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The Joy of Jazz

Kenny Burrell is the international dean of jazz guitar. He’s also an academic dean — director of UCLA’s ever-expanding Jazz Studies program since its 1996 launch — as well as a zealous professor of music and ethnomusicology. His task: helping build a tugboat to pull America’s native musical form back into the cultural mainstream. Ax in one hand, hammer in the other.


You know the ax if you know jazz. From his ’50s recordings with Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Donald Byrd onward, Burrell has shown his edge: a cutting tone inspired by Charlie Christian; pungent blues expressions redolent of his native Detroit; a classically honed tactility that can take him anywhere. Pretty fair singer, too.



As for the hammer, Burrell brags justifiably on the heft of his faculty, which includes Gerald Wilson, Bobby Rodriguez, Charles Owens, Charley Harrison, George Bohanon, Roberto Miranda, Barbara Morrison, Ruth Price, Michelle Weir, Tom Ranier, Anthony Wilson and Sherman Ferguson, prime practitioners all. How’d he land them? “It wasn’t that difficult — I called up a bunch of my friends!”


Now and again, Burrell breaks his professorial mask with a smile like a cheerful pharmacist’s; his speech, coming in extended bursts across his desk, carries a folksy thrum as he rests his left elbow on a plastic aerosol-can top so his raised hand floats at ear level. (The man spends too much time on the phone these days.) He received the NEA’s Jazz Masters Award this year, a few days ago adding a plaque from the Jazz Journalists Association. And UCLA has established the Kenny Burrell Archive to house his notable papers and fingernail clippings.



L.A. WEEKLY: That archive must make you feel like a pretty happenin’ dude.

KENNY BURRELL: They usually [establish one] after you’re dead, so I have mixed feelings about it.



How do you help musicians find their own sound?

I say, “Remember what you did on this measure of music? This is very special. This is coming from you, not anywhere else. That’s the beginning of your vocabulary, your music.”



How did you find your own sound?

I just knew there was a certain sound that I wanted to get on the guitar, and it probably has a connection to the acoustic guitar. That’s what I started on, because in those days there were no amplifiers. My amplified sound has to have the warmth, the fullness of a good acoustic guitar — just louder.



Why guitar?

I really wanted to be a saxophone player. I was listening to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Ben Webster — the guys that played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. But this was during World War II, and metal was very expensive, and saxophones were very expensive. We were a poor family. So I remember buying my first guitar for 10 bucks at a pawnshop. But fortunately for me, I heard Charlie Christian about a year later, playing with Benny Goodman, playing this electric guitar just like a trumpet or saxophone. I said, “A guitar’s not so bad after all!”



What other guitar players grabbed you?

Nat “King” Cole was very famous then, and I heard these beautiful chords from this guitarist named Oscar Moore, and I said, Oh, man. Oscar Moore played like a piano. Cole left a lot of spaces when he was singing, and Oscar Moore was just filling ’em up. And that really sold me on it.



How is the profile of jazz changing?

Though there are fewer clubs that hire name jazz musicians in a given town, there are more little clubs where guys can just go and jam. And places like Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, UCLA, USC, CalArts — you see these jazz concerts cropping up in the schedule of what in the past has normally been all classical.



What does listening to jazz do to a person’s attitude?

One starts to discover the depth that’s in the music. On the other hand, it is a music that you can tap your foot to, snap your fingers. I always think of jazz as something that straddles popular music and serious music.



Beyond the obvious musical lessons, what do you teach?

We’re educating young people to the joy — the joy, I don’t want to leave that out — of listening to the music.




On Sunday, June 5, Kenny Burrell’s All-Stars play a sold-out Friends of Jazz at UCLA scholarship benefit celebrating stalwart jazz benefactor David Abell’s 75th birthday; also performing will be Jeffrey Kahane, Steve Tyrell, the Gerald Clayton Trio, Mike Melvoin and a certain Diana Krall. On Monday, June 6, the six student combos of the UCLA Jazz Studies Department show their stuff. And on Tuesday, June 7, the three UCLA student large ensembles let rip under the direction of Burrell (with Roberto Miranda), Bobby Rodriguez and Charley Harrison. All three events are at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, near the corner of Hilgard and Westholme avenues, Westwood; the Monday and Tuesday concerts, both at 7:30 p.m., are free.