JazzTimes Exclusive: A New Statement from Kenny Burrell

The guitarist addresses at length the controversy surrounding his medical condition, finances, GoFundMe campaign, and more

Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell

UPDATE 7/11/19: report in The Washington Post on July 10 has added many more layers of complication to the Kenny Burrell GoFundMe story, which we will continue to follow as it develops.

The following statement was sent via email to JazzTimes editor Mac Randall by guitarist Kenny Burrell on July 1. It adds many layers of further detail to the story of Mr. Burrell’s recent medical and financial difficulties—and the GoFundMe page launched to help alleviate them—that JT has been following since May. It also addresses some of the confusion and rumors that arose within the jazz community in the wake of that page’s creation. The original root of Mr. Burrell’s current troubles is only briefly alluded to here, but in separate correspondence with him and his wife Katherine, it was confirmed to JazzTimes that the accident Mr. Burrell suffered shortly after his 85th-birthday concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall in December 2016 was a fall that caused serious head injuries, requiring several surgeries due to chronic subdural hematoma (caused by bleeding in the brain). 

The total amount raised by the “Support Kenny Burrell” GoFundMe page now stands at $242,506. And, as was discussed in our latest JT Notes column, it’s only a bizarre coincidence that our July/August issue contains a feature on Mr. Burrell, excerpted from Mark Stryker’s book Jazz in Detroit.

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The response to the GoFundMe campaign has been overwhelmingly positive, and I deeply appreciate the support and generosity of fellow musicians, friends, and fans. 

Unfortunately, there has also been speculation, doubt, and controversy in response to the GoFundMe campaign. I am disturbed by the rumors I have heard from friends in the jazz community regarding my financial situation, my wife, and me. I have been made aware of the sources of the lies and misinformation. The rumors that have circulated within the jazz community need to be refuted with the facts. 

I have heard that there has been speculation that I was unaware of the GoFundMe. That is not true. The Jazz Foundation of America talked to my wife and me about a GoFundMe campaign, and recommended we try to raise funds on that platform based on past, successful campaigns for musicians. The discussion of a GoFundMe happened over weeks to months. My wife was resistant to posting a campaign. Because we had privately asked for help, and no one offered, she was not confident that anyone would care enough to help us. She also wanted to keep our circumstances private, my condition confidential, and spare herself the embarrassment of asking for help. Though I am a private person, I am not embarrassed by the campaign, because I felt we had no other choice. It seemed necessary for our survival. Because my wife was doubtful that anyone would respond, and did not have the contacts to create what she thought would be a successful campaign, a friend and musician offered to post the GoFundMe on my behalf, using his contact list. My wife was to provide the details of our circumstances. I was aware that our story would be published for the campaign. Due to his busy schedule, he never completed it. The JFA then suggested that my wife post the campaign herself due to our dire circumstances. 

I was informed by friends and colleagues that a member of my family was concerned for my welfare, and that my children did not approve of the campaign or my wife making a public statement regarding our circumstances. My children felt that it was “alarming” to the public. But our circumstances are serious and we are in need of assistance. I did not consider that my children felt that I required their approval. I was also told that my children were angry about the campaign. Not only were they angry, but a member of my family and a friend and UCLA colleague questioned the claims. They perceived the claims as either exaggerated or false, telling others that what my wife wrote did not “make sense.” I am not sure why the people who are supposed to be closest to me and supportive of me chose to talk about these matters with others instead of asking me to explain the facts and details of our circumstances. Unfortunately, the gossip caused my wife and I distress, because of false accusations and speculation and doubt without knowledge of or regard for the facts. 

Most disturbing to me are the false accusations against my wife. I have been told that a member of my family and a UCLA colleague claimed that I have been isolated from family and friends, and that my wife is controlling me and/or my affairs. It has been repeatedly said that “no one has seen me.” It has also been reported to the press that my neighbors have said that they have not seen me, and that my wife is controlling my affairs. I have made it clear that the GoFundMe was not done without my knowledge. Beyond that, my wife has worked tirelessly to save my life and protect my health in the hospital, the rehab facility, and at home. She works 24/7 to take care of me. I am well cared for by my wife. She deserves praise and credit for this—not false accusations. Both the UCLA PD and APS have been to our home for welfare checks. I feel like my wife is being investigated based on false allegations, and I am deeply disturbed by this, because she has taken such good care of me for two and a half years. 

My wife is not controlling me or my affairs. She is managing OUR affairs as a married couple. She has worked hard to protect me, and manage a series of crises and very unfortunate circumstances, all while taking care of me 24/7. 

Katherine is not isolating me from family and friends. We are both following doctor’s orders regarding the risk to my health and safety. I have made good progress thanks to my doctors and her constant care, and I would like to continue to make progress. My wife and I must be careful not to catch colds or flus, especially during cold and flu season. We have also had outbreaks of the measles and chicken pox in Los Angeles, and the measles outbreak occurred, in part, at UCLA. We have a doctor’s note that cites the potentially life-threatening consequences of viruses for me, and this affects my wife as my sole caregiver as well should she become contagious. This applies to visitors to our home as well as public outings. 

I was on medical leave with disability for two years. I did not go to UCLA or out in public during that time, other than my doctor’s appointments. That was based on my condition at the time. 

I have been on sabbatical for six months now. I am working on my writing several hours a day, every day. That is my obligation to UCLA, as I am being paid a salary to write at home. I am focused on completing as much of my work as I can rather than socializing. I never had the opportunity to write, because I worked full time at UCLA, performed, and directed the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited with Charley Harrison and Dr. Bobby Rodriguez.  I am grateful for the opportunity to finally reflect on my life and career for my autobiography, and to work on other books that I have always wanted to write as part of my sabbatical agreement with UCLA. 

Because I was on medical leave for two years, and am now on sabbatical, I have chosen not to spend my time socializing, especially when I don’t feel strong enough for that, and it poses a significant risk to my health and the progress I’ve made. I will return to work following my sabbatical and a period of research. I am sure I will see many colleagues when I return to UCLA. I also don’t want to go to jazz venues or large functions because of the risk of catching a cold or flu. 

Even with doctor’s strong suggestions, and my own concern for the risks to my health, I have been seen by many people. 

My physicians have seen me on several occasions for medical appointments. 

The driver who routinely transports my wife and I to my medical appointments has seen me multiple times. 

At least two of my neighbors have seen me when I was going to the medical center. Micki Sackler, who is involved with the jazz community at large, saw me two times in our common garage area, and waved and said hello. I think she even told my wife that I looked good. Another neighbor saw me leaving the elevator to go to a medical appointment. 

Several home health care workers from two different companies have seen me during my initial recovery after returning home. This includes therapists and nurses who saw me several times per week for five weeks at a time for a total of 10 weeks. Every therapist and nurse commented that my wife was doing an excellent job, and that I was lucky to have her. 

The paramedics have been inside my residence at least twice for emergencies. Each time, there were at least a half dozen people in my bedroom, including firemen and EMTs.

Two officers from the UCLA PD saw me at my home. The police officers confirmed with their sergeant that I was standing, walking, and dressed. I’m sure this information was reported to the Director of Legal Affairs at UCLA, who made the welfare check based on communications received by her office. 

Following that welfare check, an APS investigator visited my home, saw me, and told me that she saw that my wife took excellent care of me. 

We have had at least two HOA inspections and other related personnel in our home, and all of those people have seen me. We were required to ask questions regarding the health of all those who entered, and they were required to wear full PPE to protect my health and my wife’s health as my sole caregiver. 

We had a friend who helped us during one of the inspections, and he saw me. He was amazed at how good I looked, and expressed gratitude to my wife for her obvious care. 

My friend and colleague from UCLA, Claudia Mitchell Kernan, visited me in my home. I told her that Katherine was working hard to take care of me, and she said, “That’s what people do when they love you.” She discussed business pertaining to the Friends of Jazz at UCLA with me, and we discussed our 40-year friendship.  She thought I looked good, and seemed to be doing very well. She was pleased with my ongoing recovery process. 

My daughter has visited me in our home on several occasions. She said that I looked “better and better every time” she saw me. I don’t often hear from her, unless she returns my calls, because she is busy with her children, and the responsibilities of being a parent. She has made that clear to me. She returns my calls when I or my wife call to ask for help with groceries, but because of her responsibilities, she suggested that we use a delivery service. So, we relied on Instacart and the help of colleagues and my wife’s friends for assistance. My daughter has also been occupied with work in the music industry, traveling, and attending concerts and festivals for work and recreation. She has seen many of my friends and colleagues, and, until the GoFundMe, reported that I was doing well. My daughter was aware of the expense of my care at home, as well as the bank fraud. She was not aware of the litigation and related expense. I think she was surprised at how dire our circumstances had become, but because of such infrequent contact, and her dedication to her children, she was not up to date regarding our situation. 

(The only thing that was done without my knowledge was an event for the UCLA Black Alumni Association. I was never directly informed by the organization that I was the intended recipient of an honor. To my knowledge, I have never received an award where I wasn’t contacted directly via letter, phone call, or email. I don’t understand how it was arranged without my prior knowledge. My daughter told me about the award about a month before the event, and I told her I wanted it postponed until I was well enough to attend myself. I asked that no one receive the award on my behalf. I was told by a colleague that my daughter accepted the award, but I have never seen or received the award since that time. I don’t know where the award is, because my daughter has not mentioned it to me, and the organization has not responded to my calls or my wife’s email. I am disappointed that I was not able to receive the honor myself, in person, at a time when I wasn’t on disability. I am still hopeful that the UBAA will allow me to enjoy the honor and festivities another time in the future, as I looked forward to the event at a future date.)

I have heard that people are skeptical about the need for the GoFundMe, because of my employment at UCLA, my medical insurance, and my retirement. I have also been informed that people have said that my wife is being “greedy,” because she has not shut down the GoFundMe after having exceeded the set goal. This is another false accusation that needs to be corrected. 

There are misconceptions and misunderstandings I need to address—my salary, my medical insurance, and my retirement. 

People think that I have a considerable salary at UCLA, and that is true if you are only aware of my gross salary. People are not aware of the deductions that total more than 50% of my monthly income. So, I don’t earn the amount in net income that people assume. 

We also had one month without any salary at all. When my sabbatical was approved, the start date was January 2019, but I wasn’t paid for the month of January until February 2019. The company that paid my disability was forced to ask that I return the funds they paid for the month of January based on the start date of my sabbatical. So, we were essentially and effectively left without an income for 31 days in January. That created more of a financial hardship for us. 

I had already been replaced as Director of the Jazz Studies Program that I created and developed over 20 years. I worked very hard at UCLA to create a renowned program that Herbie Hancock called the “best in the country,” and Quincy Jones cited as being “in great hands.” I sacrificed a potentially lucrative career touring and performing to completely dedicate myself to UCLA. I was in good health prior to my accident, and had just produced, along with Dean Judith Smith, the 85th-birthday tribute in my honor at Royce Hall. I had no intention of retiring from UCLA. My medical leave was unexpected. According to university policy, UCLA was entitled to medically separate from me because of the length of my medical leave. I was due to return to work in September 2018, and told my doctor that I felt strong enough to return. After a positive medical report, I received a letter regarding medical separation, and the threat of being without a salary or medical insurance proved stressful enough to cause a setback. I didn’t feel strong enough to return in September, and requested a return date in the Spring of 2019. It was explained in writing that I must return by January 2019, or medical separation would ensue. I was eligible for long-term disability through August of 2019, as long as I paid the insurance premiums @ more than $2,000 per month. UCLA decided to medically separate from me rather than accept a Spring Quarter return date. 

They were in the process of medical separation when two people from UCLA fought hard on my behalf for my sabbatical. I had earned 30 sabbatical credits over the course of 20 years. 

The Dean of the Herb Alpert School of Music reportedly preferred immediate retirement or medical separation, and was not in agreement with the proposed sabbatical. The Dean has the responsibility of the total budget for the School, and must do what she feels is necessary to best allocate funds. It is not unusual for the university to encourage people of my age or younger to retire. It is also not unusual for people to retire after an extended medical leave. I had hoped that UCLA would allow me to remain on disability and return when I could teach full-time, but I understand that policy dictates otherwise. UCLA made as many accommodations as they could on my behalf, and I appreciate that. It was initially suggested that I receive two years of sabbatical, research, and teaching, with a retirement date at the end of 2020. After much negotiation, I was granted a year and a half with a retirement in June of 2020. Had these two people not negotiated a sabbatical on my behalf, I would be without any salary or medical insurance now, at the worst possible time. I felt I deserved the opportunity to take a hard-earned sabbatical and write, after all of my years of service at UCLA. Several of my colleagues have taken multiple sabbaticals and had opportunities to write, whereas I could not abandon my responsibilities as director of the Jazz Studies Program to take advantage of the sabbatical credits I had accumulated. I had an obligation to the School and the students to govern the program that I created, and to continue to mentor the faculty and students to make the program the best it could be at every level. I am grateful to all parties who signed the agreement to allow me to have this sabbatical. 

Secondly, there has been “talk” about my having a “million-dollar retirement fund.” To my knowledge, no such fund exists. When I retire in less than a year, I will earn half of my salary at most, and possibly far less if I am to leave my wife with the means to survive based on the options offered by UCLA. 

I believe that people have confused the endowed chair in my name for $1.2 million with a retirement fund. That chair honors me in name only, and the funds are used to pay a new, tenured faculty hire in the Herb Alpert School of Music. I do not receive any of those funds. I only recently told the Chancellor at UCLA how ironic it is that there is $1.2 million dollars in a chair in my name, yet I am experiencing serious financial difficulties. Even with the irony, I am grateful to Dean Judith Smith, Herb Alpert, the Chancellor, and all those who contributed to the Chair, including Dean Judith Smith, Jim Barrall, Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, acting President of the Friends of Jazz at UCLA, Gloria Turner, and her husband, Jim, Tony Tolbert, Barbara Abell, Ronnie Ruben, Dick and Tricia Grey, and others. 

Thirdly, there is confusion about my medical insurance. I have insurance coverage through UCLA. Our medical expenses do not consist of unmanageable hospital bills, although deductibles and copays can be and were quite costly. There are some things that are not covered by insurance. I want to remain at home during my recovery, and I am fortunate that my wife wants to take care of me at home. Unfortunately, my care requires medical supplies similar to what was used in the rehab, and those supplies are expensive. The cost of the supplies is more per month than my monthly income, and we have to pay for those supplies before we pay any other bills. When I returned home, home health was only offered for five weeks at the most. After that, my wife assumes the responsibility of being the physical, occupational, and speech therapist. That is in addition to her caregiving. Insurance also doesn’t cover private nursing or CNAs. That is an out-of-pocket expense, and it costs about $25/hr. 

When I was in a rehab facility, and couldn’t meet the requirements of physical therapy because I had been discharged from the hospital too soon, a UCLA physician told my wife I would likely be sent to a skilled nursing facility. When she asked for recommendations, he told her that they were “filled with MRSA and other bacteria,” and I would “die” in one of those facilities, even if it had 5 stars! In addition to my wife wanting to take care of me at home, we are also trying to avoid that! 

We have other issues and related expenses. 

There are legal fees associated with the litigation with the HOA and two homeowners. We are being sued for a total of $350,000. A second lawsuit was filed after the donations from the GoFundMe were noted. The $100,000 goal was a number that Katherine posted based on the amount of one lawsuit, prior to knowledge of the second suit that followed the GoFundMe donations. The donations are not sufficient to pay any judgments against us should they be upheld by a court, let alone all of our other expenses. 

Though others may publicly discuss the lawsuit, we have chosen not to comment on the details, to defend ourselves against what may be false allegations or dishonest statements regarding the facts of the case. Our attorneys have worked hard for seven months to protect and defend us, and it is best that they speak for us, if necessary. We have spent more than $40,000 on pre- and post-litigation to date, and the legal fees could continue for several more months, especially with the new, recently filed lawsuit. We cannot afford these legal expenses, but it was unavoidable. We never anticipated that it would be such a long and expensive process. We hope that the legal matter can be resolved quickly, amicably, justly, and that the truth will prevail. 

Our apartment requires a lot of work, including remediation and repairs. This will be very expensive. Relocation is necessary during these repairs, and that is also expensive. I have to stay near the medical center because of my health issues. So, our relocation will be a necessary expense. 

Besides the high credit-card debt because of medical supplies, attorney’s fees, and other necessities like groceries, we have other expenses. We still have to pay the mortgage, HOA dues, and all of our other bills. 

I was also a victim of identity theft, and my wife and I were both victims of bank fraud. We lost $60-70,000. The bank made mistakes with our claims, and returned payments we made to pay our own bills. That damaged our credit scores. We no longer qualify for loans or rentals because of our credit scores, debt, and income. The bank originally told us that they would return all of the funds going back one year, but they did not do that. They only returned some of the money, and some of what they returned was money we used to pay our bills instead of stolen funds. The loss of these stolen funds set us back even more in terms of keeping up with our expenses, and part of what made the campaign necessary. 

It is obvious from these facts and figures that my wife, rather than having a motive of greed, greatly underestimated our legitimate financial needs, and the necessary funds to cover all of these expenses. She also made it clear that she was asking for assistance for my sake, rather than her own. 

Though people think all of our expenses are covered by the donations because we exceeded the goal, the funds still do not cover all of our losses and expenses. GoFundMe also takes 2.9% of the donations and $0.30 for each donation, so that totals several thousand dollars. They are providing the service, and we appreciate that. I just need to make it clear that we don’t receive the entire amount. The GoFundMe is a one-time payment. While that helps, our expenses are very high, and when I retire, and my salary is reduced by 50% or more in less than a year, it will be more difficult to pay our bills, and remain in our home. Los Angeles is an expensive place to live, but I need to stay near the hospital, and the specialists familiar with my case, should I require further medical treatment. The future is uncertain for us, and I am hoping and praying that something will transpire that will help us to continue to pay our bills and live a decent life. 

Meanwhile, I want to sincerely thank all those who have helped us during this crisis. Please accept our best wishes of love and good fortune.