Web Exclusives:Features

February 27, 2002:
Making music

Singer and trombonist Dave Burns '53 resurrects a Golden Age

If singer and trombonist Dave Burns '53 summarized his life in song titles, he'd no doubt choose "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)" by Duke Ellington from his new CD Rainbow Room.

Burns has been singing since age two — on the Pineville, Kentucky drugstore counter ("They'd put me on the marble counter at the drugstore and I'd sing songs for a penny."), in church choirs, grade school musicals, Triangle shows, and Air Force combos. For the past 30 years, he's led his own jazz band, Hot Mustard, in Washington, D.C., on some 2,000 gigs.

A retired U.S. foreign-service officer, Burns specializes in American popular songs from 1925 to 1965, including the works of the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. "When I sing, I'm not out to 'sell' myself but to present the song as convincingly as possible. I'm interested in words and melody," he says.

His background is as colorful as the name of his fourth CD. Burns ran away from Pineville at 15, living a hobo-like existence until landing in D.C., where he dropped out of high school three times before joining the Air Force. A "voracious reader," he realized he'd need a degree after his tour of duty and audaciously applied to Oxford, the University of Kentucky, Occidental College in Pasadena, California — and Princeton.

"I told them if they took a gamble on me I wouldn't disappoint them," he says of Princeton. True to his word, Burns won a Fullbright scholarship and joined the Foreign Service. His older son was born while he served in Beirut; his younger son, in what is now Zimbabwe. And everywhere, Burns made music. He picked up the trombone in Mali.

Burns recently completed volume one of his autobiography — "I don't have any illusions it will sell," he says of Hollored Out, his years from 1928 to 1949 (two more books are planned) — and started composing: "I figure if age knocks the wind out of me I can still make music."

By Maria LoBiondo