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Ode to Big Joe 

Remembering the man with the mellow saxophone

Last Wednesday, February 2, "Big Joe" Burrell passed away a week shy of his 81st birthday. It's an understatement to say that the tall, soulful saxophonist touched the lives of thousands of Vermonters with his music, heart, humor and class. From his decades playing with the Unknown Blues Band, to the long-running Thursday-night "residency" at Halvorson's in Burlington, to his generous mentoring of younger musicians, locals embraced this Michigan native as one of their own. His loss to the Vermont music community is simply unfathomable and his absence will be felt for a long time to come.

Big Joe did not want a funeral or any fuss. But he always loved to see his fans having a good time, and so perhaps would not mind a memorial party that a group of friends is planning for the spring. Certainly he'd be happy to know that the live recording of jazz tunes he recently completed will be released next month. UBB keyboardist and studio owner Chuck Eller says proceeds from sales of the disc may fund a music-mentoring scholarship for kids.

But for now, let us treasure individual memories of Big Joe's long and "note"-worthy life, with the help of pictures and words from a few friends, fellow musicians and admirers.

DENNIS WILLMOTT: Big Joe Burrell has left an indelible mark in my life and in our community. He spent a lifetime as a true artist, never giving up on and expanding upon the essentials of the two great American musical forms (forums, really): blues and jazz. His influence on our local musicians will bear fruit for a very long time, and his "straight-ahead" style of playing left a lot of room for those fortunate enough to have played with him. He just simply supported you and had the experience to do it seamlessly, and the whole time he'd be there measuring the satisfaction of his audience.

Those musicians who came up in the 1930s, '40s and '50s were dedicated, competitive and passionate. Joe had the generosity to carry all that to us, musician and listener alike, to be savored, comprehended and maybe even played here in Vermont!

I don't know what we're going to do now about the music, but he set the bar so high, and I think he'd want all of us to work hard and enjoy playing until we can do no more -- just like he did.

Willmott played guitar in Big Joe's Thursday-night Halvorson's gig the past two and a half years, and is also the front man of his own band, Left Eye Jump. By day, he's a designer at Truex Cullins in Burlington.

PAUL ASBELL: Big Joe was one of those guys who only knew one way to shoot -- straight and from the hip. He deeply distrusted "phoniness" in people, even when the behavior might be otherwise considered "diplomacy." For this reason, Joe wasn't a great business guy -- but it's what made him a great blues singer and player, because he always tried to "tell his story" in every song he played.

I'll never forget a gig we did at Hunt's the day after he married his wife Odelia. He asked me to count off a slow blues in C, and he proceeded to sing an off-the-cuff, 12-bar love poem to her that was so unpremeditated and heartfelt, I was wiping tears from my face as we ended it. Magically, we were recording that night for our first CD, and you can hear the passion in it even now.

Big Joe's heart was open and real, and everyone who knew the man will know what I'm talking about.

Burlington guitarist Paul Asbell played with Big Joe for more than 25 years in the Unknown Blues Band and continues to play blues and jazz as a soloist or with ensembles.

DANNY COANE: It's so sad to see this legend (and not just local) pass away. He was a great player, a soulful singer, a true entertainer who knew what it meant to entertain, not just be some cat absorbed with his playing. And, as importantly as anything, Big Joe was a real old-style gentleman. One thing I always loved about him was his old-school manners, and wearing a tie and suit when he played, pretty much no matter where.

And Joe loved everybody, as we loved him. My thoughts are with him today. Bless his soul.

Guitarist/vocalist Coane plays with the honky-tonk/rockabilly band Starline Rhythm Boys and the bluegrass trio Stone/Coane/Sacher. He lives in Montpelier.

LARRY MCCROREY: They called him "Big Joe," and those of us who knew him and blew with him all these years understand that title personally and intuitively. Joe was a big dude, with a big sound and a big voice, and a big, swingin' feeling for this music we love. Those qualities alone would have been enough to weld him into the hearts and souls of the Burlington community.

Joe was a wonderful jazz musician, straight from the old school. He had paid his dues in the cutting sessions of the '50s and, like others of us, spent many nights "walking the bar." He thoroughly understood that jazz was more than technical fluency, that it was an expression of feeling -- soul, if you will. And he had it!

But Joe was so much more than that. More than anything else he was a big, beautiful human being. He was ever willing to help young, aspiring musicians, not just musically but in understanding professional demeanor, such as stage presence, audience interaction and the like. He loved people and he reached out to help so many -- those in need of support, inspiration, or just a friendly hand.

Yes, Joe was a big man with big hands and big shoulders and a big heart. We will miss him and always love him.

McCrorey is a fellow saxophonist and professor emeritus from the UVM Medical School. He lives in Grand Isle.

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.


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