Kenny Burrell: Mr. Good Notes

Russ Musto By

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"They would come through and they would have local bands play with them and they would often— times pick me to be in the local band to back them up. Charlie Parker was very encouraging when he heard me. He said, 'Yeah man, you sound good.' To a youngster in his teens, when somebody like Bird says that, it's very encouraging. And then Dizzy Gillespie when I was 19 asked me to go on the road with him ... You realize, well you must be doing something right."

A national tour with Oscar Peterson convinced Burrell that he was ready to make the big move to New York. He remembers the day in 1956 when, while hanging out with Tommy Flanagan, "I decided I was going to go and I said, 'You want to go' and he said 'Yeah.' So we just got in my car and we came. We came together." The city welcomed the young Detroiters with open arms, particularly Burrell who recorded a plethora of albums, both as a leader and sideman, during his first year there—dates with Flanagan, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane and many others, including Jimmy Smith, with whom he made dozens of recordings through the years that were among the era's most popular. For more than a decade and a half the guitarist was one of the most in- demand artists in the city's many clubs and recording studios and even on Broadway (he appeared in the pit bands for shows "Bye-Bye Birdie" and "How To Succeed In Business"). Then, in 1971, he picked up and moved to the West Coast.

Los Angeles in the '70s was just as welcoming to Burrell as New York had been in the '50s. He performed there frequently with his own group when not touring and recorded regularly for California record labels Fantasy and Concord. Just as importantly, he began teaching at UCLA, beginning with a course on the music of Duke Ellington. "I understand that that was the first regular course on Ellington in the country, started in '78 with me. I had a hunch that that would be a good thing to do and I think my hunch was right." Burrell has remained at UCLA for the past 30 years, teaching part—time at first and then being named to the full—time position of Director of the Jazz Studies program he began in 1996. Through the years with the faculty he has enlisted in the program well-known jazz instrumentalists including George Bohanon, Billy Childs, Billy Higgins, Harold Land and Gerald Wilson.

"Our mission is to prepare these young people to go out and compete in the jazz world, in the music world," the Director says, "and also to find their own musical voice, so that they can express the uniqueness that is in them. I think that one of the ways that we have done that is because of the faculty, that we got together here. These are all experienced musicians who are still active in the field and understand music business. But the main thing is that we recognize when we hear some unique phrases, some original ideas and we encourage that because we know the history of the music, so when we hear someone come up with some new ideas or some unique phrases we point it out to them and let them know that we feel that they have something special to offer and (that they should) work on that.

So the bottom line on that is to develop your own unique self. And lastly, try to make a contribution to the jazz world, so the music can continue and grow."

Burrell has continued to grow throughout his 50—plus year recording career, his "good notes" getting better and better and his warm mellow tone aging like fine wine. In 2007 Blue Note Records, the label for which he recorded his first date as a leader (the classic Introducing Kenny Burrell (Blue Note, 1956) over a half a century before), documented the current state of the guitarist's art with 75th Birthday Bash Live! (Blue Note, 2006). The date was culled from a week at Yoshi's [Oakland, California], during which guests Hubert Laws and Joey DeFrancesco joined the leader, followed by one very special night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, where Burrell was celebrated as featured soloist with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. This year he celebrated his 77th birthday appearing as a special guest (alongside Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Lovano) in a concert at UCLA's Royce Hall commemorating the 90th birthdays of both Gerald Wilson and Hank Jones (who like the guitarist was born on July 31st).

"Well, that was very special," he enthuses. "You know it's one thing to live that long, but to be that productive and creative is just wonderful ... I guess there's some magic in this music. I don't know what it is, but it certainly works and I'm glad ... it's inspired me to keep going and do better things."

Selected Discography

Kenny Burrell, Introducing: The First Blue Note Sessions (Blue Note, 1956)

Jimmy Smith, Midnight Special (Blue Note, 1960)

Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue (Blue Note, 1963)


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