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Kenny Burrell: Jazz Great Is a Primary Music Source

December 18th, 2009 · 3 Comments

One in a series of UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music faculty profiles written by students in a Fall 2009 course (Ethnomusicology 188, Lecture 3) that focused on music journalism


By Joseph Buchanan

Institutions of higher learning stress the importance of primary sources in academic research. Primary sources (also known as original sources) differ from secondary sources, in that they provide more accurate and reliable first-hand testimony to particular historical events. It can be an artifact, a hand-written document, a recording, or a human source with direct personal knowledge of the events being described.

Professor Kenny Burrell, the renowned jazz guitarist, Grammy-award winning composer and director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, is a primary source. He is an innovative pioneer, educator and expert witness to the historical development of America?s original musical art form: jazz.

In a retrospective moment with me, Burrell shared an anecdote of an intriguing encounter he had with Billie Holiday. Playing the last set of a long tour in a New York club ? it was late and he was tired ? Burrell was going through the motions and thinking of all the needed rest he would catch up on after the show. After the set concluded and Burrell walked past the bar in the dimly lit smoke-filled room, he was suddenly confronted by Holiday, who said in her raspy voice, ?If you ever have trouble playing the music with feeling, just think of my life and all the things that I?ve been through.?

The lesson has been instrumental in shaping Burrell’s musical philosophy ? an impetus for the creed he often quotes: ?Strive for honesty in playing what you feel.?

When I asked professor Burrell when his encounter was, and whether the two ever worked together, he responded in a sober voice. ?She was about at the end,? he said, ?It was late in her career; you know, she had a hard life ? it?s well documented. But earlier in her career whenever she came to Detroit she would work with my group. Yeah, we worked together a lot.?

Few people can give such a first-hand account of what it was like to know and work with iconic jazz figures like Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Benny Golson, Benny Goodman, Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and countless other originators of jazz.

Professor Burrell is an intrinsic link to a lineage of legendary and visionary musicians ? developers and architects of a musical style informed by and created out of the unique experiences of African-Americans, striving to thrive in a discriminatory and segregated society. Jazz is a music predicated on the art of improvisation, innovation and playing what you feel.

How did professor Burrell avoid the pitfalls ? including drug abuse ? that many jazz musicians like Holiday would succumb to in the inner-city?

Like his mentor Duke Ellington, professor Burrell had a supportive family and cast of well-wishers to steer him away from the dangers that awaited the fledgling musician.

Born and raised in Detroit ? fertile ground for jazz musicians ? and brought up in a musical family, professor Burrell was playing guitar by the age of twelve. Among a stellar group of musical cohorts ? such as Tommy Flanagan, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, and Elvin Jones ? he honed his improvisational skills and unique sound. Shortly after completing his B.A. in music from Wayne State University, he recorded his first session with Gillespie, the jazz pioneer.

After a six-month tour with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Burrell moved to New York City in 1956, and began a recording and performance career that would catapult him as one of the most sought after jazz guitarists on the scene.

His extensive discography contains more than 100 solo recordings ? possibly more than any other artist in recording history, with the exception of Ellington ? and a few hundred more collaborative projects. One of the world?s most acclaimed and respected jazz artists, Professor Burrell has made an impact on the careers of many noted musicians.

?Kenny Burrell is a great musician and his music has helped to make me what I am today,? Stevie Wonder has said.

?Burrell is the grand master of jazz guitar,? Gillespie noted.

Others who?ve paid tribute to him include Jimi Hendrix (?Kenny Burrell, that?s the sound I?m looking for?), Pat Metheny (?Kenny Burrell is one of my favorite guitarists?) and George Benson (?There is no finer guitarist than Kenny Burrell?).

Burrell?s unique sound has been described as warm, round, and full. In the words of guitarist Russell Malone, ?it?s not cloudy or moody ? just pure sound ? even though he plays an electric guitar, you can hear the natural acoustics qualities of the instrument.?

?What I strive for,? Burrell tells me, ?is very close to the sound of the acoustic guitar, only louder.?

Dubbed the ?Guitar Laureate,? Professor Burrell has received such awards as Jazz Educator of the Year by DownBeat magazine, Jazz Master by the National Endowment of Arts, a 1988 Grammy Award for his composition ?Dear Ella? (which was performed by Dee Dee Bridgewater), and the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award from the UCLA Black Alumni Association. On January 26, the Recording Academy will honor Burrell with a Grammy salute for his 40-year career ? a tribute inspired, the academy says, by Burrell?s ?profound impact on jazz.?

When asked about the secret to his successful career as a musician and professor he replies modestly with a quote that carries a lesson learned from his mother: ?Just do good work and the rest will follow.?

Professor Burrell is a goodwill ambassador for jazz, and his effort to elevate its status to a classical art form is tireless. Stigmatized and marginalized as a musical genre in the early stages of its development, jazz is now part of the curriculum in universities worldwide.

In 1978, Burrell established the first regularly scheduled college course about the music, life, and philosophy of Duke Ellington, a class that has enabled him to ?expose jazz as a high art-form, to younger generations, and preserve the legacy of a national treasure.? Ellingtonia is still one of the most popular classes on UCLA campus.

UCLA was at the forefront in bringing jazz to academia, and in 1996 created one of the first University Jazz Studies Programs in the country. Hired on as director of the program by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies), Professor Burrell has been at the helm since its inception. Holding to his motto of ?keeping the music alive through education,? he has been the visionary behind numerous symposiums, seminars, concerts, and live musical events in an effort to educate the general public about jazz and history.

Responding to a question regarding his future vision for Jazz Studies at UCLA, Professor Burrell says, ?We are continuing to expand with a more well-rounded program. We are also working on creating Graduate Studies in jazz. The support of the Herb Alpert Foundation and others such as the Friends of Jazz @ UCLA (of which he is the founder and Executive Director) is allowing us to complete our mission ? which is to provide the best education possible for future jazz musicians.?

The most rewarding aspect of his role as an educator, he admits, is ?seeing and hearing students develop into fine musicians and knowing I played some part in that, and also, receiving feedback from students that indicates they have been inspired to continue their quest to be successful.?

In a recent class interview with Herb Alpert, the legendary trumpeter, co-founder of A&M records and avid supporter of music and arts education, Professor Burrell made a surprise visit to the conference room, after which Mr. Alpert commented: ?I tell you, you?re really lucky to have a guy like that. He?s not only a great musician who comes through a whole background of the obvious, he?s a good guy. And he is inspirational.?

At UCLA, students do appreciate the added benefit of having access to primary sources. Professor Burrell is a torch-bearer for musical inspiration and education. He continues to ?do good work.?

Tags: Faculty

3 responses so far ↓

  • SirGuitarith // Apr 7, 2011 at 8:40 am

    Kenny Burrell is a great jazz guitarist. I didn’t know how influential he really was to so many great artists until now. However, you can definitely see why.

  • Joe Duffy // Jun 22, 2011 at 3:00 am

    It’s pretty amazing to think that a musical genre that was once derided and criticized is now considered a classical art form, as you put it.

    I can’t imagine too many of today’s musical genres being afforded that respect in a few decades time – but hey, who knows.

  • noithatnamanh // Jul 29, 2012 at 3:54 am

    Kenny Burrell is a great jazz guitarist. I didn?t know how influential he really was to so many great artists until now. However, you can definitely see why.