Don Burns Guest Of Honor At Grand International Jazz Society Event - 2003
"The Portrait" - Don and Grand International Jazz Society Director Wayne Pauley - Jack and Bev Mikulski and Don
The Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime Foundation
Is proud to honour
"Professor" Don Burns
Collage by Judy Garlock - Click photo for a larger view.
In recognition of his outstanding contributions towards the success of each of the foundation's festivals through the use of his unparalleled wit, humour, and musical talents, the sharing of his time and experience, and especially the warm, friendly, and enlightening feeling his presence promotes within all of us.
The Pine Tree Point Resort
Alexandria Bay, New York
This 18th day of October, 2003
"Professor" Don Burns
"To say that Don only plays ragtime music you'll love to hear, is like saying there are only 12 hours in the day - you've missed half the point." How true is this statement? Anyone who has heard "Professor" Don Burns perform over the last 40 years, or so, will certainly agree. When Don enters a room he summons the attention of the crowd with his commanding presence, captivates them with his first words, excites them with his first piano notes, and holds them as long as he is behind the keyboard. There is no one quite like him!
Born in Buffalo, NY, in 1939, Don grew up with one sister, who presently resides on Grand Island, and parents who, among other things, owned a player grand piano. When he was about 8 years old, Don became interested in watching the rolls and the keys go on the piano. At 10 he began playing around with it, trying to follow the notes, but it wasn't until he was about 19 that he really started to play anything. Although he tried a few times, Don couldn't handle piano lessons, so he continued to work on his own. As he grew a bit older Don found out that one of the favourite pastimes on Grand Island was "salooning," and he soon learned that if you could play a piano, they'd buy you beer. That was for him. He soon began to excel, locally, on the keyboad. Between playing the pubs and pursuing a career in trucking, (heavy equipment operator would follow later), plus establishing a career in lettering and painting trucks, which later in his career would become the company he presided over, General Renovations of Buffalo Inc., Don was busy and happy.
Then tragedy struck! While driving his car one night, when he was 20 years old, Don smashed into a railway bridge in the fog, and was very seriously injured. Don was in the hospital for a year and a half, convalescing. To this day Don has a restricted leg and a restricted arm as a result of the accident. But, his youth and his desire to get on with life soon had him anxious to leave the hospital. His doctors agreed to release him as long as he went somewhere where there was no ice or snow. With his parents in Florida, at that time, Don headed to Pompano Beach. What a stroke of fate that turned out to be.
While sitting in a saloon one night, listening to the record payer behind the bar spinning ragtime tunes, Don commented to the bartender how much he liked the music. The bartender replied that the guy who was playing that music works nightly just down the road, in The Bonanza Room of The Escape Hotel, in Fort Lauderdale. Don headed down the next night and had his first encounter with 'Ragtime Bob' Darch - a meeting that eventually grew into a close 40 year relationship. Don was so intrigued with Bob, that he returned to hear him play 41 nights in a row. As they became very close friends, Bob showed Don some piano techniques, including telling Don to put his right hand in his pocket and play only with his left hand until he perfected it. To the dismay of his parents, Don did this for weeks on end.
From then on, Don was really into ragtime. After watching Bob make people laugh, have a good time, and forget what was going on around them, Don decided to pattern himself after Bob. Don's friendship with 'Ragtime Bob' continued to grow, and while Don couldn't travel to play at all the places Bob wanted him to, his own reputation as an entertainer was growing, and he was soon much in demand. The first several years after his accident he played primarily in the Buffalo area. He appeared at The Showboat, Johnnie's Old Timer Saloon, ("that place went like hell," says Don), The Holiday Inn Downtown, where he broke all attendance records with a 17-month continuous show, The Holiday Inn at the Buffalo Airport, and The Leisureland Complex in Hamburg, NY. One of Don's favourite places to play, before it eventually burned down, was The Bedell House on Grand Island, where he played for 13 years. The owner of The Bedell House once said, "Don doesn't just play music. He talks to people, gets the party moving, and makes things happen. Don helped make The Bedell House what it was.
In subsequent years Don performed at The New Orleans Hilton, The Mississippi Queen Riverboat, Mickey Finn's in San Diego, and for three years in a row he was invited to St. Louis to play with Eubie Blake, Max Morath, Turk Murphy's San Francisco Jazz Band and The St. Louis Ragtimers. Don describes the latter gig as one of the most fun and memorable times he ever had. One time, around 1980, when Don and Eubie were playing together, Eubie, commenting on Don's playing, turned to Don and said, "Anybody that don't improvise ain't worth his salt," at which point Bob Darch said to Don, "You're kinda' pushing' it, arent' you?" Maybe Bob was feeling the heat.
Don recalls one of his most memorable and enjoyable times was at Eubie Blake's 100th birthday party. It was organized by Max Morath, and held at The Schubert Theater in New York City. Don and several others were invited, by Max, and flown to New York to assist him. The crowd numbered abut 1600. People were invited from all over the world, but the media had to be kept out. The reason was that many of the 75 performers who took part in the show that day were under contract, and a few rules had to be bent so they could perform for Eubie. Dick Hyman was the house pianist for the day, which started at 12:00 noon and finished at 2:30 a.m. The cast of "Eubie" was there, along with numerous other major performers. Eubie couldn't attend as he had contracted pneumonia and was resting at his home in nearby Brooklyn. However a phone hook-up allowed him to hear the show and to talk to the people in the theater. Eubie died seven days later. Don says it was a great, great, great show.
Over the years Don experienced many interesting incidents. He recalls on one occasion, while playing on stage at The Holiday Inn in Buffalo. a slightly inebriated patron came up to him, requested a song, leaned against the curtain which he assumed was a wall, and promptly fell through onto a table of diners in the dining room. The curtain closed and the drunk was never seen again. But the way it happened still amuses Don.
Throughout much of this time, Don and Bob Darch nurtured their friendship and piano playing when they met regularly over the years at The Edgewood Resort in Alexandria Bay, NY, in the 1000 Islands. From the 60s on, long before The Grand International Festivals were ever thought of, Don and Bob met there numerous times, and as Don describes it, "We got into ample professional trouble."
Ultimately, Bob took Don to Toronto, Ontario where he met another of Bob's very close friends, Pel Bell-Smith. Many a night was spent with Pell and Bob, sleeping on the furnace room floor, and enjoying Wild Turkey for breakfast, while all the while playing and expounding about ragtime music. Around 1990, during one of their forays to The Edgewood, the discussion centered around starting a club - a spin off from The Ragtime Society in Toronto - but with more variety, and letting musicians broaden out into bands, and break up the piano playing. Bob Darch had the idea and Jeff Hebert had the establishment, "but Pel and Betty Bell-Smith became the driving force behind it, and did a marvellous job for 10 years," according to Don. They could call anybody anywhere, ask them to come, and they did. Their word was their bond.
From that meeting in 1990, The Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime Foundation was born. The festival in the fall of 2003 will be the 26th semi-annual festival. Don has performed at 23 festivals, more times than any other musician. He missed the fall festivals in 1991 and 1992, for personal reasons, but has since entertained at 21 consecutive festivals. Don really enjoys the camaraderie which everyone shares, and he claims is sometimes missing at other festivals. He says that unlike festivals that attract thousands of fans, The Grand International, with its three to four hundred fans, attracts a lot of repeat fans, many of whom have established long term friendships with each other and with the musicians. The friendship between the musicians is also something that Don enjoys and looks forward to at each festival. He thinks the festivals have changed somewhat from the early days, as there seems to be more bands. "But," he says, "the bands are hotter and better and we're also constantly coming up with new, very entertaining, hard-driving piano players. It's great to see the evolvement of the peope who want to play." He adds, "Now, the things that happen at the 1000 Islands are just fantastic with a fantastic array of entertainers who just get better and better."
When asked to describe himself as a performer, Don will tell you that since he never had any formal training, (unlike those 'machines,' as he calls them), like Bob Milne, Tony Caramia, Mimi Blais, etc., he decided to go a different way. In discussions with Bob Darch, about the difference between musicians and entertainers, he decided to develop an act that is quite similar to the one he saw Bob do in 1962. He describes his performance as more of a novelty, verbal, vocal act with comedy in it, and his piano playing holds it all together. There's no question, after these many years of entertaining hundreds of fans, that Don's decision was the right one, as he continues to attract followers from all over. Don enjoys playing at Alex Bay where he says he has the freedom to improvise, and to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. His fans are always awaiting his next performance and history has shown - no two shows a ever the same.
At a recent Alex Bay festival, during one of his performances, one of the fine piano players, Jack Hutton, was reminiscing about 'Ragtime Bob' Darch, and the time Bob was asked who his favourite piano player was? He mentioned Bob Milne and Mimi Blais, but he said his favourite piano player was 'Professor' Don Burns, because Don could handle a room like nobody else. The student obviously listened to the master.
Don will be the last one to describe himself as a song writer but he has "composed" two great songs, Niagara Rag in 1993 and The Carbondale Glide in 1998. Over the years many fans have asked Don, "If you can't read music, how come you play so well?", to which Don eventually began replying, "I play by colour." Around 1996, this led Don to develop a fantastic idea of a program that "taught" people to play by colour. Creating very oversized charts of piano keys, all of which were coloured every colour of the rainbow and with an easel, a pointer, and decoratively dressed female assistants, Don began presenting a show that taught people to play by colour. He taught them to play "in beige," or "fuchsia," or "green," or "pink" - not F sharp, or B flat, or C minor. This show is absolutely hilarious and has become a real crowd pleaser whenever Don presents it.
Presently, Don is working on a seven-year stint at Pete's Market House in Niagara Falls, NY and another job at The River Oaks Golf & Country Club on Grand Islnd where he has performed for the past seven months. Bob Milne has invited him for a return engagement to his Lapeer, MI Festival in September, and he continues his streak as a regular, twice a year, at The Grand International in Alexandria Bay, NY.
Besides his piano playing, Don keeps active as a member, chairman of membership, and editor of the newsletter, of The Queen City Jazz Society of Buffalo, a club that meets monthly to enjoy jazz bands and share fellowship. Last year Don wrote and pubished a very entertaining book, "Piano People - Upright Grand, Downright Nuts," a must-read for piano players, music lovers, fans of fun, and anyone with an interest in stories about a guy who's "been there, done that." (Ed. Note: See attached review by Arthur C. Stone, The American Rag, June 2003).
"Very grateful" are the words Don uses when describing his feelings about being the senior member among the numerous musicians who have performed at The Grand International Festivals. In his humble manner he says it's gratifying to be invited back, year after year, considering the calibre of musicians that play there. In fact, in the early years Don felt so intimidated by the showmanship of some of the musicians that he would tell Bob Darch, "This is my last show. I won't be back." Of course Bob would tell Don he'd be back because Bob would be there and he was telling him to come back. Thankfully, he always did, and has become an integral part of every festival since. Pel and Betty gave him the push to get over his early intimidation and now he's being invited to perform for some of those very musicians, that at one time, did intimidate him.
Ever wonder where the "Professor" came from? well, it seems that at the turn of the century the piano players who played in the sporting houses were called professors. Early in Don's career, dressed in his arm garters, colourful vest, and derby hat, somebody in Johnnie's Old Timer Saloon in Tonawanda, NY around 1964, came up to Don and called him "Professor." To this day Don doesn't recall who that was, but shortly thereafter, all the advertising for Don's appearances at Johnnie's listed him as "Professor" Don Burns and it has been with him ever since. Now, if people ask him about it, he tells them he is a professor. Period.
True to his great love for 'his kind of music' Don will tell you, "Life is very fleeting. You should do what you want to do. Ragtime music, although a very miniscule amount of the music in the world today, is a very infectious and fun music. I think anybody and everybody who wants to get into it should push it and stick with it - because it's not dying. In fact, 'Ragtime Bob' Darch once said, 'Ragtime dead? Hell, it ain't even sick."
Today, The Grand International Ragtime-Jasstime fesivals would not be quite what they have become, if it weren't for the presence of "Professor" Don Burns.
Thank you "Professor" Burns!
Click for Don Burns' Website.