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Kenny Burrell: String Theory

Kenny Burrell
Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell’s office has the cluttered, chaotic, where’d-that-CD-get-to look of a profoundly busy man. Papers and files compete with stacks of CDs and assorted periodicals in his small, corner workspace, the brain center for the Jazz Studies program he has been running for the past decade at UCLA.

“I am swamped,” he said with his characteristic wry grin. “Not only am I directing the program, but I’m responsible for all the instruction. And if the program fails or succeeds or is mediocre or good, it’s my responsibility.”

That would be more than enough of a challenge to keep most people busy. But for Burrell, who will turn 76 on July 31, it’s only part of the game. Still active as one of the jazz world’s high-visibility guitarists, his latest album, Birthday Bash: Live at Yoshi’s, was released on June 19. It was his 99th recording as a leader, appropriately issued on Blue Note, the source of his first LP, Introducing Kenny Burrell, in 1956. Number 100, the chronicle of a Burrell 75th birthday tribute performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall (in which he played virtually every number with a far-ranging collection of musicians), will be released later this year.

Add to that the fundamental demands that are associated with simply being Kenny Burrell, the famous jazz musician, the recording artist, the college professor, the founder of one of the country’s major university jazz programs, and the word “swamped” sounds like a reasonable enough description.

But Burrell is no complainer. Tall and slender, his surprisingly unlined face belying both his years and the intensity of his work schedule, he somehow manages to find time to do it all. During the course of our amiable, far-reaching conversation in his office, he took a phone call from a worried parent, concerned that her child had not done well in an audition for the program. Burrell managed to reassure her without making any commitments.

Although the jazz studies program reached its first-decade milestone last year, Burrell has actually been at UCLA since the ’70s.

“I started in 1978 as a part-time instructor,” he recalled. “They wanted me to do something in jazz for the Center for African-American Studies. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m busy as a performer and enjoying it, and I don’t want to stop it all to teach school.’ So I said, ‘OK, I’ll just do a little bit. I’ll do one quarter a year.’ But I wanted to do the thing that would get me the most mileage. So I decided to teach ‘Ellingtonia,’ a course on Duke Ellington, which would cover a lot of music. Later, I heard that, historically speaking, it was the first college course on Duke Ellington in the United States. And I’m still teaching it.”

In 1996, Burrell received an appointment as a professor of music and ethnomusicology, and was named chair of the Jazz Studies program. At the time, the program existed much more as an idea than a reality. Burrell approached it in practical fashion.

“I was convinced,” he said, “that the first thing I had to do was to line up teachers on each principal instrument. So I called up some of my friends: Billy Higgins, Harold Land, Billy Childs, Gerald Wilson, Garnett Brown, Oscar Brashear, Barbara Morrison, Ruth Price and a few others. And that was our first jazz faculty.”

Burrell pointed to a photo apparently taken in 1996, in which Burrell and his stellar friends are lined up in smiling companionship. Most of the surviving members continue their instructional work at UCLA. The program now also includes instrumental jazz combos directed by Burrell, George Bohannon, Clayton Cameron, Charles Owens and Anthony Wilson and a vocal combo directed by Michele Weir. There are, in addition, three large ensembles: the UCLA Jazz Orchestra, directed by Charlie Harrison, the UCLA Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Bobby Rodriguez and the UCLA Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, directed by Burrell and Roberto Miranda.

Burrell’s approach to jazz study is pragmatic and to the point, strongly founded upon an “understanding and knowledge of jazz history.”

“A large part of my education,” he added, “was based on listening to what had gone before me. And now it’s not necessarily that way. A lot of things are in print that you don’t even have to listen to. A lot of students have so much music available to them, not only in book form but on the Internet, and so forth. So part of my job as a teacher and the director of the program is to get them to listen-not only listen, but transcribe music-so that they really have to listen and understand, and figure out what these notes are. To me, that’s part of what’s needed, along with an understanding of lyricism, of the importance of the melodies.”

But he also feels that no study of jazz, or of music or art in general, is complete without the understanding of what he describes as the “honesty of spirit.”

“Look,” he said. “If you honestly try to pull out what you deeply feel, what you deeply mean, then it’s going to work, whether it’s something you write now that won’t be played until a year from now, or if you just make it up on the spot as an improvised phrase. It’s like Louis Armstrong said, ‘If you enjoy it, the audience will enjoy it.’ That’s only one way to put it, but he’s right. The audience will get it if you give it from a certain perspective, and that perspective is the honesty of soul, the honesty of spirit, of who you are. And you can connect to the audience from joy, or from misery, or from sorrow. Look at Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit.’ There are all kinds of emotions we can bring forth. They can be written as part of a symphony or string quartet or they can be just right on, you just made that phrase up. It doesn’t matter. If it comes from that real human spot, it’s going to work.”

Burrell’s successful blending of practical pedagogy with a constant acknowledgment of the importance of emotional honesty has generated a number of major achievement awards. In 1999 he received the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Jazz Tribute Award and an Alumni Achievement Award from Wayne State University. In 2001, the UCLA Black Alumni Association honored him with the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004 DownBeat recognized him as Jazz Educator of the Year. And in 2005 he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award.

On Dec. 2, 2006, the 75th birthday celebration revealed that, academics and awards aside, Burrell continues to be one of his instrument’s most vital practitioners. Far from being the sort of tribute performance in which the honoree sits in a splendid box, smiling in benediction as his or her life story is unfolded on stage by others, Burrell was at the heart of the action. He dueted with Russell Malone and Pat Metheny and heard his music performed by the UCLA Jazz Vocal Ensemble and the View Park Prep High School Band. He romped with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and backed singers Ernie Andrews and Linda Hopkins. Along the way, a diverse collection of Burrell compositions was featured, highlighted by selections from his “Ralph J. Bunche Suite.”

Recalling the birthday concert, listening to Burrell describe his educational premises, it was suggested that he was a kind of living contradiction to the old phrase, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” He laughed, declining the honor, simply pointing out that he was following a path that pretty much dated back to his youthful days in Detroit.

The guitar had not been Burrell’s first choice, despite the fact that the instrument was “a kind of a family thing.” His brother Billy, 11 years older, played guitar, and his father liked to “fool around with the banjo and ukulele.” By the time he was 6 or 7, Burrell had learned to play a few basic chords, simply by watching his brother.

But in the early ’40s, most young musicians were far more attracted to horns-any horns-than they were to the still rarely heard jazz guitar.

“When I got to be about 12 or 13,” Burrell recalled, “I became serious about becoming a musician. And I wanted to play the saxophone. The people I was fond of at that time were Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Herschel Evans. This was before Charlie Parker, of course, in the early ’40s. But it was during WWII. My brother Billy had gone into the Army, and we were a poor family. My father had died and it was just my mother, and there was no money to buy a saxophone. They weren’t easy to find. Saxophones were made out of metal, and metal was very important and expensive because of the war effort.”

So Burrell settled, reluctantly, for a guitar. It helped that he knew something about the instrument, because of his brother, and he liked the sound of it. But his youthful enthusiasm continued to be stirred primarily by saxophonists.

“I bought my first guitar in a pawnshop for 10 bucks,” he said. “Five of it my brother sent me from the Army. The brand name was Kay, and I dove right into it.”

Serendipitously, Burrell heard a recording around this time that completely transformed his perception of the instrument.

“It was Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman,” he said. “And he was playing a lot of single lines, amplified, that sounded like a saxophone or a trumpet. I suddenly realized that, ‘Well, the guitar’s not so bad after all.’ Because hearing Christian told me that you could play it like a saxophone, or like a horn. Those records he made with Benny Goodman were my first big inspiration, hearing him playing in the front line with the melody and the themes and the solos. The solos, particularly. Not only was it loud, but it was great, because he was a great, great musician.”

Burrell’s second significant inspiration came from Oscar Moore, the guitarist with the Nat “King” Cole Trio.

“I liked his solos,” he said, “but his forte for me, and for others, was the beautiful modern chords he was playing. That was his real innovation.”

Two other elements had significant impacts upon Burrell’s musically omnivorous imagination. The first was the blues.

“I grew up in a black area of Detroit,” he said, “and so the blues was all around, everywhere. It was a natural part of my life, and I had plenty of inspiration from Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and certainly T-Bone Walker. It’s one of the primary foundations and inspirations for my playing the guitar.”

Add to that, for very different reasons, Django Reinhardt.

“It wasn’t until I got a little older, though,” recalls Burrell. “Not until I started to realize that the guitar as an instrument is one that you can express yourself with. That was when I became very much an admirer of Django Reinhardt. Not so much as a direct inspiration, musically speaking, but as an inspiration that showed me that you can get a real unique individual sound on an instrument. It was inspiring to hear that somebody could get such a special sound. And that maybe had a more philosophical or aesthetic impact than a direct musical influence.”

When Burrell’s older brother, Billy, returned from the Army in 1945, he was startled to find how quickly his younger sibling had advanced in his mastery of the instrument. So, wanting to continue working together, he switched to the electric bass. The result was the completely uncalculated creation of the rarely heard-at the time-jazz trio instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums.

“I think it was one of the first ones in the country,” said Burrell. “I didn’t know that at the time. It just happened. There was a guy who had a restaurant in Detroit who said, ‘I want some music in here. I’ll take out a table.’ And I thought, ‘Hmm. Take out a table … OK.’ So what we did, because I wanted the gig, I wanted to play, was I stood up with my guitar, my brother stood up with his Fender bass. And we had a drummer, Hindal Butts, who also stood up and played cocktail drums: cymbal, snare drum and bass drum. And it turned out to be a very rewarding experience for me musically, because it allowed me to experiment with just a trio with no piano.

Then, with a laugh, Burrell added, ” I didn’t find out until later that it was an historical innovation.”

In fact, however, there was a significant amount of historical innovating going on around Detroit in the late ’40s.

“It’s really incredible if you think about all the other people I was there with,” he continued. “On piano, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris; on bass, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter; on drums, Elvin Jones, Oliver Jackson; saxophones, Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster; trumpet, Thad Jones, Donald Byrd. Lucky Thompson was from Detroit as well, and Milt Jackson and Al McKibbon went to the same high school I did. It was like a workshop. We would exchange music, we would transcribe music and share it, we would rehearse a lot. We would have jam sessions a lot, exchange ideas and recordings. It was like a little university.”

A “little university” enhanced by such visiting professors as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Jones, Clark Terry and dozens of others.

“I remember sitting in one time with Charlie Parker,” recalled Burrell. “He was so generous with younger players. He’d let you sit in, encouraged you. And even though he and Dizzy, along with Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, were the leaders of a new movement, blazing a trail, he was very modest in terms of accepting compliments. If we complimented him on something he’d played, he’d just say, ‘Thank you very much. I’m just trying.’ But I knew that his ears were wide open in terms of all kinds of sounds, and it reflected in his playing.”

Despite an offer to travel with Illinois Jacquet, despite working with Dizzy Gillespie for a month, Burrell, unlike many players of his generation, elected to go to college and pick up a degree before launching his professional career. It had to be a difficult decision.

“It sure was,” he said. “I had made my first records during that engagement with Dizzy, and he wanted me to go with him. But my mother said, ‘Well, that’s great that they want you. But if they really want you now, they’ll want you later. Maybe you should further your education.’ So I thought about it, and I also realized, because as it was then, and it’s similar now, the jazz business is pretty shaky. And I felt, well, maybe, if I went to college I’d have something to fall back on in case it didn’t work out, in performance, or if I lost a finger or something. I also remembered talking to Charlie Parker, and realizing what a vast variety of music that he liked to listen to. I was curious about that, and I realized that going to college would offer me an opportunity to hear all these different things and study them. And that was the other reason I went.”

As it turned out, his mother was right. Two months after Burrell graduated from Wayne State University in 1955 with a degree in Composition and Theory, he joined the Oscar Peterson Trio, replacing the ill Herb Ellis.

“I stayed with them for about six months,” Burrell recalled. “Then Herb got OK, and he came back. But in the process I had traveled around the country with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, and gotten a taste of what that level of playing was about. And I said, ‘OK, it’s time to move to New York.’ And I did.”

By 1956, Burrell had recorded the first album under his own leadership. Other albums under his name would follow at the rate of two a year. Over the next 50 years, he was constantly in the studio for other artists, as well, the epitome of a first-call player. The program for the 75th anniversary celebration at UCLA’s Royce Hall devotes four pages to microscopically small, agate-type listings of all of Burrell’s recordings. His performance appearances-with artists ranging from Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to the Platters, the Mills Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Patti Page-represent a virtual history of American jazz and pop music in the second half of the 20th century.

Other pages in the program include comments affirming the impact that he has had upon artists who are most intimately aware of what it means to play the guitar:

George Benson: “There is no finer guitarist than Kenny Burrell.”

B.B. King: “Kenny Burrell is the overall greatest guitarist in the world, and he’s my favorite.”

Jimi Hendrix: “Kenny Burrell … that’s the sound I’m looking for.”

Russell Malone: “He can take one note and just lay you out.”

Pat Metheny: “Kenny Burrell is one of my favorite guitarists.”

Burrell takes it all with a grain of salt. He’s quick to acknowledge that it’s been a full and fruitful life, but he is also cognizant of the fact that-in playing, composing and teaching-he’s often had to do battle to do what he’s wanted to do.

“As human beings we tend to appreciate something that’s taken a long time to put together,” he said. “But when someone just flips something off, like a jazz improvisation, we tend to say, ‘Well, maybe that’s accidental, or it doesn’t take as much forethought or serious thinking.’ What they don’t understand, and what we try to teach here every day, is the sophistication and the complexity of what it takes to create a jazz performance, whether it’s a single phrase or a whole evening.”

And the bottom line, for Kenny Burrell, is his insistence upon remaining true to that principle.

“I don’t think,” he concludes, “that I’ve ever done anything where I’ve compromised what I believed in. You know, nothing’s perfect, and we can’t always have a performance that’s at the level that we want it. But what we can do is be strong and true to the things we believe in. So I feel good, because, in all the things I’ve done, I don’t think I’ve ever compromised that.”



Two Heritage instruments, one for studio work and one for performance use. Burrell is pictured in this feature with Heritage’s “Super KB” Kenny Burrell Signature Model.


Heritage Freedom Kenny Burrell Signature Model Originally Published