It was quite a coincidence. Having recently finished reading through Mark Stryker’s piece about Kenny Burrell for this issue—a slightly modified version of the chapter on Burrell in Stryker’s new book, Jazz from Detroit—I felt moved to put on a couple of classics by the guitar great. First Midnight Blue, then A Night at the Vanguard. As Burrell, Richard Davis, and Roy Haynes eased into their sly take on “Just a-Sittin’ and a-Rockin’” from the latter album, I did what one does far too often in 2019 (and by “one” I mean me): I logged onto Facebook. And there at the top of my feed was news about … Kenny Burrell. Who needed my help. What was this? A Zuckerbergian advertising algorithm interacting with my stereo?
No, as it turned out. The 87-year-old guitarist and educator was apparently in serious financial trouble, and his wife Katherine had launched a GoFundMe page in an attempt to set the family’s house in order. On that page, she listed a cascading series of misfortunes: an accident that her husband had suffered after his 85th-birthday concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall, mounting medical expenses, identity theft, bank fraud, ravaged credit scores, an ongoing homeowners’ association lawsuit. The Burrells were broke. They might end up on the street. And they were trying to raise $100,000.
This disturbing news came via a trusted source, so I presumed it to be true. Others weren’t so sure. A spokesman for Burrell’s employer, UCLA, from which he remains on medical leave following the accident, made a statement that the university was unaware of his precarious situation. Over the next several days, I fielded a variety of messages from people who believed that something was fishy. The Jazz Foundation of America, with whom the Burrells had been in contact for months before the GoFundMe launch, belatedly confirmed the campaign’s legitimacy (the Foundation had in fact recommended the online-fundraising approach to Kenny and Katherine). But that didn’t silence the doubters. Finally, almost a week after the page went live, a message of thanks attributed to Kenny Burrell himself was appended to it. “Your loving gifts,” it read in part, “have inspired us to become more giving and respectful of our fellow human beings.”
Lots of questions about this episode remain, many of them beginning with the words “What does it say about our society that … ” But right now I’d rather focus on the giving than the querying. More than 4,200 people contributed to the “Support Kenny Burrell” page; some of them have names you might recognize (Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis), many don’t. The $100,000 goal was reached within a couple of days. As I write this, the total raised stands at $227,277. How appropriate it now seems that the headline of Mark Stryker’s piece is “Community Builder.” For here was the community, coming to the aid of the man who’d brought them all together.