty of opportunities to sit in with other bands. I don’t know the blues scenes in other cities well enough to comment, however most musicians in Chicago were friendly and happy to have you play with them.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Be yourself and find your own voice. When I think of all the great musicians I worked with, what sticks out in my mind is that they each had such a distinct style and voice. You can fairly easily recognize Sunnyland’s piano playing on recordings, versus that of Little Brother Montgomery, or Roosevelt Sykes, or Blind John Davis. And of course, once each of them sang, you could hear who is who.

"I think of my saxophone playing as an extension of my voice. Telling stories is how I would describe my approach." (Sam Burckhardt / Photo by Dave Downer)

What is the impact of the Blues and Jazz on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I don’t feel qualified to comment on your first question. As to the second part, I want to touch and move people with the music I’m playing. I don’t care what they feel, as long as I can take them away from their daily lives and let them live in the space of the music, in other words in the moment, for the duration of the performance.

Sam Burckhardt - Home

Views: 224

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2021   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service