Memoir: Tony Burns

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My friend, Tony Burns, has died. After a short time in a hospice in north London, he died in his sleep on Friday.

Anyone present at book launches or readings I gave in the London area over the past couple of decades will remember Tony, accompanied by just guitar and bass, embellishing the occasion with jazz saxophone playing of the highest order. It was always my favourite part of the evening.

I first met Tony Burns when we were in our mid- to late-teens, introduced to him by a school friend, Jim Galvin, who lived in the same street. We hung out together in the local park, visited the same jazz clubs; played, on occasion, for the same soccer team. When Tony decided he was going to learn to play the saxophone, I opted to join him on drums. At first we practiced in his bedroom, me playing brushes across the top of an old suitcase, Tony with the real thing; later, when I had a full kit, we used to hire a room over a pub in Kentish Town on Sunday afternoons – the pub landlord found it hard to believe two people could make that much noise.

After college, I moved away to teach, Tony took up tailoring – and was to work in Saville Row – and we fell largely out of touch; once or twice, on a visit down to London, I saw him playing – excellently – at a pub in Covent Garden but little more.

He was still playing alto sax then, alto and baritone; the alto showing the influence of one of his early heroes, Paul Desmond, the baritone carrying shades of another, Gerry Mulligan. Later, he almost exclusively played tenor and if you closed your eyes it was Stan Getz you were hearing.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s and I was living in London again that we began to spend time together more regularly: listening to jazz – the Gillespiana big band at the King’s Head in Crouch End was a favourite – and, on occasions, playing and performing together at poetry and jazz evenings at the Troubador and elsewhere – reading aside, my task was to supply minimal percussion on bongoes, watching out in trepidation for the moment when he might throw me a four bar break.

More recently still, Tony had a residency at a pub in north London, near the Archway, and on a couple of occasions – knowing I had a full set of drums once more at my disposal – my daughter’s – and having exhausted the list of deps in his little black book, he asked me if I would come along and sit in. They were – for me – some of the most pleasurable times I can remember. I kept my head down, kept time, and when – just occasionally – Tony gave me a quick look of approval, it made my evening.

That won’t happen again. But I know, whenever I’m listening to Getz, or Desmond, or Mulligan, there’ll be a moment when I’ll close my eyes and see Tony playing.

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