Obituary: Pete Burden – 4th April 1941 – 27th December 2016
by Marcus Weeks
Hastings, and the world of music, is a quieter, sadder place with the loss of alto saxophonist Pete Burden, who has died aged 75.
Perhaps the best known, and certainly the best loved of local musicians, Pete was an institution, admired by audiences and respected by players far beyond the bounds of Hastings. He was also a true and generous friend to all who knew him, and who will sorely miss his wit and warmth as much as the wonderful music he gave us.
His playing was assured, expressive and distinctive, rooted in the jazz tradition he knew and loved, and often made affectionate references to the giants of the genre. As well as having complete mastery of his instrument, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the standards from The Great American Songbook, he could exercise extraordinary control within any band, often guiding the direction of the music with a subtly inflected phrase, or the smallest gesture.
Just as he always made every note count, he never wasted words either, and underlying his quiet and erudite demeanour there was a wicked sense of humour. Although he was renowned for his often-repeated repertoire of excruciatingly bad jokes from the Ronnie Scott gagbook, this was done knowingly, and he could just as easily improvise a carefully chosen comment with perfect timing to devastating effect.
Pete was a local lad. He spent his early years in the Battle area, and went to Battle and Langton Primary School, before leaving for Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham. In 1959, he went to Southampton University, where he read Philosophy, and later wrote a thesis on Wittgenstein, which according to his friend Pete White was “considered brilliant but formally unacceptable”.
It was as a teenager that he got into jazz — not the stuff of the British trad jazz revival so popular in the 1950s, but the bebop that was known to only a few aficionados at the time — and set about mastering the genre on the alto sax, that archetypal and hippest of modern jazz instruments.
By his late teens he had already started to make a name for himself, and was playing regularly with like-minded contemporaries, including pianist Pete White, with whom he played locally from the early1960s and in Montreal in 1965-66. On his return, he played regularly in the Palace Bars, Hastings, with trumpeter Del Turner— a collaboration that continued for many years. But he was also well known beyond the local jazz scene, and in the mid 1960s he lived in London, playing in numerous line-ups, notably The Troubadour in Old Brompton Street where he forged pecial friendships with pianist Lionel Grigson and drummer Spike Wells.
Throughout the 70s he played locally with various line-ups, including bassists Terry Pack and Roger Carey, Pete White, Dave Appleyard (drums), and a host of others in the Royal Standard, the Yelton (now the White Rock Hotel), and the Chatsworth, as well as gigs in Eastbourne and Brighton.
Pete was also a much loved and respected teacher, who, from the 1990s, ran a weekly jazz workshop open to musicians of all ages, from beginners to accomplished, allowing them to develop and push themselves beyond their comfort zones without fear of ridicule, and always with the safety net of Pete’s reassurance.
Whilst always modest about his own extraordinary musicianship and intellect, and despite his huge social circle of friends and musical collaborators, he remained an essentially private person, and even those of us who had known him for many years knew little of his life and achievements. He kept his darker side to himself too, and it is testament to his strength and bravery that only his closest friends knew the extent of his struggle with mental illness for much of his life. Despite that inner turmoil, Pete seldom let it show. What came across was his charm, good humour and big-heartedness in his dealings with everyone, but above all in his music.
After a fall a few weeks before Christmas, Pete was taken into hospital, where he died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of Tuesday, 27 December.