Saturday, March 24

100 albums in 50 years

Jazz great and UCLA professor has had a star-studded career, and he's still going strong


He’s been called the grand master of jazz guitar by Dizzy
Gillespie and the greatest guitarist in the world by B.B. King. He
was Duke Ellington’s favorite. And in the latter half of his
50-year career as a leading performer, he’s also been called
“Professor” by innumerable UCLA students.

The man is Kenny Burrell, the founder and director of the UCLA
Jazz Studies program and the jazz icon who has shared stages and
studios with the likes of John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra.

This Saturday, Burrell will reaffirm his position as perhaps the
most-recorded guitarist in jazz history by recording his 100th
album: an all-star live performance at Royce Hall celebrating his
75th birthday.

Burrell was born on July 31, 1931 in Detroit, Mich., making this
weekend’s festivities belated but no less deserved.

The UCLA Live event will include Pat Metheny and Russell Malone,
but it won’t be the first time Burrell plays with some of the
giants of jazz ““ or of any genre.

“One night I was on stage with Frank Sinatra and Lena
Horne in the same concert. And Nelson Riddle, a very important man
who was a conductor and arranger, he was there,” Burrell
said. “There are so many wonderful experiences and some of
them you just do and you don’t realize how important it is
when you do it.”

One of those experiences came in 1958, when he made an album
with Coltrane, a legendary saxophonist.

“When I recorded with John Coltrane, we were just making
the music happen and didn’t know that it was going to be that
significant,” Burrell said.

But Burrell’s life and music have been defined by
significance. He did his first recordings with Dizzy Gillespie in
1951, setting the tone for what was to be star-studded career.

His life as a professional jazz player began in earnest in 1956,
when he moved from Detroit to New York after graduating from Wayne
State University. The guitarist was soon an in-demand studio
musician who was called upon to play jazz ““ or anything else,
even recording with Aretha Franklin.

“I do love all kinds of music, and I wanted to learn to
play it and investigate and just dug into it,” Burrell said.
“When I went to New York I got the reputation of having that
kind of versatility. Particularly when it comes to recording,
people wanted that.”

In addition to playing on other artists’ recordings,
Burrell led many projects under his own name during those early
days, kicking off a prolific recording career that has found him
averaging two albums a year over the last half-century.

But the guitarist, whose cool bop and blues-oriented style has
graced hundreds of albums, almost never picked up the

“My older brother Billy played the guitar. … It
didn’t look like much of a challenge. I was thinking about
being a saxophone player,” Burrell said. “But this was
during World War II and we were very poor. My father had died and
so we didn’t have any money to buy a saxophone … but
guitars were very cheap because that was just prior to the fact
that they became electrified. I decided well, I wanted to play some
music so I’d just settle for the guitar.”

He picked up his first guitar for $10 in a Detroit pawn

Soon after, he heard the playing of Charlie Christian, an
electric guitarist in Benny Goodman’s band, who demonstrated
the soloing possibilities of the instrument. This influence, along
with what he described as the “beautiful chords” of
Oscar Moore, Nat King Cole’s guitarist, convinced him to
stick with the instrument.

Another influence was Duke Ellington, the composer and band
leader considered by many to be one of the greatest American
musicians of the 20th century. Burrell was inspired by
Ellington’s success as well as his musical innovation.

“When I was in college … I started thinking about my
heroes and they were wonderful musicians but they were not doing
too well business-wise,” Burrell said. “I started
reading about Duke Ellington and I said, wait a minute, he’s
got something else he’s doing here that makes a difference. I
started reading more about him and learning about how he was able
to deal with society, with business and with culture, and
that’s one of the reasons I was very attracted to him because
I wanted to be a success. I wanted to succeed not only in music but
in business.”

But Burrell wasn’t the only one being impressed ““
Ellington would later refer to him as his favorite guitarist.

There’s a famous story that Burrell was set to record with
Ellington, but when Burrell couldn’t make a recording date,
Ellington pulled the solo from the score.

“That was one of my highest honors,” Burrell said.
“That’s the way he was ““ when he wrote music, he
wrote it for a particular person to play,”

Burrell has recorded dozens of Ellington’s songs,
including a pair of “Ellington Forever” tribute albums
in the 1970s.

“When Ellington died, all the musicians that I knew were
very saddened by his death because he was such a hero to us. I felt
I couldn’t really express my feelings with words, so I
decided to do something musically speaking,” he said.

It was this impulse to keep the music alive that led Burrell to
UCLA, where he created the “Ellingtonia” class. It was
the first college course devoted to the composer in the United
States. Burrell remained at UCLA, and in 1996, he was named
director of the new jazz studies program.

Over the last 10 years, the program has acquired one of the best
jazz faculties in the country and had students go on to
professional careers and win prestigious awards; still, Burrell
continues to look to the future.

“I’d like to see more support for the program so
that we can bring in more guest artists for workshops and seminars.
I’d like to add more courses to our curriculum ““
courses on composition, courses on the music business, and
I’d like to also be able to get the support to have our
students enter more competitions,” he said. “And last
but not least, I’d like to see more scholarship support for
our jazz students.”

To that end, Burrell is the executive director of Friends of
Jazz at UCLA, an organization that helps provide that necessary

The guitarist remains full of energy and excitement, even after
all these years. One would think 100 albums might be a nice
stopping point, but he still has plenty of music in him. On recent
albums, Burrell even started recording his own vocals.

“The wonderful thing about jazz is, every time you play
it, you know it’s going to be different, so it’s almost
like the first time,” he said.

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