When renowned jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell heard about Duke Ellington in college, he said that Ellington’s music and life gave him the encouragement to be consistent throughout the years with his music, writing and teaching.
“(The Ellington philosophy) drove home the point of truly believing that I had something to offer,” said Burrell.
On Saturday night, UCLA Live will honor Burrell with the “80 Years Young” concert celebration, featuring performances from more than 100 classical, jazz and blues musicians.
Artists including B.B. King, Lalo Schifrin and Dee Dee Bridgewater will perform songs and compositions revolving around the theme of world peace. The first half of the concert will consist of jazz and blues music from the Jazz Heritage All-Stars and UCLA’s Tribute Vocal Ensemble.
The second half will incorporate classical music, with performance pieces from the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the UCLA Philharmonia.
Burrell, who began playing jazz guitar in the early ’50s, has recorded 97 albums under his own name and with several hundred with other musicians.
Burrell is currently a professor of music and ethnomusicology and is the head and founder of the jazz studies program. Around campus, and especially in the music department, Burrell carries the reputation of a legend.
“I’ve seen him walking around the department,” said second-year ethnomusicology student Elena Vandellos. “People point to him and whisper, “˜That’s Kenny Burrell! He just walked down the hallway, look!’”
With Burrell’s popular standing and enormous repertoire of songs, some would expect this concert to consist entirely of his own music.
“It would be very easy for a musician approaching his 80th birthday to devise a program of his greatest hits,” said conductor, pianist and director of orchestral studies Neal Stulberg. “But Kenny hasn’t done this.”
Instead, Stulberg said that Burrell has asked composers to create new pieces for the concert.
Burrell asked Stulberg to conduct the orchestra for the event. According to Stulberg, Burrell commissioned five faculty composers to write from their hearts about the topic of world peace and what it means to them.
The result is the world premiere of “Pax Humana,” “Sunset Time” and the composition “Suite for Peace,” a compilation of six movements, each written by a different composer including Burrell, according to Stulberg. He said this will be the first time anyone will hear these arrangements.
“I wanted to get some other voices together to join with me to say that … we want world peace,” Burrell said. “And … (music) is our best way of expressing ourselves.”
While Burrell has been making music since the ’50s, he has not slowed down musically. Rather, he said he focuses his attention on the future, and the impact he can make on it.
Burrell said that Saturday’s performance will celebrate the unveiling of the new Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, which he said he hopes will be embraced as one of the culturally important entities in Los Angeles. He also said he hopes to expand and see other jazz orchestras, particularly in San Diego, Cincinnati and Detroit.
“There are very few places for a jazz artist to work on a permanent basis,” Burrell said. “I’m trying to establish one in Los Angeles. I’m hoping that it will become a model for other cities to follow.”