Dwayne Burno, one of the more creative bassists of his generation who explored the full realm of the jazz idiom—a practice that allowed him to handle any musical challenge as a band leader or first call bassist—died on Dec. 28, 2013, in New York.
The cause of death was kidney disease, according to his wife, Wendy Watel-Burno. He was 43.
On Christmas night, Burno wooed the crowd at Smalls Jazz Club in Manhattan in what was to be his final performance with his friends Peter Bernstein, Steve Nelson and Billy Drummond.
A native of Philadelphia, Burno earned accolades as a bassist early on at the age of 16 while playing under the tutelage of bassist Arthur Harper. These private lessons took place on stage at the club where Harper was performing.
Following young Burno’s performance, he was complemented by the band members, which included drummer Mickey Roker and organist/pianist Shirley Scott.
Burno was so impressive that he became a mainstay with the band for the next year until he departed to attend the Berklee College of Music in 1988. His roommate was tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, and some of his schoolmates included Geoff Keezer, Chris Cheek, Roy Hargrove and Alphonso Giles. While at Berklee, in 1989, he began working with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison.
He credits Harrison as his first major employer, mentor and friend. During this time, he also worked with trumpeter Wallace Roney, whose letter to Berklee played a role in Burno’s receipt of a partial scholarship. He remained at Berklee for three semesters before returning to Philadelphia.
During one of his many weekend commutes in 1990 from Philadelphia to perform with saxophonist Jesse Davis’ band at the then noted New York City jazz club Augie’s, the bassist caught the attention of Betty Carter. Upon joining Carter’s trio, Burno moved to New York.
Following his departure from Carter’s trio in 1991, Burno, at age 21, began playing with such jazz masters as Benny Golson, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes, Junior Cook, Clifford Jordan, Ronnie Mathews and Joe Chambers.
“Dwayne is definitely going to be missed. It’s hard to digest seeing such a young person die,” stated drummer Haynes. “Every moment with him was cherished. I’m thankful we had that time together to talk and swing.”
Burno’s music was always about giving the listener a new experience by improvising, swinging and playing different harmonies and melodies that made listeners’ ears perk up. His diverse sound is why he played, recorded and toured with an eclectic group of jazz musicians like Barry Harris, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Cedar Walton, Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, Digable Planets, Chucho Valdés, Abbey Lincoln and David Murray.
He has appeared on over 50 recordings, including Ingrid Jensen’s “Here on Earth” and Dena DeRose’s “Another World.” When he wasn’t playing with others, he led his own band, which has featured Kevin Hays, Steve Nelson, Dion Parson and Myron Walden.
“Dwayne was a dear friend; our birthdays were a day apart,” said drummer Parson. “He was about the music and family. I miss him already.”
Burno was born on June 10, 1970, into a musical family. His mother, Juanita Burno, who passed in 2001, was an accomplished pianist and choral director at their church.
His musical appetite was enhanced by his mother’s jazz collection, which included Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Ella Fitzgerald, Chico Hamilton, Stan Getz and Duke Ellington’s big band.
All of his older siblings play or played musical instruments. His oldest brother, Jeffrey Bundy, plays trumpet; the late Rev. Timothy L. Burno Jr. played the clarinet; and Dr. Derrick K. Burno plays flute. His mother and brothers planted that musical seed in his psyche early on.
Burno studied the violin from fourth grade up until his junior year in high school. He was basically self-taught on bass until high school. It was Dr. George E. Allen, the head of the music and art magnet programs, who offered him an opportunity to play the bass and join the jazz quintet.
Burno was later influenced by the bass gurus Ron Carter, Buster Williams and Oscar Pettiford, as well as by the improvisational style of Charlie Parker.
He is survived by his wife; his 7-year-old son, Quinn; and his brothers, Derrick Burno, Jeffrey Bundy and Charlton Burno.