Burniss Earl Travis II

The 6 foot, Texas raised musician didn’t actually begin his career with the bass, he started as a violinist at Elementary Culture School. Only after his teacher picked him to play the large upright bass, because he was the tallest guy in the class, did he finally find his true calling. Travis was simultaneously a self-proclaimed hip-hop head who was a huge fan of acts like A Tribe Called Quest and loved the local Houston Chopped & Screwed scene birthed by DJ Screw, and didn’t feel confident about pursuing a career as a bassist. It would take a couple of encounters with vibraphonist Stefon Harris throughout his journey before he considered playing on a professional level. He developed his skills for a bit playing with a local orchestra before entering into the Houston jazz scene, and his career quickly took off from there.

Now based in Brooklyn, New York, the 23-year-old Travis is back on the live music scene after a year-long hiatus, and is ready to explore a new musical territory. Certainly not one of the gabbiest, and unsure at first exactly what he could offer our session together, it turned out that he actually was flooded with ideas once we got started, as is true with most musicians when given a chance to talk about the thing that they love most. Music.

Is there anyone else in your family that is into music?

My mom is a singer that grew up in the church. She used to sing for the church and was a trained singer. I think she had a desire to become a full time singer, but it didn’t happen.

So your family was cool with you becoming a musician then?

My pops said that if that’s what I wanted to do, then to do it. And my mom, she appreciated it in certain ways. My family supported me doing it.

Who do you look up to on the bass?

I look up to Christian McBride. Especially when he was playing with Branford Marsalis. I also admire Miles Davis, John Patitucci, Brandon Owens, especially Brandon when I was leaving high school. It was something about his style that really caught on with me. The Marcus Strickland Quartet, Derrick Hodge, Meshell Ndegeocello, Scott Paley, Matt Penman. I look up to any kind of musician. Everybody has something to offer. I listen to all kinds of music for ideas. Everyone has a different vibe and way they put their music together, and I think you can learn from what every musician is doing regardless of if you’re a singer or instrumentalist.

Musically, is there anything going on now that interests you?

Me, right now I’m getting into producing. Making beats is what I mean. A lot of Jazz musicians are producing these days. I would also like to get into composing, film scoring, writing more music. I think doing all of that is becoming another part of the requirements. If you want to be a band leader that’s cool, but everyone has their own thing and not everyone can do that. You have to wear different hats nowadays as a musician and can’t limit yourself in terms of what you want to do. I’m always in contact with singers back where I’m from. They ask me to give my opinion of what they’re doing, how their vocals sound and such. I think at some point I would like to start to become a producer, to oversee the process of putting the music together.

I’ve heard that you’ve played with the likes of Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton and Stefon Harris. Was it challenging?

Man, it was great. Everyone welcomed me with open arms when I first came on the scene. Especially Stefon Harris, he took me in as one of his own. I started playing with Stefon at 18, Eric Lewis as well. I played with Eldar for about 2-3 years. We played for the Dave Brubeck Institute.

What did you learn from being under Stefon Harris’ wing?

Creativity. The role and function of the bass. How to explore harmony. Freedom. He’s always taught me how to do things and was there for me when I needed help with something. It’s funny, I first met him in high school. He came through to my [music] clinic. We played. He was like “Man, you know how to play.” He invited me to come up north with him, and I thought he was playin’ but he was serious. A year later I ran into him at another clinic and he was like “Why didn’t you call me?” I was like “Man, I thought you wasn’t serious.” From there I did one gig, and then I got another, and then the next thing I know it was a good four years with him. I went to Israel, Brazil and so many other places. It was a good time I had with him.

Now you’ve also backed Q-Tip as well. What was it like playing with a legend like him?

The first gig I did with Tip, we did Rock the Bells in Miami. Robert Glasper was playing there, and this is how I think I got it. We didn’t even have a proper rehearsal, and Robert just told me they needed someone and to try out. I went and just played a little there and Tip liked what I was doing and thought I would be cool for the show. I remember I was sitting there with all of the members of A Tribe Called Quest at one point and I just couldn’t believe it. It was an amazing experience. I got to go to Japan with him, and that right there just blew my mind.

So I see that you’re a hip-hop head.

Yeah I first got hooked on A Tribe Called Quest, but I was also into Swishahouse records, the Chopped and Screwed style and such. It’s part of my childhood atmosphere since that was what was around me. I was definitely influenced by it. I got respect for most of the music, but when I hear the stuff on the radio now it be sounding the same. Sometimes I’m not sure about what’s going on these days. I can turn on the radio and it’ll sound like ten different versions of the same thing. These days I mostly look to older music for inspiration.

Who else from the jazz scene in Texas would people be familiar with now?

Jamari Williams, Corey King, Robert Glasper was around, Chris Dave, he especially looked out for me. He played in my senior recital in high school. I know I still have a copy of that around somewhere, I gotta find that.

There aren’t too many music programs and teachers for kids here. Do you think that more kids would become instrumentalists if they had access to programs like you did?

Yeah, but every kid has their own different story. If they had access to art programs or more sports I think you would see more kids goings those routes as well. I think playing an instrument opens up a different part of you and that it is something that every kid should experience because it makes you think differently. I play from how I feel and I can express myself differently now.

You seem like a calm and reflective kind of guy. Is this the way you are or you just being like this for the interview?

Nah, I’m just really chill. I’m really laid back, just like to be a down to earth kind of guy. Yeah, I’m a bit reflective too. I don’t know how to say this, but I want people to hear me though. And the best way to understand me is through my music. That’s the best way I speak to most people.

Interview by Putnam Doug


4 Replies to "Burniss Earl Travis II"
Deltha Cousar-Jeffries says:
November 15, 2010 at 2:47 am


As the some of one of my college mates, I will keep you up in prayer that you mom continues to hear great things from . I haven’t herd your work but you’ve gotta be skilled because you are the child of J C Smith graduate. It’s in the blood. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.
Deltha Cousar-Jeffries

January 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I am the photographer of Jazz Martial Péres

January 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm

tank you for music

Scott says:
April 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm


I saw you play live last June in Pittsburgh during the short set the Experiment played at our JazzLive festival. I am a big fan of the Experiment and follow them closely. When we arrived and I did not see Derrick, I was initially bummed. This changed after the first few notes of the set. I apologize for my initial reaction! You guys blew the streets clean for the short 45 minutes and left Pittsburgh wanting more! I enjoyed this article/interview and hope to see you play live again in the future!

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