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Chicago Sun Times

Swiss swings

January 27, 2000


It's a story that seems more like something from an independent film than someone's life.

In a German nightclub in the mid-'70s, a college kid politely approaches a legendary Chicago blues pianist who is muttering to himself about the meager turnout. They strike up a conversation and the kid, who is from nearby Basel, Switzerland, mentions that he played drums as a teenager with American bluesmen including a crony of the pianist's. The pianist lights up and the kid offers to play drums with him as well.

The pianist accepts the offer and things go well, particularly the next night, when the kid gets a bunch of students to pack the place. The next time they meet up in Europe, the pianist invites the kid, who has switched to saxophone, to look him up in the States.

When the kid makes it to Chicago, having turned 24, he not only joins the pianist's band, but also moves in with him in Englewood and then on the West Side, drives him around and becomes part of the blues community.

Sam Burckhardt, who has since relocated to the North Side and a life in jazz, still can't believe his good fortune in hooking up with Sunnyland Slim during the years leading up to his death at 88 in 1995. ``It sometimes seems like a dream,'' he said. For others, the idea of a Swiss kid from a wealthy family of doctors and lawyers making the grade as a Chicago bluesman is too unlikely to be true.

But Burckhardt, who will lead his swing band at 8:45 tonight as part of the Jazz Institute of Chicago's Jazz Fair at the Cultural Center, refuses to let questions about his image get in his way. ``I decided from the start that I wasn't going to worry about that stuff, that I was just going to be myself,'' he said.

His easygoing, soft-spoken manner belies his determination, which he revealed in dropping out of school to hook up with the colorful and eccentric Sunnyland Slim (``He was like my grandmother in never saying good about my playing in front of me, but bragging about me in front of others'') and then in pursuing his own vision.

A charter member of the Mighty Blue Kings, who launched the jump and swing revival in Chicago five years ago, he knew even when the band was packing clubs and he was wagging his sax in the spotlight that he wasn't in it for the long run--that the Kings' hyped-up sound wasn't the sound he heard in his head.

After a less-than-amicable parting with leader and lead singer Ross Bon (who has since refashioned the still-popular Kings as an R&B and swing unit), he became part of the five-horn contingent in the Big Swing, for which he frequently handled leadership chores. Still not satisfied, he left that band (which faded out not long after changing its name to the Vanguard Aces) to start his own.

For his impressive 1999 debut album, ``Chicago Swing,'' which he released himself, Burckhardt rounded up musicians he had played with and/or admired including vaunted veteran saxophonist Ron Dewar, organist Dan Trudell and blues guitarist Steve Freund. While he can't be said to have more than a serviceable style on tenor, his songs are alive with sweet harmonies, wistful melodies, fetching arrangements and fresh slants.

``I always have tried to do what Duke Ellington said to, which was to have a song contain something familiar and something unexpected,'' he said.

During his initial years in Chicago, Burckhardt held day jobs as an interpreter and translator and teacher of German and French. Before emigrating here, he did field work in Africa as an anthropology student. Now, his field work is restricted to places like the California Clipper, where he holds down a regular Thursday gig.

Burckhardt, who is largely self-taught as a musician, confessed to being intimidated by ``legitimate guys who can read off the page like there's no tomorrow.'' But the memory of his final gig with Sunnyland Slim at Legends provides him reasons not to worry about perfection.

``He could no longer play what he used to,'' he said, ``but in keeping things simple and focused, he got at the essence of the blues--filtered, distilled and distilled again. It gave me chills. Just thinking about it, it gives me chills again.''

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