Kenny Burrell had been mulling a concept record focused on the blues for about a year before entering engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on January 8, 1963. At 31, the Detroit-born guitarist envisioned an LP that would sustain a moody, after-hours expression with relaxed tempos and an intensity that simmered rather than boiled. Burrell wrote all the music, save the Don Redman chestnut “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” The guitarist channels the spirit of the Black Bottom neighborhood of his youth, where the blues encompassed not just one idiom but many, each with a different avatar— Basie, Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker. Burrell even sketched a potential cover design. It featured the title Midnight Blue rendered in block letters with the word “Blue” colored blue and taking up most of the cover. Blue Note owner/producer Alfred Lion liked it enough to give to his ace graphic designer Reid Miles to complete the final cover based on Burrell’s idea.
Midnight Blue, a nexus of soul-jazz and hard bop, ranks as one of Burrell’s greatest masterpieces. The music offers solace and rejuvenation. The sympathetic cast includes tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, Detroit bassist Major Holley, drummer Bill English, and percussionist Ray Barretto. The 12-bar blues “Chitlins Con Carne” slithers out of the box with an insinuating bass vamp and a Latin beat adorned with conga drums; Burrell and Turrentine play the theme in unison, but the guitarist drops in a repeated chordal riff between phrases that deepens the groove. Burrell structures his solo with similar call-and-response phrasing, assuming the role of both preacher and congregation. “Soul Lament,” a beguiling solo guitar piece in E minor without improvisation, unfolds as a wistful elegy; Burrell conjured the piece on the spot in the studio.
Like all master jazz musicians, Burrell’s personality starts with his tone. Instantly recognizable, it’s a singing sound, a seductive purr, with a faint halo of reverb and a refined attack that’s crisp upfront but finishes as warm and mellow as cognac. Many guitarists boast flashier technique and fierier personalities. Burrell plays a different game. On Midnight Blue he forges a group sound defined by his soulful lyricism, which spreads among his bandmates and reaches out to listeners, inviting them inside the tent. Making music is an act of social engagement for Burrell. “Kenny always seemed to invoke community to me,” said guitarist Pat Metheny. “It was less about being the soloist and more about being in the music, in the band, in the pocket.”
Burrell, who turned 87 in 2018, has been a major figure since first arriving in New York in 1956. His articulate playing, which connected the dots between bebop and the down-home sensibility of the earliest blues guitarists, quickly became a signature of East Coast hard bop. Burrell embodied all the Detroit-bred qualities that made Motown musicians so valuable in the era—a sophisticated approach to harmony and melodic construction, a robust way of swinging, the ability to fit into any context without sacrificing an individual identity, and a deep feeling for the blues.
In the late ’50s, Burrell became the de facto house guitarist at Blue Note and Prestige, two of the period’s defining labels. He appeared on hundreds of LPs within his first decade in New York. Eventually, he released roughly 100 recordings as a leader and appeared on some 500 more as a sideman—and that doesn’t include countless anonymous pop and R&B studio sessions. Though a bebop baby, Burrell forged productive relationships with swing-era heroes Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins, and by the 1970s was recording ambitious tributes to Duke Ellington. Burrell took to the blowing-session aesthetic of the late ’50s like a duck to water, but he later made structured recordings that showed a knack for careful planning and fruitful collaborations with arrangers and producers.
Few musicians in jazz boast a résumé as diverse or as loaded with innovators. Burrell’s credits include Louis Armstrong, Hawkins, Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker (with whom Burrell played in Detroit), Milt Jackson, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. Burrell also worked regularly for several years in Broadway pit orchestras. “Kenny made it sound easy to sit there as a guitarist and hang with John Coltrane or Stanley Turrentine and a long list of his contemporaries,” Metheny said. “But as a listener you don’t especially notice how hard it is to do that, which is a real testament to how evolved he was as a player.”
The empathetic accompaniment Burrell offers Coltrane on their duet “Why Was I Born” (1958) proves Metheny’s point. So does Burrell’s exceptional solo ballad performances like “But Not for Me” (1956). The deft marriage of single-note lines, lush chords, and savvy voice-leading reveal a romantic expression, patience, and taste uncommon for a musician still in his mid-twenties. “The most important things to me in music are depth of feeling, honesty, individuality, and a spiritual connection,” Burrell said in 1996.
Burrell was among a wave of major guitarists who emerged between 1955 and 1961. Jim Hall, six months older than Burrell, developed an understated, melodic voice, while Grant Green, four years younger than Burrell, favored linear, single-note lines steeped in the blues. Wes Montgomery, eight years older than Burrell, would not break out of Indianapolis until 1960—after which he quickly grew into the most widely imitated jazz guitarist of all since Charlie Christian essentially invented the electric guitar solo in the late ’30s. But Burrell got out of the blocks first, and his ubiquity on records magnified his influence. He’s left marks on multiple generations and guitarists as different as Green, George Benson, Metheny, John Abercrombie, Bobby Broom, Russell Malone, Dave Stryker, and Lionel Loueke. Burrell’s circle of fans extends beyond jazz to B. B. King and Jimi Hendrix, both of whom sang his praises.
Burrell, who has lived in Los Angeles since the early ’70s, is a tall, elegant man with a handsome face, tan skin, and full head of now-white hair. Flip through the covers of his recordings and you see a dapper dresser, stylish rather than flamboyant—an apt metaphor for the savoir faire with which he plays and conducts his life. He remains closely associated with UCLA, where he started teaching in 1978 with a single course on Ellington and was the founding director of jazz studies from 1996 to 2016. Those who have worked closely with Burrell say that his even-keel personality has a calming effect on those around him, but no one should mistake his easygoing nature as license for anything less than professionalism at the highest level.
He can also be a shrewd judge of how to get what he wants. Guitarist Bobby Broom recalled one of the first rehearsals with the three-guitar band Burrell formed in the mid-’80s that included young colleagues Broom and Rodney Jones. Burrell said he wanted solo guitar numbers by each of them to be part of the band’s repertoire and made Broom and Jones play one on the spot. Unaccompanied playing is a stiff challenge for even experienced guitarists, let alone a 25-year-old like Broom taken by surprise. It didn’t go well. “It was the worst day of my life,” Broom recalled. “No one said a word. I’ve got egg on my face. That was a wake- up call. Kenny knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t have to say, ‘You need to get that together.’”
Burrell got his own act together quickly in Detroit, where he was known as the best guitarist in the city as a teenager. “Detroit was a school without walls,” Burrell told me in 1996. “It was that kind of free access that we had based on mutual respect and a love for the music. We all were striving to be excellent in this thing that we love called jazz, and most of us had our sights set on making it in New York. The preparation for that happened in that very fertile workshop called Detroit.”
Kenneth Earl Burrell was born July 31, 1931, the youngest of the family’s six children. The three eldest siblings, all sisters, died young of childhood diseases. Burrell’s parents both came to Detroit from Virginia in the Great Migration. His father, an auto mechanic, died when Kenny was six, and his mother supported the family by working multiple jobs, mostly cleaning office buildings. Burrell grew up with music in church and in the house; his mother sang and noodled on the piano. He started piano lessons at eight, but they didn’t stick. He was more intrigued by the guitar that his older brother Billy played and the records by Basie, Ellington, Goodman, and others his brother brought home.
Burrell heard guitarists play and sing the blues everywhere, from street corners to neighborhood parks. He wanted to play the saxophone, but his family couldn’t afford one. Instead, he bought his first guitar at age 12 for $10 from a pawnshop in Black Bottom and taught himself to play. When Billy—11 years older—returned from the Army, he gave his brother his first lessons. When the gifted youngster caught up and passed his brother, Billy switched to the Fender electric bass and the brothers and drummer Hindal Butts formed a trio that played in Paradise Valley.
Three guitarists made the biggest impact on Burrell—Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, and Django Reinhardt. “Charlie began to play the electric guitar in a way the horns were playing,” Burrell said. “With an amplifier he could function just like a trumpet or a saxophone. That said to me the guitar is not so bad after all. Then I heard the great Oscar Moore, who was with Nat King Cole, and I said, ‘Wow, all those beautiful chords he’s playing.’ That was a piano-like approach because Nat didn’t play a lot of piano when he was singing, and it left a lot of space for the guitar to fill.” Reinhardt’s influence was less a matter of copying specific techniques than extrapolating from the Gypsy guitarist’s one-of-a-kind approach the lesson that it was the responsibility of jazz musicians to develop their own sound and identity. Burrell took the lesson to heart.
He started gigging at about age 15, and by 1948 was playing with peer Tommy Flanagan at the Club Sudan. At Miller High School, Burrell studied under band director Louis Cabrera, who not only taught him advanced classical music theory but also showed him how it related to jazz and made him assistant conductor of the concert band. This training gave Burrell a leg up when he entered Wayne University (now Wayne State University) as a composition major in 1951. (Burrell had graduated from high school at 16 and then took a few years off to work full-time as a musician.) At Wayne he studied classical guitar with Joe Fava, a noted player and teacher and later the author of guitar instructional books.
For a while, Burrell led a trio with Flanagan and bassist Alvin Jackson modeled on Nat King Cole’s trio. In 1953, the guitarist began billing his group as Kenny Burrell and the Four Sharps with original members Harold McKinney on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Hindal Butts on drums. On ballads they’d sing in four-part harmony. Burrell sang in a mellifluous, Cole-inspired voice that was promising enough that in 1960 he recorded an urbane vocal album for Columbia, Weaver of Dreams. It’s a great blindfold-test record, but sales were disappointing, and Burrell packed away his vocal cords. Still, he’d occasionally sing a tune on club gigs for the next 20 years if the spirit moved him.
Burrell made his first recordings in Detroit in the early ’50s. Gillespie hired the 19-year-old guitarist for a 10-day gig at the Club Juana on Woodward Avenue, just west of Paradise Valley, in early 1951 with a band that included Coltrane and Milt Jackson. While in Detroit, the group recorded four sides for Dee Gee, among them the minor blues “Birks’ Works,” which includes a brief guitar solo. Gillespie offered Burrell a chance to go on the road but encouraged by his mother— “If they want you now, they’ll want you later”—he went to college instead. The Gillespie session is usually considered Burrell’s recording debut, and these sides were first in the marketplace. But the guitarist said in Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 (University of Michigan Press) that he thinks his first recording session with pianist Otis “Bu Bu” Turner came earlier. Released in 1954 on Detroit’s Fortune label, these sides have never been reissued. Burrell makes a stronger impression here than with Gillespie. On “I Goofed,” his tangy-sweet chording recalls Oscar Moore, while his solo lines reveal supple swing-to-bop phrasing.
His first recording as a leader was made for Joe Van Battle’s J-V-B label in Detroit circa 1954–55. Van Battle owned Joe’s Record Shop, a landmark in the black community located just north of Paradise Valley at 3530 Hastings Street at Mack. Van Battle recorded gospel, blues (including John Lee Hooker), rhythm & blues, and jazz in the back of his shop. He also recorded sermons by Rev. C. L. Franklin at New Bethel Baptist Church and was the first to record Franklin’s gifted teenage daughter, Aretha, singing at the church in 1956. Burrell’s alluring tone and nimble lines are in place on “Kenny Sound”—a 32-bar “I Got Rhythm” tune in C with a “Honeysuckle Rose” bridge and an A-section melody pilfered from Dexter Gordon’s “Dexter Digs In.” Yusef Lateef’s burly tenor saxophone complements the limber melodicism of Burrell’s solo. Laying down the beat are Billy Burrell on electric bass and Hindal Butts on drums. The identity of the vibraphonist is unclear but possibly Abe Woodley (later Nasir Hafiz). On the other side, Burrell confidently sings “My Funny Valentine” over a mysterious bed of flute and vibes, and the band contributes backup vocals.
A natural leader and organizer, Burrell also spearheaded the formation of the New Music Society in 1953–54, becoming its founding president and inaugurating the jam sessions and concerts at the World Stage theater as a way for young musicians to learn from more experienced pros. The society, which grew to several hundred members, was the first musicians’ cooperative in Detroit and provided inspiration for later efforts in the 1960s and ’70s like the Detroit Artists Workshop, Strata Corporation, and Tribe. After graduating in 1955, Burrell toured for about six months with pianist Oscar Peterson’s trio as a substitute for Herb Ellis, who was fighting a drinking problem. At the start of 1956, he and Tommy Flanagan drove east together in Burrell’s Chrysler.
Of the first rush of Burrell recordings, the most vital include his Blue Note debut, Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956), with former Four Sharp members Flanagan and Chambers, plus drummer Kenny Clarke and percussionist Candido; Kenny Burrell / John Coltrane (New Jazz) from 1958; and A Night at the Vanguard (Argo), with bassist Richard Davis and drummer Roy Haynes from 1959. The latter retains iconic status among guitarists for how Burrell fills out the texture in the guitar/bass/drum trio format.
By 1960, Burrell, who made a point of developing sight-reading skills in Detroit, had become so busy doing studio sessions for pop and R&B records that he felt he wasn’t practicing enough and growing as a musician. When he got a call from conductor Elliot Lawrence with an offer of regular work on Broadway in the pit for Bye Bye Birdie, he leapt at the opportunity. That led directly into How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The steady income over these four years allowed Burrell time to practice and compose, and it was during this period that he conceived two of his most notable recordings, the aforementioned Midnight Blue and Guitar Forms (Verve), a collaboration with arranger Gil Evans recorded in 1964–65. The nine tracks each investigate a different style, mood, genre, or instrumentation, among them country blues, classical, bossa nova, small and large ensembles, and solo guitar. It’s a one-stop shop for all the things Burrell can do on the instrument.
The commercial and artistic success of Midnight Blue and Guitar Forms allowed Burrell to tour with his own band for the first time. His public recognition rose significantly in the ’60s. His records sold well, particularly in black communities, and 45-rpm singles drawn from Midnight Blue and two superb Prestige LPs, Bluesy Burrell and Soul Call, were jukebox staples. Some of his LPs made it into Billboard’s Top 200 pop album chart, including Blue Bash!, co-led with Jimmy Smith (Verve), and The Tender Gender (Cadet). Meanwhile, Burrell’s groovy Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (Cadet) was a hit in the Christmas genre in 1966. Two more of Burrell’s large-ensemble recordings in the late ’60s and early ’70s, both arranged by Don Sebesky, delivered that elusive combination of artistic and commercial appeal—Blues: The Common Ground (Verve) with a big band, and God Bless the Child (CTI) with a starry small band including Freddie Hubbard and Ron Carter and just the right amount of sweetening from four cellos. Two underrated LPs recorded in 1974 on Fantasy, Up the Street, ’Round the Corner, Down the Block and Sky Street, walk a similar tightrope, even as they funnel fusion into the mix.
Burrell accrued enough currency among urban black audiences in the late ’60s and early ’70s that he even did a radio commercial for Schlitz Malt Liquor, which ran on soul and R&B programs in markets like Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit. A few bars of a bluesy waltz from Burrell’s guitar set up the spot: “Kenny Burrell here,” his suave voice intones. “You know, the guitar’s a pretty popular instrument right now. People play it all kinds of ways. People make malt liquor all kinds of ways too. But Schlitz Malt Liquor has the premium quality and big-boss taste. That’s why it’s Burrell’s brew.”
In later decades Burrell balanced recording, touring, and teaching. Ironically, it was his most negative experience at Wayne State that inspired his move into academia. Jazz was frowned on at Wayne in the early ’50s; Burrell even failed one class because he kept trying to raise the subject of jazz as a topic of discussion and the professor considered the music unworthy. Burrell vowed that someday he would give jazz its due in the classroom. When he developed his first course at UCLA in the late ’70s, he focused on Duke Ellington, because Burrell thought Ellington’s genius offered the most potential impact of anything he could present in a humanities class. Ellington’s spiritual connection to music and his profound individuality remain central to Burrell’s philosophy inside and outside the classroom.
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself, ’cause that’s where your real strength is, and you can’t be anybody else anyway,” Burrell said in a 2010 interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project. “But most of us can’t even be ourselves. We can’t be who we are. But the ones we love, the ones we adore, the ones who are our heroes, they’re the ones who dare to be who they are and courageous enough to say, ‘Here I am.’”
Burrell became a hero in jazz because he took the dare. His music says a lot of things in a lot of ways, but mostly it says: Here I am.
Excerpted from Jazz from Detroit by Mark Stryker, ©2019 University of Michigan Press.