Vale Don Burrows, Australian jazz icon

Monday, 16 Mar 2020

Musician, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, educator, improvisor, composer, presenter, mentor. Jazz icon Don Burrows wore a number of musical and creative hats during his decades-long career and will be remembered for the lasting impact and influence he's had on the genre in Australia. Don passed away on 12 March 2020 at the age of 91.

Don was an APRA member since 1960 and honoured with the Ted Albert Award for Outstanding Services to Australian Music at the 2004 APRA Music Awards.

He began playing the flute as a 9-year-old Bondi school boy and during World War II, which coincided with his student days at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, he became busy playing gigs. 

Don achieved a number of 'firsts': he had Australia's first jazz gold record, was the first Australian to perform at the Newport Jazz and Montreux Jazz festivals, and helped start the Sydney's Conservatorium's jazz course, the first of its kind in Australia. Along with his contemporaries Roger Frampton and George Golla, Don fostered jazz's popularity in Australia. He was involved with the ABC over many years, and was the host of early 80s TV show The Don Burrows Collection

Don began mentoring acclaimed jazz trumpeter James Morrison, when James was a teen. It would become a lifelong friendship steeped in jazz. 

James Morrison said:

He touched so many lives and inspired generations of musicians and audiences alike, with his unbridled passion and a determination to spread the joy he felt when playing the music he loved so much.

Like many others, I was privileged to have him as a mentor and dear friend. I will always carry with me the way he looked when he played – a smile that said he was doing what he loved and a glint in his eye that meant he couldn’t believe his luck to be a jazz musician.

He had many great sayings but one struck me the most – 'You’re only as good as the company you keep' and in his company, I’ve been my best.

Don achieved so many things and received so many accolades  but I know the only thing that really mattered to him was to pass on his gift and leave the world a little bit better place…rest easy mate, job done.

APRA Board member and jazz musician and composer Jonathan Zwartz, who studied under Don at the Sydney Conservatorium:

Don was enormously influential in helping launch careers of emerging jazz musicians, especially James Morrison. Don spotted talent and nurtured it.

He was instrumental in helping establish jazz music as a respectable form of music entertainment. In hosting his own TV show, he brought jazz directly into the homes of Australia. He made jazz accessible and lifted the profile of jazz musicians and composers. He was one of the first Australian jazz exports and helped carve a path for so many to follow.

Jazz pianist and composer Mike Nock first met Don in 1961 while recording Sittin' In with the 3OUT trio. In 1986, Mike returned from overseas, and remembers fondly how Don offered him a job at the Sydney Conservatorium Jazz Studies Department, which became the centrepiece of Mike's musical activities for the next 34 years. 

Mike said:

Saxophonist, clarinetist, educator, Don Burrows AO, MBE, was the highly identifiable face of Australian jazz for many years. A seemingly indefatigable performer, the list of his achievements shows the exceptionally high level of esteem and respect he commanded from all walks of life, both internationally and throughout Australia.

We thank Don for his significant contributions to Australian music.

Listen to ABC Jazz's 'A Tribute to Don Burrows'

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