Don Burrows: Jazz legend who mentored James Morrison plays on, despite dementia
By Ben Cheshire
Updated Mon at 6:12am
Photo: Don Burrows and James Morrison have always shared a love of music. (Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)
Veteran jazz musician Don Burrows, twice named as one of Australia's living national treasures, has been diagnosed with dementia and now resides in a Sydney nursing home.
But the 87-year-old multi-instrumentalist is still able to play the flute — the instrument that started his music career at the age of nine.
Burrows retired to the Victorian town of Paynesville before suffering a stroke in 2013, which left him paralysed down one side.
Photo: Don Burrows, aged 50. (Supplied)
His ability to continue to play music has amazed his doctors and fellow musicians.
"He remembers the tunes, and this seems not to be affected by the dementia," Burrows' general practitioner Dr George Foldes told Australian Story.
"It's a routine that he has continued all his life, and he's fortunate to have that as the cornerstone of his being."
Jazz musician James Morrison, who was mentored by Burrows from the age of 16, vividly remembered the moment his old friend picked up his instrument, about two months after the stroke.
"It was like a switch flicked, and suddenly he was Don Burrows again, he was playing just like he always did," Morrison said.
"It was like his mind snapped back into place. He didn't get his short-term memory back, but he got his personality back."
Morrison and his wife Judi, who is a nurse, are now Burrows' legal guardians and have taken charge of his care.
Realising that music was the key to his recovery, they decided to move him back to Sydney, where he could be around music and the "family" of musicians he had played with all his life.
The legendary musician now lives at a nursing home close to the Morrisons on Sydney's northern beaches, and they visit him almost daily.
Burrows also gets regular visits from former bandmates including guitarist George Golla and pianist Kevin Hunt.
Video: Jazz legend Don Burrows plays Waltzing Matilda at his nursing home in Sydney (ABC News)
Twice a week, he joins the nursing home choir on their regular sing-along sessions, adding his distinctive flute to classic tunes like Waltzing Matilda.
"I just think it's good for him because it's almost like he's back at work, he's playing his flute and his life's been that," Kevin Hunt said.
"Because he's a musician, he needs music all day, every day."
Morrison 'didn't think twice' about helping Burrows
Photo: Don Burrows, James Morrison and his wife Judi Morrison have always been close. (Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)
For Morrison, Burrows' illness has turned the tables on their 40-year friendship.
He said meeting Burrows was the most important turning point in his life.
Burrows invited the then 16-year-old trumpeter to join his band and mentored him through a hugely successful career in Australia and overseas.
When Morrison and his wife had children, Burrows was affectionately known in their household as "Grand Don".
So when the ageing maestro became unwell, Morrison said he did not have to think twice about helping.
"It was just a new role suddenly. Don had always looked after me. Now it was time to look after him," Morrison said.
The legend of Burrows lives on through students
Last year, Morrison opened a school of jazz at Mount Gambier in South Australia to continue the mentoring work pioneered by Burrows.
The James Morrison Academy of Music offers one-year and three-year courses in jazz, in conjunction with the University of South Australia.
"And certainly whilst ever I'm around, we'll be teaching about what Don Burrows has meant to Australian jazz," Morrison said.
Photo: A CD cover of Don Burrows and James Morrison is just one of the many pieces of memorabilia at the "Don Burrows" room at the James Morrison Academy of Music. (Supplied)
The academy has a "Don Burrows room" full of memorabilia, including musical instruments, posters and photos.
"So much of jazz history is about Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie. They're all amazing musicians but they're all from somewhere else," Morrison said.
"It's important for young musicians today to know that Don Burrows, another one of these greats, is from right here, and being an Australian it can make them feel like: 'OK, I can do this too.'"
A life filled with a love of jazz
Photo: A young Don Burrows in the ABC TV studios. (ABC TV archives)
Burrows was inspired to take up the flute in 1937 when a visiting teacher, Victor McMahon, came to his school in Bondi and showed him a B-flat flute.
As a teenager during World War II, he got his break playing in Sydney jazz bands because the war had created a shortage of musicians.
By the 1960s, he was Australia's best-known jazz musician, receiving the first gold record for an Australian jazz recording, and instigating the first jazz course in Australia at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
He also presented jazz programs on television, exhibited his own black and white photographs and was a member of the Australian Saltwater Fly Fishing team.
Burrows, who often said his favourite number was number eight, will turn 88 next week, on the eighth day of the eighth month.
Topics: music, human-interest, aged-care, jazz, paynesville-3880, sydney-2000
First posted Sun at 3:23pm