Jazz music has a history of drummers who have made their mark at a young age. In the 1960s, the late Tony Williams was barely old enough to qualify for a driver's license when he was hired to join Miles Davis' famous quintet. More recently, saxophonist Branford Marsalis tapped Justin Faulkner to join his band shortly after Faulkner's graduation from high school.
Back at the turn of the 1980s, University City native Ronnie Burrage was just such a teenaged drumming phenom, touring the world with famed pianist McCoy Tyner before he was old enough to legally buy himself a beer after the gig. Over the next 20 years, Burrage went on to back many of the top names in modern jazz, working with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Woody Shaw, Jackie McLean, Joe Zawinul, Andrew Hill, Pat Metheny, Archie Shepp, fellow St. Louisan Lester Bowie and numerous others.
These days, Burrage is concentrating more on his own compositions, which will be featured prominently when he comes back to St. Louis to perform on Friday and Saturday at Robbie's House of Jazz (20 Allen Ave. Webster Groves). "It's all original music. I've kind of moved away from standards and things like that," says Burrage, who also plays keyboards and sings.
For much of the last decade, Burrage has been off the road, teaching - most recently at Penn State University, where he leads a popular course on hip-hop music and culture - and raising his daughter. "I've been a single dad for ten years, but my youngest daughter went back to live with her mom, so I've started focusing on my music career a lot more."
His shows at Robbie's will feature a localized version of the ensemble he calls Band Burrage, including two St. Louis musicians, bassist Bob DeBoo and guitarist Eric Slaughter, along with saxophonist and Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) player Rick Tate, who's from Philadelphia. "He's been working with me over the past two or three years, on and off," said Burrage. "He's played with the Roots, Jill Scott and tons of R&B and hip-hop artists, but he's well versed [in all types of music] from having a very heavy jazz background. He can play anything."
Although he's worked with many notable pianists, Burrage prefers to rely on guitarists in his own bands. "I've had a lot of great keyboard players in different ensembles, but I actually prefer to do without. It kind of developed out of wanting to compose a certain way, and wanting to hear the harmonies and melodies in a certain way," he explains. "To hear my compositions played more openly and clearly, I've opted to use guitar rather than keyboards. The way I like to write for instruments, I don't want to hear the chords or the form flashing by all the time from a two-handed piano player."
If there's any keyboard playing needed, Burrage handles it himself, sometimes while simultaneously playing the drums. It's an unusual technique, but something he's been doing since junior high, when some bandmates got stage fright just before a school talent show and refused to go on, forcing him to perform solo. The onstage multi-tasking "has become a big part of who I am," he says.
Though his touring has been limited during the past few years, Burrage has been actively recording, self-releasing both a solo album and a record with his band Third Kind of Blue in 2010, and another solo recording last year. While a few of the compositions from those recordings may be included in his sets at Robbie's, Burrage generally prefers to keep looking forward.
"I have a whole bunch of new music," he says. "I always like to do something new and fresh any time I get a chance to perform. I'm writing a lot more because I'd like to tour a lot more, and for some reason, I feel strongly that it may be my time to put a little more focus on that. I'm in a good place."