Friday, September 22

Ellingtonia


Kenny Burrell shares knowledge of jazz music and Ellington, the man who created Genre

A&E


On July 1, 1997, in New York City’s Central Park, renowned
sculptor Robert Graham unveiled his latest work for public viewing.
This was no minor event. Nearly 20 years in the making, the Duke
Ellington Memorial marked the city’s first monument to a
black artist and the nation’s first monument to jazz’s
most influential composer.

The statue is a simple but compelling piece; the three pillars
of nine muses supporting the platform on which the Duke stands
““ alone next to a simple grand piano ““ represent his
towering influence and artistic pathos. And its only fitting that
the statue would find itself in the middle of Manhattan, in the
city where Ellington’s big band, and subsequently jazz,
flourished during the first half of the 20th century.

But you can see the exact same image ““ albeit on a smaller
scale ““ right outside UCLA’s own Schoenberg Hall. One
of the school’s donors donated Graham’s model of the
Central Park statue in celebration of Ellington’s centennial
in 1999. As jazz studies professor and legendary guitarist Kenny
Burrell puts it, it was a gift.

“I would say that, yes, that statue represents a few
things symbolic of (Ellington’s) importance,” Burrell
said in his Schoenberg Hall office. “But I think it’s
very important because it symbolizes UCLA’s recognition of
that great man.”

That recognition dates much further back than four years ““
this month marks the 25th year of Burrell’s class
Ellingtonia, the first university-level course on Ellington ever
taught in the country. And, along with the music that inspired it,
Burrell maintains that it’s only increasing with respect and
value.

Burrell teaches in a typical Schoenberg classroom. It’s
not one of those cavernous lecture halls; despite its popularity,
Ellingtonia has an enrollment capacity of 40. Burrell intones about
six decades of musical experience to his students ““ many of
whom, he points out, are not majoring in music. He’s a tall
man who speaks calculatingly and authoritatively, offering
evaluations like they were facts, with a conviction that he’s
cultivated for over two decades of teaching and personal contact
with Ellington himself.

“Duke Ellington could lay down his little finger, and
three horns would play, and we wouldn’t know what it
was,” he said in class. “This was a guy who’s
considered a genius, and we didn’t know what (he was doing).
That’s because those things can’t be measured using the
things we call C or D7 or D-major. We don’t have the proper
terminology to measure what Duke Ellington was doing. … The point
is, there are sounds that Duke produced with “˜the natural
feeling of a people’ that cannot be measured by the way we
measure stuff. He said, “˜if it sounds right, it is
right.’”

Burrell’s approach to the course might feel scattered to
some, but that’s only because of the course’s
intentionally wide scope ““ he deals with Ellington’s
social significance as well as his musical theory.

“You’re covering the history of jazz,” said
fourth-year ethnomusicology student Miles Mosley. “The guy
was born right at the turn of the century, when jazz is off and
running.”

Burrell’s initial motivation to teach came early. As a
college student in Detroit he was discouraged by the lack of
emphasis placed on the art form with which he grew up.

“It was particularly important to me because I was a jazz
musician,” Burrell said. “I was performing at the time,
giving concerts around school and the kids all loved it, and some
of the professors loved it too. Unfortunately for me, in that
particular music department (jazz) was more or less
taboo.”

That experience influenced Burrell’s long-term goals, and
in 1978 he got a call from UCLA’s Claudia Mitchell-Kernan,
then-director of the school’s Center for African American
Studies. When she asked Burrell if he would be interested in doing
something in jazz, he agreed immediately.

Only able to teach one quarter a year, Burrell decided to teach
a course that wouldn’t just deal with the music but also the
personal history from which it sprung. That led him to Ellington, a
black man born at the dawn of the 20th century, who essentially
became a universal model of the artist overcoming adversity.

“He has become a role model for me and many others in
terms of how to survive these various problems that have existed,
and still succeed in terms of doing something creative, something
that you really love,” Burrell said.

It’s widely known that Burrell was Ellington’s
favorite guitarist; though he never actually recorded with him,
Ellington stated so on several occasions. Of all the accolades
Burrell has received over the course of his career, he maintains
that as his highest. But it’s best not to see Burrell as an
“expert” on Ellington, because that’s not how he
treats his role.

“I’m still discovering new things (in his music),
and so is the world,” he said.

Ever since childhood Burrell was constantly exposed to the jazz
legend’s music. But there was one defining moment when he
realized the significance of Ellington’s art.

“One evening my friend and great musician Thad Jones sat
me down and said, “˜Listen to this closely,’”
Burrell said. “The more I listened the more I realized there
was so much there, so much intricate material. That was my very
special introduction to looking at this music as this highly
developed art form of Ellington.”

The moment reflects Burrell’s philosophy that “the
more you listen the more you’ll hear:” the idea of
evolution, progress and an endless sense of discovery. It’s a
point of view that Burrell emphasizes both in and out of class. In
fact, you can even make the case that as Burrell teaches the class
right now, he’s the man standing atop the platform next the
piano, with Ellington’s virtues giving him a better view.

“Kenny knew him,” said fourth-year jazz studies
student John Ritchie. “That’s why you take the class.
The image that Ellington put out to the world was one of an elegant
statesman and spokesperson for jazz, and that’s something
that I think Kenny has taken as his model. He’s really
adopted it and done a fantastic job with it, because everything he
does is with dignity. I think it’s an important connection
that he has with Duke, whether it’s intentional or
not.”

But dignity is only part of what Burrell wants to communicate to
his students. His decision to focus Ellingtonia on both the music
and the man who created it is a result of the essential themes and
lessons evident in both.

“There is a lot (in his life) that we can translate into
musical terms,” Burrell said.

“(Music) was Ellington’s life,” added
ethnomusicology professor Gerald Wilson. “Except for working
at a soda fountain as a kid, he never held another job. I’m
sure every day was a great day for him because he was enjoying his
work. And not only did he do it for himself but he helped other
people. I know how he was ““ no matter how small you were, he
was eager to meet you, eager to give you a word of
encouragement.”

Burrell would agree ““ he remembers vividly his first
meeting with Ellington in New York in 1969. It was in a similar
vein to student-mentor interaction, with just a bit of awe factored
in.

“I was speechless. He did all the talking,” Burrell
said, laughing. “I was overwhelmed by his presence. But he
fortunately had a lot to say, and in such a way that I didn’t
need to say very much.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.