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LIVING    Sunday, June 05, 2005         Subscribe!
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Bigger than life

This year's Burlington Discover Jazz Festival is dedicated to the memory of Big Joe Burrell, the larger-than-life saxophone player who brought musical joy to Burlington and the rest of Vermont for three decades. Big Joe died Feb. 1 at age 80, and in the past four months those who were touched by the man and his music have looked back on what he meant to them and the community. The Burlington Free Press asked readers to share their memories of Big Joe, and here's some of what they had to say (or show; the photos come from reader Roy Gifford of Hinesburg):

My wife Jennifer and I got married June 28, 1992, at The Inn on the Common in Craftsbury. Big Joe and The Unknown Blues Band played at the reception. The innkeeper had heard the name Big Joe but never actually heard him play so was excited to see him. After the first set, she said she wasn't sure what the big deal was -- he was good but nothing special. Having seen many, many Big Joe concerts and being a major fan I was familiar with this phenomenon -- I said, "Just wait. ..." By the third set all she could say was "Wow!" No doubt for everyone it was one of the best weddings and bands ever.
-- Jonathan Cohen, South Burlington

I owned and operated The Front from 1986 to 1991, a nightclub that featured live entertainment located where the Skirack is today. During the summer of 1990, The Unknown Blues Band was headlining the Discover Jam Session that we ran every year during the Discover Jazz Festival. There was an open invitation for all musicians to come down, join the band and, yeah, jam. Big Joe, Chuck Eller, Paul Asbell, Harry Thompson and Tony Markelis were a special group of players. They could accommodate many different musicians on the stage and created some of the most compelling music that ever emanated from the two very small windows in the place (Phish did OK, too, but, that's another story).

My most vivid memory of Joe was on the second humid night of their weekend run. One of the Jazz Festival's headliner concerts had just finished at the Flynn, and I could see the crowd out on Main Street. We would always get overflow after their concerts, and on this night not only did we get their crowd, but we also got their headliner. In walked Betty Carter and her entourage. A jazz legend's presence in a small, unknown club can really get the heart racing. She came over to me and asked if she could join in the jam session. As you can imagine, it was very exciting. I went over to Chuck and Joe and asked.

A few minutes later, she was up on stage, and it was nothing short of magical. Betty was known for her unique vocal delivery, and her voice with Joe's sax ripped the joint up. Everyone was on their feet, and the spontaneity of the moment was not lost on the crowd. I remember getting looks from my friends and regulars as we all knew we were witnessing a once in a lifetime performance.

No words can describe the effortlessness the two of them shared on that hot, June night. To my knowledge, it was the first time these legends had ever shared a stage together, but you would never have known it. That was the beauty of Joe, how he could make someone like Betty Carter feel welcome. It's what all of us who saw him felt, welcomed. Welcomed into his love of music.

Years later, Big Joe and The Unknown Blues Band played at my wedding. It was a wonderful night for my wife and I to remember. But my fondest memory of him was the night Betty and Joe tore it up and brought down the house at The Front.
-- Shawn Sweeney, Shelburne

I am as unmusical as you could imagine, not connected to music in any way, not even listening to it in the car on the radio. Yet I once allowed a friend to convince me to stop in one evening at Halvorson's to hear Big Joe. It was my first time in Halvorson's back room in the evening and my first time hearing Big Joe Burrell. After that evening I was maximally surprised to be so moved by a musician and a musical context. Somehow I understood, perhaps for the first time, at age 57 no less, some of the magic of music in people's lives. It turned out that it was Big Joe's last gig, oxygen tank and all; he died before he ever returned to Halvorson's again. It was a gift for me, and it seems significant that right up to the end he was taking persons to new places with music. I imagine that this would have pleased him to know.
-- Jeffrey Frost, Burlington

I volunteer at 3 Cathedral Square, home to Big Joe. Whenever he came through the door, he always had a big "Hi" for all, making everyone he met on his way feel special. He was a true gentleman to all, always opened the doors for the ladies and gave them his seat whenever necessary. He was more than happy to give his autograph to anyone who asked. I will miss his big smile, his gentle voice, but mostly I will miss Big Joe himself!
-- Michelle Lyons, Burlington

My favorite memory of Big Joe took place about five years ago at the Fourth of July parade in Bristol. My husband and I took my parents to the parade (they hadn't been to one in years). We thought they would love the outhouse races, which they did indeed. After the parade, we strolled over to the town green where Big Joe and his band were playing. My mother, who was nearing 80 years old at the time, was enthralled. At one point, she spontaneously took my hand, and we started to dance. It was lovely to see her enjoying herself so freely and happily. It is also one of my favorite memories of my mother.
-- Diane Chattman, South Burlington

Was it Big Joe's stature?

Was it Big Joe's musical message?

Was it Big Joe's smile?

Or was it the way Big Joe played the saxophone. ...

All of these are fond memories during the 20 years we have followed Big Joe Burrell and his performances. When Big Joe was playing ... we found a way to attend. From the Blues Cruises on Lake Champlain to the Chew Chew Festival to the Discover Jazz Festival and the July Fourth Celebrations on the Burlington Waterfront, we always looked forward to being part of the events and seeing Big Joe's grand presence.

During the years when we attended the many events, we always said, "when we get married," we want Big Joe Burrell and The Unknown Blues Band to play at our wedding. That dream came true on Sept. 1, 2002, when we were married at the Radisson Hotel in Burlington. We had been engaged for nearly 20 years, and had been together for 30 years and on that day, 250 of our friends and family gathered to celebrate the occasion of our wedding and Big Joe Burrell and The Unknown Blues Band played at our reception. Our first dance was, "I Think It's Gonna Work Out Fine" and the second dance, with my father-in-law, was "Wonderful World." We will always remember Big Joe Burrell in our hearts and the fond memories of his performances. He has touched the lives of many.
With Love,
-- Nancy and Rick Rock, Burlington

Big Joe Burrell played our wedding back on June 29, 1997. The wedding was on top of Jay Peak, and Big Joe played at the base for the reception. It was so hot that two electronic keyboards broke. During part of their show Big Joe gave Kelly and I his gift. I was a 100-year guarantee on our marriage. After that he said it was up to us. Eight years and two kids later, the guarantee is still working fine.
-- Chris LaMonda, Jericho

At Bill Kinzie's studio in Wolcott (circa 1977?), Gary Sisco was making a recording, and he'd asked Big Joe to play on it. I was wondering as we were all sitting around waiting to do our cameos: Why is this guy here? It can't be for the money, I am quite sure. I think Joe embraced us Vermonters, or maybe more, that he respected us, and never saw any project or person as "beneath him" in any way; quite remarkable.

He also mentioned somethin' about the location being kind of like "Li'l Abner."
-- Spencer Lewis, Bethel

One of my most vivid memories of Big Joe was a performance he gave at my 70th birthday party a few years ago. The party was at the Old Lantern in Charlotte, which has wonderful acoustics. As a surprise for me, Big Joe had been asked to give a solo performance on his soprano sax.

Everyone fell silent when Big Joe began to play. The sound was almost too beautiful to describe properly; enhanced by the wonderfully full acoustics of the big room, the performance was a unique experience for myself and my friends. Big Joe is most known for his great blues singing and his mastery of the saxophone, but I will always remember his solo performance on the soprano sax, absolutely one of the best ever from him or anybody else.

Thanks, Big Joe, you were the best, period.
-- Avery Hall, Burlington

My Memories of Big Joe are many, but there is one that comes to mind. It happened at Halvorson's one Thursday evening 1 years ago. Big Joe and Friends were playing. One group of tables was pulled together for a birthday celebration for a young college student. Big Joe and Friends played "Happy Birthday" to her. A few moments later an energetic Canadian gentleman jumped up to announce that he and his wife were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and asked Big Joe to play something for them. Big Joe turned to the rest of the musicians, said something, and turned back to the man and said OK. With a one - two - three, Big Joe and Friends played "Things Aren't What They Used To Be."
-- Bryce Howells, Burlington

Big Joe Burrell was a true inspiration for me. After hearing him play at a friends' wedding in Lincoln some time in the mid-'80s, I was inspired to learn how to play the saxophone. Big Joe's words of encouragement were heartfelt. After talking with him, I felt it was actually possible to turn my dream of being a saxophone player into reality. I went out and bought my first alto sax and taught myself to play. I've been playing now for about 20 years and have loved every minute of it. I was lucky enough to have "sat in" with Big Joe on more than one occasion. He was always most gracious about this.

Big Joe often sang about world peace. Let's remember his words and keep working for the peace.
-- Emily (Mimi) Ryan,
from the band Mango Jam,

Joseph "Big Joe" Burrell brought joy, thrilling the souls of thousands over the years during Twelfth Night celebrations with the Essex Children's Choir. His melodious vocal instrument soared joyous sounds of sacred blues for Christmas; moving the audience to spontaneous singing, clapping and standing ovations with cheers of joy!

Big Joe always said, "I love those kids!" Likewise, the kids loved Big Joe and will always cherish him and his gift of song.
-- Constance Price,
founding director,
Essex Children's Choir
South Burlington

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