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UCLA and Kenny Burrell: A Merger In Jazz Education

Ed Hamilton on the creation of a jazz studies department at UCLA

A musical merger of higher education has been established at one of the last major universities to include jazz into their curriculum-UCLA. The Jazz Studies Dept. under Director Dr. Kenny Burrell, The Herb Alpert School of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute guided by Herbie Hancock, have all joined forces in providing not only jazz, but all around musical learning for all students seeking the realms of higher educational degrees in music.

Jazz education was brought to UCLA when guitarist Kenny Burrell started teaching “Ellingtonia”, a class on Duke Ellington in 1978. “It was Thad Jones who turned my ear to the inner sound of Ellington; he was one of my heroes that really succeeded in the music business,” Burrell stated. “Number one, he is a jazz musician plus he is an African American, a citizen of the world, a role model, a great businessman. He is American many times over.” He presented the idea to Dr. Claudia Mitchell Kernan, Director of the Center on Afro-American Studies. With this brainchild, Burrell taught for 18 years until UCLA created the Jazz Studies Department in 1996, and appointed him Director. By this time he was a world-renowned performer and recording artist, who had recorded for the Blue Note and Verve labels with John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine.

The creation of a Jazz Studies Department was a realization of a goal he set for himself while studying music in the ’50’s. “When I was in college at Wayne State, I was disturbed by the fact that jazz was not getting legitimate attention like other forms of music,” he recalled. “I made a pledge to myself that if I ever had the chance, I would try to do something to help solve that problem. The Jazz Studies Dept. would offer graduating musicians a diverse range of activities including careers and graduate studies in jazz performance, composition, arranging, research and teaching, as well as becoming a great musician.” Burrell went on to say that, “With Ellingtonia, I would not only be teaching the students about jazz, but giving them an example of a role model who they could learn lessons from even if they weren’t in music.”

Burrell’s staff included Gerald Wilson, Garnett Brown, the late Billy Higgins and Harold Land, Billy Childs, Ruth Price, Barbara Morrison, and Dr. Bobby Rodriguez.

Trumpeter Herb Alpert’s Foundation in 2007 contributed an enormous amount to the Ethno-musicology Dept. establishing the Herb Alpert School of Music underwriting all music endeavors at UCLA. Alpert became a music philanthropist when in 1988 he connected with the Harlem School of Music and came to its rescue in 2010 when it was about to close—he donated $500,000 to keep the doors open. “I didn’t want to make it [UCLA School of Music] a lopsided music school,” he explained. “It’s full serviced, classical, ethnic music and jazz-the works.”

Closely associated with the Monk Institute for years, he was able to bring it to UCLA providing graduate level studies. Herbie Hancock, Chairman of the Institute and long-time champion of Jazz Studies at UCLA, stated: “The Monk Institute ‘s program will provide students access to UCLA’s unusually wide and varied curriculum-from courses in music business and technology to film scoring and global musical traditions-it represents the future of jazz. Jazz has always functioned as a strong bridge between people of different cultures and different ethnicities.” In addition to Hancock, the Institute will include lecturers Wayne Shorter, T.S. Monk and James Newton.

Newton reiterates that UCLA’s jazz program benefits from its new association with an institute named for the father of modern jazz piano and adds, “There’s a responsibility that comes with the name Thelonious Monk. He’s one of the highest models I can think of for students as they move through the process of discovering themselves and learning about the nobility of the music.”

“I think jazz is the perfect art form, explains Alpert. “It’s speaking for people all over the world-look at what’s happening in the middle East, people looking for freedom and self-expression-that’s what jazz is all about.”

Burrell concurs, “Jazz is a serious, world-respected art form, one of the major gifts from the United States to the world, and it should have all the serious attention that other forms of music have and I’m certainly glad to be a part of all that jazz.”

It was Edward Duke Ellington who had the very first college jazz concert at UCLA in 1936, and it was Kenny Burrell who brought Jazz studies to UCLA with his creation of “Ellingtonia”, taking the university into the forefront of jazz education in this new millennium.

Originally Published