Kenny Burrell performs at his 80th birthday concert in 2011.
Just before 11 o’clock on a crisp Monday night in Hollywood, 82-year-old Kenny Burrell put his Gibson guitar in its velvet-lined case and said goodnight to several members of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. He had just finished an intermission-free, two-hour-plus set with the large ensemble, as he has done once a month since the summer. Waiting patiently among the suits and smiles was a 21-year-old guitarist eager to meet his idol. When the room finally cleared, Burrell was amiable and inquisitive, talking to the young fan about music and Michigan, where he grew up.
Thirty-five years after entering music education, Burrell has never been more involved with young people interested in jazz. He is passionate and a little concerned about preserving the legacy of the musical genre he helped define. So he’s doing everything he can to ensure that his students have the opportunity to share what he calls “America’s gift to the world.”
Fifteen years ago, I was one of those kids waiting outside the green room. I later became one of his students at UCLA, where he told firsthand accounts of interacting with Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie while also driving small ensembles with a steely strum.
“There are thousands of fine jazz musicians who have no jobs to look forward to,” Burrell says a few days after the concert in his UCLA office. “There is nothing waiting for people who graduate from jazz programs like these schools. There is nothing waiting for them like an L.A. Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic. No nothing. There are no jobs, and to me that’s a shame.”
From 10 Weeks To Tens Of Millions
Burrell is a rare musician for his generation. While in his early 20s, he acquired a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition.
“When I was at Wayne State University in the ’50s, it was a problem studying jazz, even talking about it in some cases,” he says. “So I decided if I had a chance, I would teach jazz.”
While waiting for that teaching opportunity, he made himself an essential character in the history textbooks. Burrell made his recording debut in 1951 with Dizzy Gillespie, and has since recorded more than 100 albums under his own name. He also lends his soulful tone to a handful of career-defining Jimmy Smith records, as well as notable LPs by Paul Chambers and Coleman Hawkins. His energy and tone today sound just as assured and unmistakable as they did when he started.
Burrell first became involved in jazz education in 1978, when he taught a 10-week overview of Duke Ellington for UCLA’s Center for African American Studies. When he was first offered the position, Burrell says he wasn’t quite sure how to approach a subject as broad as jazz.
Kenny Burrell in his UCLA office.
Christina Limson O’Connell for NPR
“I had to figure out in my mind what would be the most effective thing I could teach for one quarter,” he says. “Both logically and spiritually, the name Ellington rose to the top, because much of the history of jazz was in his hands.”
In 1996, his success with the Ellingtonia course and an expanding academic interest in the art form encouraged UCLA to offer a jazz studies degree. Burrell was the logical choice to head the program; he enlisted fellow storied musicians like bandleader Gerald Wilson, saxophonist Harold Land and drummer Billy Higgins to help teach ensembles and history classes.
“Kenny started the jazz studies program while I was there, so there were a lot of exciting things happening at that time,” trombonist and former student Alan Ferber says. “He always had such a joyful spirit and an elegance with the way he carried himself around campus.
Nearly 20 years later, the program has expanded considerably, thanks to the music-industry heavyweights who live in the surrounding hills. Trumpeter Herb Alpert donated $30 million to UCLA’s varied music programs, music executive Mo Ostin donated $10 million to help build a much-needed expansion of the music building, and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz moved in last year, bringing musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to the linoleum hallways.
Of the more than 28,000 undergraduate students at the school, only 35 are jazz majors. But the list of alumni includes not only Ferber, but also saxophonist Kamasi Washington, trombonist Isaac Smith and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
“[Burrell] is inspiring, warm, very passionate about keeping the jazz tradition alive and well,” Parlato says. “I remember, sometime leading up to graduation, he sat me down in a talk of encouragement and preparation. He looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’ve got it.’ That meant the world to me.”
A Big Band In Every City
Clearly, not every graduate can be a headliner, and Burrell says he owes all of his students more than just a handshake and a diploma. That led to the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, Burrell’s unofficial post-graduate opportunity for his students as well as the broader Los Angeles jazz scene. It’s a swinging large ensemble dedicated to classic jazz repertoire and the writing and arranging of band members.
The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited is not a part of the UCLA jazz studies curriculum, but it does include UCLA staff (trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, saxophonists Charles Owens and Justo Almario) and graduates (saxophonist Hitomi Oba, trombonist Nick DiPinna) who get plenty of opportunities to solo and earn a regular paycheck.
“What I’m doing there is an orchestra born out of need, out of necessity,” Burrell says. “One of the things that prompted me to start this organization is what we were just talking about — better, proper and more accurate recognition of the importance of this music by the community, by the powers that be, by the culture guardians.”
Burrell says he hopes to expand his concept of resident jazz orchestras to cities across the U.S., hopefully underwritten by cultural organizations and corporations in much the same way symphony orchestras survive. The potential is rich, but it hasn’t proven particularly easy to enact. Nonetheless, at a time when most people are enjoying retirement, Burrell lends his celebrity, his time and his guitar to make his dream happen.
“This is not Kenny Burrell’s big band,” he says. “This is for Los Angeles. That’s what this is about. I welcome all the help I can get. I just want to see it happen. It’s good not only for the musicians and the people, but the history of the music. If we don’t do something, it’s going to slowly disintegrate.”
by Sean J. O’Connell