A native Southern Californian, Roger Burn was a multi-talented musician; a master vibraphonist, pianist/keyboard player, drummer/percussionist, singer, composer, arranger, meticulous music copyist, band leader & music publisher. He possessed perfect pitch and began playing the piano by ear at an early age. He began his career as a drummer, starting at the age of eleven. By the time he was fourteen, he quickly picked up the piano and soon after, the vibraphone.
He began practicing two hours a day, working his way up to five hours a day, at one point. He insisted on keeping his windows closed, even in hot summers, (with no air conditioning) as he was concerned - “I wouldn’t want someone walking by on the sidewalk to hear me while I’m practicing.” He was a perfectionist.
His high school band director, Ed Wolfe, describes Roger as being verbally “outgoing” and “perhaps not too subtle” as he recalls their first conversation:
“Mr. Wolfe, I’m Roger Burn. I play percussion, and I have a question. Can you improve this jazz program so that it will be as good as Robin Snyder’s at Bonita HS? If not, I’m going to transfer over there for my last two years.”
“Hello, Roger. Nice to meet you!”
“Roger and other students would come down to the apartment and play Risk. After the other students left, Roger would always ask questions about music theory. Sometimes he would stay quite late. His parents, Ed and Joyce seemed to always know where he was and did not seem to object, but since we had a Jazz Band rehearsal every morning at 6:30, I would have to ‘throw him out’ often so that we could get some sleep,” said Wolfe.
“He was not particularly interested in the traditional harmony of the common practice period, but when we talked about Twentieth Century techniques, his ears really perked up. He learned about tritone substitutions, extensions and altered chords, and suddenly there was an interest in learning to play piano as he was already becoming quite proficient on vibraphone,” relayed Wolfe.
Wolfe recalled, “He was not interested in learning technique from the Czerny book I provided, or practicing any of the “adult beginning” pieces I provided. He simply wanted to improvise and learn new chord voicings...(he was especially in love with the dominant seventh with a sharp nine or other altered variations he could use in the blues). He wanted to learn how to arrange, so I “loaned” him my Mancini Sounds and Scores textbook. He kept it for the rest of his life...So it began!”
“I did not learn until later that he had begun writing out (by hand) a fake book of jazz tunes that he called ‘The Good Book’. He was proud to exclaim to me that these tunes had ‘the right chords’ and were not like some of those other fake books. In addition to many of his favorite jazz standards (over 150 pages), are some 20 original compositions, some of which were performed by the San Dimas High School jazz combo. “Animal Blues” was written for his friend and bass player, Rusty Houts, and “Gerswintite” was an opportunity to show off some new chord voicings he liked,” said Wolfe.
“It was plain to see Roger was a musical prodigy,” said his sister, Elaine Burn. “He would sit daily with a pencil & ruler while he effortlessly re-wrote all the chord changes in the Real Book . He claimed ‘The chords are all wrong!’ ”
Wolfe recalls, “Those who spoke with Roger often may have observed that his life was basically one long run-on sentence, with no punctuation in site! He was opinionated, biased, driven and always outspoken, but he was also fiercely loyal, disciplined, caring and compassionate to those who he felt deserved it. He also had a great sense of humor and a sense of right and wrong ...Roger was right, and the rest of us ...had some work to do!”
Wolfe relates the following story, “Another time, in Reno, Roger did not make it back to the hotel from the Basie performance at the Pioneer Theater in time for curfew. I went back to the Pioneer and after some searching, found him backstage talking to some of the Basie sidemen....that was Roger!”
“In Roger’s senior year, he was leaning towards Cal State Northridge as a choice under the jazz direction of Joel Leach. He was particularly angry that freshmen would have to play in the marching band, frustrated by this, he chose to leave after only one year in the college program. The rest is basically known by all of his professional friends and acquaintances,” said Wolfe.
“Over the years, Roger and I remained close. I used him as a guest soloist with my bands, and he was fiercely loyal to me personally as an ‘educator who knew and did it the right way’. He was a good man, and I love him and miss him,” exclaimed Wolfe.
He studied with the best in the field - Freddie Gruber for drums and Victor Feldman for vibes. He was self-taught on the piano and keyboards, taking only one piano lesson!
He drew musical inspiration from the greats; Victor Feldman, Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo. He idolized Buddy Rich, Louie Belson and Steve Gadd. He was influenced by Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Oscar Petterson and Gershwin. His modern taste and appreciation included the Yellowjackets, especially Jimmy Haslip, bass player of Yellowjackets, producer & longtime friend, Pat Metheny, Sting, Quincy Jones, Bella Fleck and Peter Gabriel.
He began working professional gigs at the age of sixteen in Los Angeles. He would spend entire Saturdays hunting down rare jazz albums at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, adding to his album collection of over 1,000 albums, all in alphabetical order.
He formed several bands and served as the bandleader. His first band, in the 1980s, was “Triple Spec.” The name referring to the music industry phrase, “on spec”, meaning that many projects are on speculation, thus “Triple Spec” was born. They played often at Cafe Cordiale on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Years later, he formed a new band, “Shapes”, which was a platform for his contemporary jazz compositions as well as for others in the band; Dave Derge (drums), Mike Higgins (guitar) and Andy Suzuki (saxophones & flute) and Dean Taba (bass.) His music was syncopated and sophisticated. He was constantly blazing his own trail.
Shapes performed in Jakarta at the Java Jazz Festival and then later, on the island of Bali, performing in Indonesia for two weeks. As part of a back up band for Indonesia's own, Dwiki Dharmawan for his 'World Peace Orchestra', he also performed again in Jakarta for the Java Jazz Festival, along with Shapes’ members Andy Suzuki, Tollak Ollestad, along with charter member on percussion, Walfredo Reyes, Jr., who played drumset.
He again played with the World Peace Orchestra at the Temecula Jazz Festival, joined by new Shapes member, Edwin Livingston, on bass. In addition, Jimmy Haslip, of the Yellowjackets & producer of all his albums, played with Shapes on bass, as well as Russ Ferrante on piano, from the Yellowjackets.
Highlights of his career include playing with The Brian Setzer Big Band, Chaka Khan, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Nicks, Lou Vega, Barry Manilow & Ann Margaret, to name a few. He wrote charts for Mary J. Blige and numerous others.
He played vibraphones on the score of the Academy Award winning film “Sideways” starring Paul Giamatti.
Tragically, cancer took his life at the age of 46. Here’s what he said in his last blog;
“I will NOT shed this mortal coil until I'm satisfied that I've done all that I can, and ladies and gentlemen, I have ONLY begun to do what I feel that I'm called to do, which is to make music. All things considered, I feel VERY fortunate and yes, even an agnostic like myself, feels blessed, too. I'm surrounded by the love and support of so many friends, some of which I never knew even liked me!!!!”
He played and composed music to the very end! He toured Europe, Indonesia and had plans to return.
WE MISS YOU ROGER! We hope to honor you and your beautiful music that we all felt so blessed to hear, with this re-release of your last three albums! God rest your soul!
Elaine, Jimmy and Blue Canoe