BY Dee Dee McNeil
Aug 1, 2021
Born July 31, 1931, in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan and currently based in Los Angeles, Kenneth Earl Burrell is a legendary jazz guitarist who celebrated his 90th birthday yesterday. Happy Birthday, Kenny Burrell!
This musician was born during a time when the Motor City was producing a wealth of jazz talent; many who were destined to become iconic jazz legends, including Kenny Burrell himself. At age six, his father died and his loving mother worked hard to raise and support her three sons. Kenny had two older brothers, Donald and William Burrell, (who was eleven years older) frequently played jazz records. He introduced Kenny to artists like Charlie Christian. This was prior to the Charlie Parker era. All three brothers played guitar. It was during World War II, in the early forties that young Burrell made a conscious decision to become a professional musician. At first, he wanted to play a saxophone, but he settled for guitar, because it was more financially accessible.
“In my case, when I started playing guitar it was before the electric guitar. I bought a guitar for ten bucks at a pawn shop. Later, at Miller High School, there was a jazz band … I played both guitar and upright bass in the band. I think that band had an influence on me. … I was already into jazz at that time,” Kenny told Dr. David Schroeder, Director of Jazz Studies at NYU. 1
Burrell developed into a post-bop musician, steeped in straight-ahead, traditional jazz and rooted deeply in the blues. Working around his hometown, Kenny honed his guitar skills playing with some of the greatest musicians that ever lived. Tommy Flanagan was a dear friend and Milt Jackson watched the young man’s talents develop and grow.
As his musical style and sensibility expanded, Burrell’s reputation in Detroit outgrew the city. When Kenny was nineteen years old, Dizzy Gillespie came calling.
“I made my first recording with Dizzy’s Quintet, Tin Tin Deo and Birks Works, on a label in Detroit, Dee Gee Records; Dizzy partnered with Dave Usher. That was a huge lift for me because I recorded with Dizzy. In that month, Coltrane and I became friends and remained friends. We were about the same age. That was the first time Dizzy had a group with no piano and the guitar had to perform chordal. That worked out fine for me because I had already formed a guitar, bass, drum trio in Detroit. I was comfortable playing that style. Dizzy liked it, so he kept that format for a long time throughout his life,” Kenny Burrell recalled that formative time in his life speaking to Dr. Schroeder.
In 1951, John Coltrane had just left Earl Bostic’s band and he joined Dizzy’s group. Milt Jackson was in the group and Percy Heath was on bass. Kenny thought Milt might have recommended him for the gig with Dizzy, but he admits he never asked Milt Jackson about that call he got and making that historic recording session. Kenny must have been outstanding, because even though he was a teenager, Dizzy offered the blossoming guitarist a job with his quintet. Kenny’s mother was adamant that her son focus on his academic education and stay in college at Detroit’s Wayne State University. She said the famous musicians would come calling again. He followed that parental guidance and she was right.
“I’ve been told that record, Tin Tin Deo, which had Latin percussion on it, was one of the first Latin jazz entries into what we now know as Latin Jazz. As you know, Dizzy was a pioneer in Latin jazz. Chano Pozo and Dizzy wrote that song, but Chano wasn’t in the Detroit group. The arrangement had that Afro Cuban beat and that’s another reason I was very fortunate to be on that recording,” Kenny mused.2
Early in his career, Kenny Burrell played with Cal Tjader, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday as part of their rhythm sections. He even backed-up soul singer, James Brown, showing his vast versatility on guitar. In 1951, the same year he recorded with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet, Kenny released his own single (side A and Side B) for Fortune Records as a bandleader. One song was “Rose of Tangier” and the other was “Ground Round.”
Burrell stayed in school, got his degree and after graduating college in 1955, he took a gig touring with the phenomenal Oscar Peterson. Soon after, he relocated to New York City. As a thoughtful, gifted accompanist he landed work with Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. He could bebop and swing with the best of them. This led to work with Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Gene Ammons, Stanley Turrentine and many, many more.
Kenny Burrell is said to have been Duke Ellington’s favorite guitarist. Burrell worked with some of the biggest and brightest jazz stars on the jazz horizon, including woodwind players like Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins, organist, Jimmy Smith, producer/ arranger, Quincy Jones, Donald Byrd, Red Garland, Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Hodges, jazz vocalist, Etta Jones and a slew of others.
Ten years ago, at Burrell’s 80th birthday celebration that I attended, the host was trumpeter and educator Bobby Rodriguez. He shared a special memory with the attendees, quite animated when telling us:
“One day I told Kenny Burrell I had been working on Billy Strayhorn’s iconic composition Lush Life. Burrell replied nonchalantly; Oh yeah – I recorded that tune with ‘Coltrane’,” Bobby Rodriquez shared that experience and the room burst into comfortable laughter.
It was March 7, 1958 when Kenny Burrell joined John Coltrane, along with Tommy Flannagan on piano, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Paul Chambers on bass to record in the famous Van Gelder Hackensack studio. That amazing Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane album was released in 1962.
At twenty-seven years old, Kenny’s guitar genius was clearly on display. He and John Coltrane recorded several records together, but this original recording was first released on the New Jazz label and later, the same recording was released on Prestige and quickly distributed all over the world. Kenny Burrell was a member of Benny Goodman’s band from 1957 to 1959. Amazingly, he took the chair that once belonged to the man he admired as a young musician; Mr. Charlie Christian. Around that same time, he recorded an album called “The Cats” featuring John Coltrane and with his fellow Detroiter, Tommy Flanagan. This album received more rave reviews.
Kenny Burrell recalled having regular jam sessions back in Detroit before he moved to the East Coast.
“Tommy Flanagan, a real good friend of mine, Donald Byrd and others, we would have regular jam sessions, not always at a club, (because we weren’t old enough to get into the nightclubs) but we’d meet at someone’s house. We used to get together to play and
listen to music. When I was coming up, there was hardly any sheet music for the jazz records we were listening to… so, we would transcribe the melody, the harmony and the bass lines. That was important in terms of ear training and memory. You had to figure out what chords they were playing. … It was a school without walls.”3
While attending Wayne State University, where he received a degree in Music Composition, Burrell formed the New World Music Society Collective with Detroit musicians Pepper Adams, Donald Byrd, Elvin Jones, and Yusef Lateef. He has consistently been about education and passing on the legacy of jazz music. When he moved to the West Coast and settled in Los Angeles, Burrell created and instituted a course lauding the genius of Duke Ellington at UCLA called “Ellingtonia.” That was in 1978. Kenny Burrell served as Director of Jazz Studies at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), starting in 1996, and some of his students have gone on to make impressive names for themselves, like Kamasi Washington and Gretchen Parlato. 4
Professor Burrell feels that one of his jobs of joy has been to take a student aside, after they play some little thing that is unique, and to closely examine their individuality. As an educator, he admits he was quick to say; Let’s talk about what you just did. You might want to work on that. The important lesson he taught his students was for them to be themselves.
Considered a Blue Note classic album, Kenny Burrell’s “Midnight Blue” recording is one of my favorites. He was working in the Pit Band of two Broadway musicals when he began writing music for this recording. For three year he worked on the “Bye Bye Birdie” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” stage shows. Blue Note wanted another album from Burrell and he used his down time, in between working on these shows, to compose new music. Soaked in blues, “Midnight Blue” became his best-selling album and featured Stanley Turrentine, Major Holly Jr. and Ray English (both musicians he had been working consistently with) and Ray Barretto on percussion.
Kenny Burrell asserts that music is spiritually based. He thinks Charlie Parker was a perfect example of this premise. Clearly ‘Bird’ was a great blues player and a voice of his time, but he was also pushing his limits into the future. He was expressing his inner soul. Burrell endeavors to do the same thing. He believes that combining intellect, soul and the courage to be yourself is the key to becoming a great musician. Burrell thinks that when they were recording “Midnight Blue” he was tapping into his inner spirit. Kenny explained it this way in a recent interview:
“One of the things that has always seen me through, and I’ve been on a huge number of records with a variety of people; Tony Bennett to Ray Charles, Dinah Washington to Lena Horne. It always works if you allow your inner-self to come and play. A balance between head and heart; your intellect and your emotions. It’s a right brain/left brain thing.”5
In 1998, Kenny Burrell arranged and performed on the Grammy Award-winning album by Dee Dee Bridgewater that tributed Ella Fitzgerald. In 2004 he was celebrated with a Jazz Educator of the Year Award from Downbeat Magazine. In 2005, he received the impressive NEA Jazz Master Award. In 2010, The Grammy’s saluted Burrell as a Jazz Honoree who excelled as a leader, co-leader and sideman over decades. He is one of the most innovative, versatile and important jazz guitarists of this century. Kenny Burrell’s musical mark is indelible on the hands of time.