Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Burrell, Kenny (Kenneth Earl)

Guitarist Kenny Burrell's blues-based tone is often cool and characteristically swinging. With saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and organist Jimmy Smith, he has established new melodic territory for the guitar with his fresh, horn-like phrasing.

Kenneth Earl Burrell was born on July 31, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan. He was born into a musical family; his father played the banjo and mandolin. His mother was a singer and pianist who often sang with the church choir. Burrell had two older brothers named Billy and Donald who were also guitarists. Kenny would occasionally accompany Billy to his gigs at Detroit clubs.

Kenny Burrell

With this musical atmosphere it was only a matter of time until Burrell began to play an instrument. Beginning in his childhood, Burrell’s mother insisted that the young boy receive piano lessons. Regardless of his mother’s encouragement, Kenny found his piano lessons to be discouraging and decided to discontinue them.

Subsequently Burrell began to focus his studies towards the saxophone, though regrettably his parents could not afford the instrument. Despite these financial limitations, he received a guitar when he was twelve years old. Receiving instruction from his brothers, he learned the fundamentals of the instrument and elementary theory.

Burrell took his studies more seriously after hearing guitarist Charlie Christian, whose melodic sensibilities he found attractive. With Christian, Kenny had his first major influence and decided to dedicate more time to his study of the guitar. He has also cited Django Reinhardt as an early influence.

While a student at Miller High School, Kenny received instruction in composition and theory from his teacher Louis Cabara. Cabara also tried to foster not only the study of music, but also the philosophical facets of music and its importance in the world.

Burrell began to hunt for live jazz in several downtown nightspots, even though he was not yet old enough to enter. On one occasion, Kenny and pianist Tommy Flanagan tried to appear older by painting moustaches on their faces in order to gain entrance into a club where alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was performing. The trick worked, and the two aspiring musicians were able to see and hear their idol in person. One of Kenny’s earliest groups featured Flanagan and bassist Alvin Jackson, and was modeled after the Nat King Cole Trio.

By his late teens, Burrell had found his way into Detroit's flourishing jazz scene, and began to receive attention from top musicians in the field, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, both of whom invited Kenny to join their bands.

Though Burrell wished to go on the road, his parents dissuaded him from leaving until he had finished his education at Wayne State University in Detroit. While in school, he founded the “New World Music Society,” a private club which counted drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonists Yusef Lateef and Pepper Adams and trumpeter Donald Byrd as members.

While continuing his education, Kenny received lessons on classical guitar from Joseph Fava. He studied guitar with Fava for a year and a half, and used this to expand on his finger style technique. In 1955, Burrell graduated from Wayne State with a B.M. in music composition and theory. Kenny spent the next six months on tour with the Oscar Peterson Trio,replacing guitarist Herb Ellis. The subsequent year he moved to New York City with Flanagan in order to seek larger musical opportunities.

In his first few months in New York City, Burrell recorded his first LP for Blue Note Records. During this time he also performed in pit bands for Broadway musicals including Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Kenny began to make his mark in the New York scene by becoming a preferred studio musician, an he appears on many sessions for Prestige and Savoy Records. Through the years of 1957 and 1959, Kenny performed with bandleader Benny Goodman, occupying the position that was once held by his idol Charlie Christian. Kenny appeared with Goodman at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1962, Burrell and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins collaborated on the album Bluesy Burrell. On “Montono Blues,” Burrell and the rhythm section vamp over the calm and cool blues feel of the introduction. Hawkins uses this feeling towards his advantage with clever blues licks heightened by his trademark vibrato. Towards the end of the song, Burrell and Hawkins exchange brief melodic lines, each trying to bounce ideas off one another.

In 1963, Chas Music published Jazz Guitar, a book of Burrell transcriptions that was authored by Burrell himself. The same year, he recorded the album Midnight Blue for Blue Note. On “Chitlins Con Carne,” Kenny and Stanley Turrentine perform the melody in unison with Kenny adding chordal interludes between phrases. His solo shows his understanding of the harmonic structure of the blues and how to build off of subtle motifs into a bigger concept. Bassist Major Holley and drummer Bill English support the ensemble by playing with the funky feel of the tune and adding slight rhythmic ideas.

Throughout the next decade, Burrell performed with saxophonists John Coltrane and trumpeter Thad Jones. In 1965, Kenny joined forces with arranger/composer Gil Evans to record the critically celebrated album Guitar Forms. The album displayed his aptitude on several musical styles including blues, bossa nova, and classical. Throughout this time, Kenny made numerous recordings with organist Jimmy Smith including Organ Grinder Swing in 1965.

A fine example of Burrell’s work with Smith is the song “Blues For J” off of Organ Grinder Swing. Kenny and Jimmy naturally blend the timbres of their respected instruments resulting in a very explicit harmonic foundation. The unison lines between the two instruments have a pure sound that adds a lot of power to the tune. Kenny and Jimmy know how to accompany each other’s solos, allowing each other the space to complete their ideas.

In 1971, Burrell began to teach and give lectures at numerous universities. In 1978, he began to teach a class called “Ellingtonia,” at the University of California, Los Angeles. The course is devoted to the music and career of composer/bandleader Duke Ellington. The course was the first in America to be entirely dedicated to the late musician.

In 1983, Burrell released the album Ellington A La Carte, an entire album dedicated to the Ellington songbook. The album also features the song “Blues For Duke,” which he wrote in tribute to Ellington. From 1985-86, Kenny was a member of the nine-piece ensemble the “Philip Morris Superband.”

Kenny teamed up with guitarists Rodney Jones and Bobby Broom for the 1986 album Pieces of Blue and the Blues, which feature the three guitarists on bebop standards such as “Round Midnight.” In 1991, he released Sunup to Sundown, which featured pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Lewis Nash and percussionist Ray Mantilla.

In 1996 Burrell became a professor at UCLA where he founded the Jazz Studies program and began to teach music and ethnomusicology. In the mid-nineties, he received a commission from the Meet The Composer organization to compose a piece for the Boys Choir of Harlem. The result was “Love Suite,” which premiered at Lincoln Center and was eventually recorded for Concord Records.

Kenny has been the recipient of several honors including an honorary doctorate from William Patterson University. He has also received an honorary Doctorate of Human Letters and the Ellington Fellowship from Yale University in 1997. The same year, he wrote the song “Dear Ella” for singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s album Dear Ella, which won her the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” Grammy Award in 1998. In 2004, Kenny received the “Jazz Educator of the Year” Award from Down Beat Magazine.

Burrell is a strong advocate for jazz education and the preserving of jazz as a national art form. He is the president of the “Jazz Heritage Foundation” and the “Friends of Jazz at UCLA.” He has also served on the awards panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and served as a chairperson for the National Association of Jazz Educators.

Kenny maintains a prolific concert and lecture schedule throughout the world. Not showing any signs of slowing down, he remains dedicated to the advancement of jazz and keeping its history alive.

Select Discography

As Kenny Burrell

Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956)

Blue Lights (1958)

Midnight Blue (1963)

vGuitar Forms (1964)

For Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman (1966)

Asphalt Canyon Suite (1969)

Ellington Is Forever, Vol. 1 (1975)

Ellington Is Forever, Vol. 2 (1977)

Heritage (1980)

Ellington A La Carte (1983)

Pieces of Blue And the Blues (1986)

Sunup To Sundown (1991)

Lotus Blossom (1995)

Lucky So And So (2001)

Midnight In Detroit (2008)

With Donald Byrd

All Night Long (1956)

Motor City Scene (1960)

A New Perspective (1963)

With John Coltrane

Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane (1958)

With Coleman Hawkins

The Hawk Relaxes (1961)

Bluesy Burrell (1962)

With Jimmy Smith

The Sermon (1960)

Organ Grinder Swing (1965)

With Stanley Turrentine

Jubilee Shout!!! (1962)

Hustlin’ (1964)

Joyride (1965)

The Look Of Love (1968)

Always Something There (1968)

Sugar Man (1971)

Contributor: Eric Wendell