Rahn Burton: A year later

Late last January, Don emailed me with unexpected news — Second Floor Music composer Rahn Burton had passed away on January 25, 2013 at age 78.

I was surprised, to say the least. I had last seen Rahn in August 2012 and he was full of life. A jovial, easy-going man, Rahn took great pleasure in making the whole office smile and laugh. He may have been in his mid-70s, but he had as youthful a disposition as they get.

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You likely haven’t heard of Rahn; he was never a big name in jazz. When I realized how few of my peers in jazz were familiar with him, I was shocked — he always seemed like something of a giant to me. His bony hands unleashed torrents of energy so passionate that Rahn would often brush incorrect notes in his whirlwind of fervor. It was those wrong notes that drew me to Rahn’s playing: his style was a welcome respite of technically proficient but fundamentally soulless modern pianists. And while Rahn’s name was never big, his presence was certainly known — those who do not know “Rahn Burton” may well be familiar with “the pianist for Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” unaware that the two were one and the same.

I knew Rahn only briefly — just through the summer of 2012. We were rehearsing some of his vocal music, which had been left untouched since he composed it in the 1970s. The goal was to record them and distribute them to other (better-known) singers, who would hopefully in turn record them themselves. Who knows whether our fantasy would have even been realized.

In those few months we worked together, Rahn was a memorable presence around the office, to say the least. He always sported a dashiki, usually in bone white. His long fingers were often adorned with large rings, which remarkably never seemed to encumber his playing. He had an unmistakable manner of speaking — a Kentucky drawl with a self-conscious chuckle to it. He’d come to the office late — sometimes by hours — but not at all flustered. If he was aware of his lateness, he certainly didn’t show it, and I suspect he had no idea when our meeting was supposed to be aside from the date.

The last time I saw Rahn, I was finishing my internship at Second Floor Music. It was two days before I was slated to leave. Rahn was supposed to be in around 1 or 2, but of course he didn’t arrive until the late afternoon. That wasn’t out of the ordinary for Rahn or really any of our composers; I learned that summer that, for jazz musicians, meeting times were really just a vague guideline, a mere suggestion. Rahn had evidently gone shopping before meeting us, because he came in with a giant loaf of bread under his arm. No other groceries or bags, curiously, but just this huge loaf — it was like a baguette, but the width of a French loaf. I suppose in writing it’s not quite as funny as it was to me at the time. But the sight of the bony, bent Rahn Burton, practically swimming in an embroidered dashiki, shuffling through the room in plastic sandals, with a comically oversized loaf of bread under his arm as if it were a briefcase or umbrella — I almost lost it. Rahn didn’t seem to think anything was unusual about the bread or the way he was carrying it; he laid it down on the table and we got to work.

That rehearsal was the first time I really found my voice with Rahn. That whole summer, he had been on my case to express myself through my voice; I was terrified of insulting the composer by changing the notes he had so carefully written. But Rahn didn’t care: he wanted the music to live and breathe. He wanted me to breathe with it, to add upon it, to make it my own. He felt I was a good candidate for this, as he often told me that he’d never heard a voice like mine. It wasn’t clear whether that was a compliment or not, but I decided to take it as such.

It was a good rehearsal. Had I known it’d be the last time I’d see him, I’d probably try to insist that we record the song right, not with our small camcorder and a clip-on mic. But alas, all I have is this imperfect record of our rehearsal; I can’t imagine Rahn would be particularly upset to have such an honest (if not quite beautiful) recording out there. But this incredible ballad deserves more, it deserves a day in the studio. Still, perhaps the recording I offer today is better than nothing.

Beyond futile attempts to preserve the past, I wish I could have insisted we continue for hours more so I could absorb everything he was trying to offer me — his philosophy on music, on singing, on creating, all of it. But he left after a few times through each song.

Seconds later, he returned: “MY BREAD,” he exclaimed. He had forgotten the loaf on the table. My boss broke it into two smaller loaves for him and put each in a plastic bag. Rahn seemed grateful for this innovation, but mostly to be reunited with the loaf.

And off he went.

–Rachel Bronstein

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