Doyen of Australian jazz, Donald (Don) Vernon Burrows, had been at the forefront of Australian jazz for over six decades. He was an excellent musician, playing flute, piccolo, clarinet, alto and baritone saxophones. He was also a composer and arranger and could play in any jazz style.
He was born in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, 8 August 1928. At Bondi High School in 1937, a visiting flautist and teacher motivated him to start playing the flute and by 1940 he was not only the captain of the Metropolitan Schools Flute Band but was also studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Soon after he took up the clarinet and, possibly due to the loss of musicians who had been called up to serve in the Second World War, he became principal clarinettist with the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Symphony Orchestra in addition performing with the ABC Dance Band. He became widely known in jazz circles, also playing in dance halls and nightclubs.
In the early 1950s he went to Canada, the USA and the UK and on returning to Sydney, he continued his session work and playing in nightclubs. In 1958 he formed the Australian All Stars and in 1960 he began a long musical association with guitarist George Golla. During the next two decades Don was the best-known jazz musician in Australia. In 1971, he was the first jazz musician I met when I arrived in Sydney. At the time he was playing at the supper club of the Sydney Wentworth Hotel where he had a residency for six years. Subsequently he had a long residency at the Regent (now Four Seasons) Hotel and had the supper-club room named after him. In 1972 he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival and at the Newport Jazz Festival, being the first Australian to do so. In 1973, he started the first jazz studies programme at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and in 1980 was appointed its first jazz director. His enthusiasm saw him undertake educational tours to schools around Australia. He also hosted his own TV show – The Don Burrows Collection – for six years. During the 80’s he mentored and often performed with the multi-instrumentalist James Morrison.
He toured extensively both in Australia and worldwide and performed with many visiting artists including Cleo Laine, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli and Tony Bennett and with the cream of Australasian jazz musicians.
Over his long career, Don received many honours including in 1973 the MBE (Member of the British Empire), in 1987 OA (Officer of the Order of Australia), in 1989 and 1999 named a Living Treasure, a life member of the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and several Honorary Doctorates.
In his later years, Don suffered from dementia, and his one-time protégé, James Morrison and James’s wife, Judi, became his legal guardians, bringing him back from Victoria where he had retired a few years previously, and organised care for Don in Sydney. Don passed away peacefully 12 March 2020.