At 85 years of age, guitarist Kenny Burrell is a vibrant and vital exception in the grand history of jazz, with its numerous tales of tragic and premature endings to more storied figures than should have been permitted by fate.
“I think I’m just lucky with my gene pool — my mother lived until she was 99, maybe that has something to do with it,” Burrell muses, on the phone from his office in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA. His voice is warm and unwavering, despite the fact that he just had a brisk walk from the campus parking garage a block away.
Burrell has made that same walk most mornings for two decades, since he was asked by UCLA to become the founder and director of its jazz studies program. In honor of that program's 20th anniversary, and to celebrate Burrell’s 85th birthday, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music (HASOM) and Friends of Jazz at UCLA are presenting a benefit concert on Saturday, Dec. 3, at Royce Hall. The legendary guitarist will perform with a number of guests, including singers Barbara Morrison, Tierney Sutton and Robin Simone, composer Lalo Schifrin, the Los Angeles Jazz Unlimited Orchestra and the UCLA Philharmonia, conducted by Neal Stulberg.
Proceeds from the concert will go toward the creation of an endowed chair in Burrell’s honor, named for him. “Kenny has dedicated his life to advancing jazz education and jazz music as an important American art form,” said Judith Smith, interim dean at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, in a statement. “The Kenny Burrell Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies ... will help us recruit future outstanding jazz faculty who can explore the boundaries of jazz education, bringing forth the next generation of jazz artists.”
Burrell's relationship with UCLA dates back to 1978, when the school asked him to create a course for its Afro-American Studies program. “It was only a part-time class,” he says. “I was still traveling around the globe, so I didn’t want to take too much time to be a teacher.” Burrell decided to lecture on one of his idols, famed jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington. The opportunity to teach this course, which Burrell would title “Ellingtonia,” along with a brand-new record deal with California-based label Fantasy Records, prompted Burrell to decide to move with his wife, pregnant with their daughter, across the country from New York to Los Angeles. “I figured this would be a nice place to raise children, and to take advantage of the prospective opportunities that were available to me.”
It was a significant life change for Burrell, as he was one of the most prolific and sought-after guitarists of the post-bebop era, even drawing praise from Ellington himself. He had performed and recorded with a who’s-who of jazz’s finest, including Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and John Coltrane. Burrell was best known for his guitar work in Jimmy Smith’s formidable trio, recording more than 20 albums with the virtuoso organist, including the critically acclaimed Organ Grinder’s Swing.
Burrell's move to the West Coast was the start of his unhurried transformation from performer to teacher. After lecturing part-time at UCLA for nearly 20 years, Burrell finally embraced his calling as a jazz educator when he was made a full-time professor and asked to form the jazz program in 1996.
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“That to me was the sign that they believed in what I was about, my career and the integrity I had through the years as a musician, writer and player,” he says. “I felt this was a great opportunity for me to do something worthwhile, something I had been dreaming about, something that had been affecting me, because I felt so bad that so many talented, well-known jazz musicians didn't have the opportunities to succeed.”
In talking with Burrell, it’s easy to sense his enthusiasm and devotion to the students he has been entrusted with developing. He ruminates with fondness on two of his former pupils, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and vocalist Gretchen Parlato, both UCLA alums and current jazz superstars. Washington, he says, "came in [to audition] and was playing a song by Coltrane, 'Giant Steps.' It was unbelievable for a freshman, playing at that level. There was no doubt he was going to succeed. [Gretchen] has a very subtle and gentle voice, but the notes she sang and the harmonies she portrayed made it so great that we knew she was going to succeed.” Burrell adds proudly, “She went on to win the Thelonious Monk Competition!”
It is to Burrell’s credit that he has set up his program to continue to grow and adapt to the evolving climate of jazz in Los Angeles. He sees it as a labor of love. “It’s a joy on my part, and the part of the faculty, to help musicians,” he concluded, “because what that’s doing is really giving life to the continuation of this great art form.”
"Kenny Burrell: Artist, Legend, Legacy: A Birthday Concert With Kenny Burrell & Friends" takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, at UCLA's Royce Hall. Tickets and more info.