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Life & Work with Christopher and Terri Burnett

Today we’d like to introduce you to Christopher and Terri Burnett. 

Hi Christopher and Terri, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers?
We met about 45 years ago while both working as professional musicians performing and touring around Europe with the Army band that was once based at Ansbach, Germany during the Cold War Era. We have been married for over 40 years. Music and the arts have been our constant focus, along with our family, for our entire adult lives. Among the interesting aspects we’ve found about working as professional musicians with military bands from that era was the sheer number of performances we played. We played 250 to 400 musical commitments each year. Those performances ranged from ceremonies and parades to formal concerts and tours. Often with two and three or more gigs a day during some stretches. (Terri served for 5 years and Christopher served over 22 continuous years.) Both of us served on Active Duty Regular Army status. Terri got out after her first tour of duty and went back to university studies and earned her teaching degree credentials. We have two adult children who are great people and also military veterans themselves. After completing our career with military music our family opened a retail music store and operated it for several years before subsequently closing that business and moving back to the Kansas City area (which is Christopher’s native home). As empty-nesters, and having already concluded a very successful professional career with military music, our primary focus and objective was to find ways to contribute to the arts community using our experiences and areas of expertise. We found that teaching music lessons and working with music education programs have been of primary focus. However, we were able to utilize skills learned and developed during military service in other areas of business that inherently benefit us in making those efforts to positively impact aspects of the arts industry infrastructure. Our specific areas of concern include operating a professional record label, a youth jazz artist program, a jazz magazine, and working synergistically with other established arts entities in the region as well. Our nonprofit organization, Burnett Music Foundation, is built around the established arts businesses and programs we have been operating successfully for over 15 years.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
We’ve found that nothing in life is ever a “smooth road.” There are always unforeseen obstacles and challenges. Most often those types of things ultimately refine one’s efforts more than detract from what you are building when it comes to the arts professions. Our biggest adjustments came from having to literally start all over again as civilian musicians because most of the established equity and credibility built during our military career does not transfer over into the at-large music industry. And another adjustment was that the music scene infrastructure was almost totally different in that there wasn’t the type of cohesion we’d become accustomed to working within during our military music career. We had to adjust to not always having a professional staff at our disposal to help us accomplish our projects expeditiously. If we had a staff at all, it was typically us and our family members or very close friends. But it seems that is the way it’s done outside of the military service society in most any field. Unless you use contractors for those tasks like many do. So, the building of our current businesses and organizations took nearly twenty years. Another career. We seem to have ultimately found our niche within the jazz ecosystem and instrumental music education arenas we serve. Ultimately, our experiences have helped us produce and contribute to the continuum in the ways we wanted and hoped to upon deciding to come home to the Kansas City metropolitan area to live twenty years ago. We’re happy to be home again.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
It was difficult to choose an exclusive area because in order to be an Artist / Creative, you have to inherently be a Business Person too. We are unique as military music veterans in that concurrent with developing and refining professional skills as an artist and composer, we all developed soft skills that are essential to business success. These ancillary soft skills include proven developed leadership abilities, systems approach management of complex initiatives, and a successful track record in arts marketing and promotion. Three benefits and areas of experience that directly impact our art today are: (1) Inculcating our broadened perspectives into decisions and plans from having actually lived and worked in various geographical locations, both overseas and across the United States. (2) Having already performed thousands of professional engagements before coming home to be based out of the Kansas City scene and thus gaining insights that only that type of opportunity yields. (3) Showing individual examples of how mature, developed, and applied experience can contribute toward establishing a successful life as an Artist / Creative. All of this has only positively compounded our ability to willingly share that knowledge and experience with others.

Alright, so to wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
We believe that it is a historic mandate and opportunity for all of our generations currently working in the arts to build a modern infrastructure that realizes living wage opportunities for professional musicians, particularly in the thoughtful art musical genres like instrumental Jazz and Classical. That’s the type of work we have primarily chosen to be part of building since returning home. We’ve already experienced the applause of millions and performed on television and radio broadcasts. Professional musicians should enjoy the same types of working conditions and benefits that other professional careers afford. Beyond the stage, and the things that support that infrastructural aspects of being a professional musician, there should also be the same types of tangible professional support structures commercially available and in place specifically to serve artists. We need other essential professional resources that serve working musicians in addition to booking agencies, public relations firms, artist management firms, and independent radio promoters. This would require a literal “coming together” of venues that present live music with the professional performing arts community to establish a coherent baseline. Although we are members of the musician’s union, most people we know are not because the work covered by the union isn’t applicable to most of us who consider ourselves jazz artists. We don’t know if that is a good or bad thing really and since most venues are not affiliated with the musician’s union, there’s a wide variety of approaches among them in terms of their artist relations and pay scales. From what we’ve observed in the two decades since returning home, there are several catalyst organizations making concerted efforts to positively affect the quality of working conditions for career professional musicians. That is noble. However, it seems that a more cohesive approach could benefit just about every person currently working in the field, as well as better inform those considering pursuing a career in the applied arts like music. Subsidizing one’s art by teaching or working for government institutions will likely never go away entirely. However, performing musicians should have a living wage and health benefits, just like most other professions. We truly love what we do and understand that we are fortunate to have found a way to earn our living throughout our entire family life together.

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Image Credits
Christopher Burnett
Terri Burnett

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