Roger in High School
One of the first students I met upon arriving on campus at San Dimas High School was Roger Burn. Being verbally “outgoing” and perhaps not too subtle, the conversation went something like this:
“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? If not, I’m going to transfer over there for my last two years.”
“Hello, Roger. Nice to meet you. Who is Robin Snyder and where is Bonita? You know, I would hate to lose you or any of my students to another program, but I will need to have loyalty here to build the band program San Dimas deserves. You will need to decide to do what is best for you, but if you do leave, don’t ask to return.”
Thus began my relationship with the young Roger Burn. Over the course of the next two years, The band program began to grow, and Roger began to flourish. Roger and some of the other jazz kids used to 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. 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.
Roger’s piano technique was horrible. He would use two fingers in each hand and fire at the keys Harpo Marx style. 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 probably still has it in his things!…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.
Those of you who spoke with Roger often may have observed that his life was basically one long run-on sentence with no punctuation in sight! He was opinionated, biased, driven, sometimes bitter and always outspoken, but he was also fiercely loyal, disciplined, caring and compassionate to those who he felt deserved it. He also had a sense of right and wrong….Roger was right, and the rest of us….had some work to do!
Roger was always hanging out with the Bonita players and attended many jam sessions at Robin’s house. In March of 1979, the San Dimas Band was playing a concert band festival at Bonita, and Roger was featured on a little rudimental snare solo on one of the pieces. Roger showed up to the festival as we were exiting the stage! He had missed the whole thing hanging out with the Bonita kids.
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.
I remember how angry he was when Chad Wackerman was selected for the Monterrey Jazz All Stars and he was selected as the alternate drummer. I also remember how elated he was when the San Dimas Jazz Band won our division at the Reno Jazz Festival and Robin’s Bonita band finished third in their division. (It didn’t seem to matter to Rog that Bonita was in division III-A and San Dimas was in division II-A. “We won!”). He was particularly pleased that we had qualified for Monterrey and was particularly disappointed when our audition tape resulted in the band being an “alternate” band. I took them up anyway so that they could hear the festival and audition for the all stars.
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 and lasted only one year in the college program. The rest is basically known by all of his professional friends and acquaintances.
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!