Interviews

Still Rockin': Miami Beach Rock Ensemble Celebrates 50 Years of Coaching Young Musicians

The Miami Beach Rock Ensemble continues to open music education to high school students.
The Miami Beach Rock Ensemble continues to open music education to high school students. Photo by Osmany Torres
When Fernando Perdomo flew to London to record at the iconic Abbey Road Studios, he brought a framed photograph of his late music teacher, Doug Burris.

"I put it on the piano that the Beatles used on Sgt. Pepper," Perdomo says. "I wanted him to be there."

Perdomo, who graduated from Miami Beach Senior High in 1998, spent three years under Burris' tutelage as part of the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble, the school's highly regarded music program Burris founded in 1972.

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it wasn't for Rock Ensemble," says Perdomo, a guitarist who has collaborated with Jakob Dylan, Fiona Apple, and Tego Calderon and appears in the music documentary Echo in the Canyon. "[Burris] showed me that I could make a career out of what many people consider a hobby. There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about what he taught me."

On Saturday, May 28, Perdomo, along with more than 100 former students, will take part in a concert to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble and honor Burris’ life and legacy, defined by his dedication and devotion to the more than 1,000 students who have come through the ensemble. Many have gone on to have successful careers in the music and entertainment industry.

Adam Chester remembers joining the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble in 1981, his junior year in high school. For one of his first performances, he played Elton John's instrumental "Funeral for a Friend."

"They brought me out in a coffin covered with dry ice, and I came out in a white three-piece suit, walked over to the keyboard, and started playing. It was friggin' awesome," he remembers.
click to enlarge Miami Beach Rock Ensemble alum Adam Chester (right) played in the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble and went on to work with Elton John. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ADAM CHESTER
Miami Beach Rock Ensemble alum Adam Chester (right) played in the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble and went on to work with Elton John.
Photo courtesy of Adam Chester
Chester's participation in Rock Ensemble was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Burris. "I called him all the time," says Chester, who studied music at the University of Southern California. Years later, a chance meeting with Elton John's guitarist, Davey Johnstone, in Los Angeles brought it full circle for Chester. In 2004, he was offered an extraordinary opportunity.

"[Johnstone] asked me if I wanted to rehearse with the band because Elton doesn't, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" The band bestowed him the nickname "surrogate Elton John."

"He's Sir Elton, and I became Sur Elton," Chester says jokingly.

When he called Burris to tell him the news, his former teacher was ecstatic. "He was like, 'Fuck yeah.'"

Chester continues to work with the music legend. In 2018, when the Recording Academy organized a tribute concert for John during the Grammy Awards, Chester was either behind the piano or conducting a string quartet as Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, and Miley Cyrus performed John's hits. Chester credits the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble for changing the course of his life. "It all started to flourish for me in high school," he says. "[Burris] was someone I respected and someone I loved."

Through the years, the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble earned national praise, won competitions, and was highlighted in newspapers and network television, including features on MTV, CNN, and CBS. In 1999, the ensemble opened the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland after Burris petitioned the event's organizers. Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Curtis Mayfield were among the inductees that year.

"Music is the one thread that keeps us all together and on a certain track," Burris told CBS New Sunday Morning in 2000. He died in 2016 from complications from multiple sclerosis.
click to enlarge Sammy Gonzalez took over as director of the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble in 2017. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINE OLIVERA
Sammy Gonzalez took over as director of the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble in 2017.
Photo by Christine Olivera
After Burris' retirement in 2012, Rock Ensemble struggled to fill its leadership void. For several years, it was managed by former student Iran Garcia, who relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. Garcia turned to Sammy Gonzalez, another former Miami Beach Rock Ensemble member. Gonzalez agreed to take over as director in 2017 through his nonprofit organization, Young Musicians Unite, whose core mission is based on the belief that every student in Miami deserves access to music education.

"I am a product of free music education," Gonzalez says. "What I didn't know back then was that I was being trained for my future by working with Burris. It wasn't a job to him; it was a lifestyle."

Gonzalez felt blessed to carry the torch for his former teacher. "I didn't have a father growing up, so he was that person who truly cared about me," says Gonzalez, his voice shaking. "He was like a father."

Today, the Miami Beach Rock Ensemble plays about 20 shows a year, performing rock classics by Queen, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Heart. A.J. Hill supports the group as artistic director and Michael "Mac" McNamee as assistant director.

Interest in the program is skyrocketing, Gonzalez reports. "At auditions this year, all the slots were maxed out."

Gonzalez is moved by the ensemble's continued impact on the Miami community, especially younger students. "[These] students see [the Rock Ensemble] perform and are inspired to pick up an instrument and get interested in the arts, whether music or film or sound technology."

At Saturday's event, representatives from the City of Miami Beach will present the group with a proclamation declaring that day the Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble Day.

"I get people all the time now saying, thank you so much for continuing the legacy of Doug Burris," Gonzalez says. "He's smiling from heaven right now."

Miami Beach Rock Ensemble's 50th Anniversary Concert. 7 p.m. Saturday, May 28, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-453-2897; northbeachbandshell.com. Tickets cost $15 to $30.
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