Kenny Burrell: An Octogenarian Celebration

Ed Hamilton on recent tribute to renowned guitarist and educator

Kenny Burrell approached an 80th year living and performing within the inner sanctums of the Jazz World of music. So a phenomenal Birthday celebration was a milestone never to be matched: And a filled-to-capacity Royce Hall audience had come to honor Dr. Kenny Burrell, educator and jazz guitarist.

Lalo Shifrin, BB King, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Herb Alpert (Herb Alpert School of Music), Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, The LA Jazz Orchestra Unlimited and a surprise guest, Steveland Morris AKA Stevie Wonder, all honored the world renowned guitarist for his 80 years young and 33 years of instruction at UCLA teaching the course on Duke Ellington, who performed the first College jazz concert at UCLA in 1935. And ironically UCLA was the last university to establish a Jazz Studies curriculum. Call it serendipity or just Burrell Magnetism.

Pianist and composer Shifrin began the celebration with his composition of “Down Here On the Ground” from the motion picture “Cool Hand Luke” which he composed. .Kenny had introduced him as the Argentine Discovery of Dizzy Gillespie, and Lalo replied, “I have admired and like the playing of Kenny Burrell since I was a young man in college back in Argentina.” (The joke was Shifrin has a few years senior. on Kenny). Next was BB King and his 8 pieces and he played “The Thrill Is Gone” and then a soulfully dynamic blues collaboration with Kenny until a surprise guest Stevie Wonder came out and accompanied them on Harmonica bluesifically, and then Dee Dee Bridgewater blended in her happy birthday stretching out this jam. Everyone roared in applause. Dr. Rodriguez saluted Kenny with an original composition entitled “Adelante”, performed with the L.A. Jazz Orchestra Unlimited.

Dr. Burrell is also president and director of Friends of Jazz at UCLA who salute piano geniuses presenting them in mini-concerts up close with interviews and talks with the audience. Featured guests have been Randy Weston, Barry Harris, George Cables, Harold Mabern, Cedar Walton.

UCLA has a history of great African American achievers who have left a legacy of obtaining lofty positions:Dr. Ralph Bunch, Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Mike Warren, Jackie Robinson, and now Kenny Burrell..
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Reflecting back on his guitar playing career, I met Dr. Burrell in 1978 at a campaign fund raiser in the Hollywood Hills and recognized him. I introduced myself and he said, “I just got hired at UCLA to teach a course on Duke Ellington---I’m calling it “Ellingtonia”. And 20 years later, In 1998, again with the assistance and help of Dr. Claudia Kernan--- a Jazz Sudies curriculum was created ---and what a faculty. Dr. Burrell, selected:Dr.Bobby Rodriguez, Barbara Morrison, Ruth Price, Garnett Brown, Gerald Wilson, Roberto Miranda, Billy Higgins.

Shortly after he was hired, Dr. Kernan remembered, “I met Kenny around 1976 or ‘77 and at that time I was director of the Center for African American Studies. And I was very desirous of seeing the curriculum develop in such a way that it incorporated the arts ; and that I am a Jazz and Blues fan , and I also come not far from Detroit I’m from Gary, Indiana. She continued, “So when I was a young teenager, Kenny was just starting, so I knew his work. And I thought, well you know, maybe we can get him to come and do something at UCLA. And he did. He developed “Ellingtonia” and it’s been offered since 1978. So now he has become a friend , a brother as well as a wonderful colleague who has I think, achieved something here that’s really rare; this world class faulty he’s filled; his own dedication; and you can see, Kenny continues with this Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. Everyday there’s a new idea about advancing the interest of young musicians. This is what it’s all about; as well as new ideas of music and song, as indicated by the music and songs of his Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited.”

His guitar playing roadwork was interrupted slightly to devote full time to his Jazz Studies Department. But before the hiatus (to devote full time to the department) from the roadwork that took him all over the world---Kenny as he likes to be called had recorded for Bluenote and Prestige and played with Jazz giants: Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey Donald Byrd, Ray Barretto, Herbie Hancock, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, Illinois Jacquet.

He played on Byrd’s gemstone “New Perspective” (‘Cristo Redentor’), Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”, and Gil Evans “Out of the Cool”; and his collaboration with Turrentine and Barretto on his largest selling album “Midnight Blue” with “Chittlins Con Carne”. His association with Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott turned out some unforgettable recordings :“Midnight Special”, “The Sermon”, “Midnight Blue”, “Trouble”. The Sermon, “Trouble”, “Jungle Soul”.

Long-time friend drummer Kenny Dennis said about the celebration, “Gorgeous music ! i would have not missed it. What a great opportunity for this audience here in Royce Hall.”

Completing the celebration musically was a group KB described as the next group of musicians that would establish themselves as greatly as The Lincoln Center and the L.A. Philharmonic---The Jazz Orchestra Unlimited composed of 8o talented musicians who sang and played a 6 piece ”Suite for Piece” by composers John Clayton, Lew Matthews, Nick Dipenna, Charley Harrison, Patrick Williams with the last piece by Kenny Burrell.

Dr. Claudia Mitchell Kernan brought Kenny Burrell to UCLA and he brought with him Jazz education. He always said , “Never stop thirsting for the taste of knowledge and education.” As there is a monumental statue to Ervin “Magic” Johnson in front of the Lakers Staple Center---there should be a gigantic statue of Dr. Kenny Burrell - Director of Jazz Studies- that should say: “Dr. Kernan chose me; I came, I brought, and I taught Ellingtonia” .

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Ed Hamilton