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Honoring the genius of Duke Ellington

UCLA Today Staff

Kenny Burrell, one of the world's leading jazz artists who's played with the likes of John Coltrane, Billie Holliday and Oscar Peterson, doesn't have his guitar with him today.

It's a rain-soaked Tuesday morning, and


Kenny Burrell, jazz artist and director of UCLA's jazz studies program, is the first to make "Ellingtonia" a college course. Burrell, the director of UCLA's jazz studies program, is sitting for an interview in a music room in Schoenberg Hall. He's here to discuss his role in arranging the Duke Ellington Centennial Celebration, a weeklong festival of concerts, lectures and special events occurring at Royce Hall and other venues on campus beginning April 24. Preferably, the photographer would like to shoot the tall, silver-haired Burrell holding his instrument, as opposed to seated at the drums or at one of the baby grands scattered about the room.

"Let me see what I can do," said the soft-spoken musician, looking coolly elegant in a gray turtleneck, dark slacks and a tweed jacket, disappearing out the door. A few minutes later, Burrell returned with a vintage acoustic guitar borrowed from a colleague down the hall with an image in one corner of a tiny Spanish dancer. It's not exactly the genuine article, but for now it will do.

Burrell, a professor in the departments of Music and Ethnomusicology, is undoubtedly best known for his enormously successful recording career. In addition to his name gracing some 87 albums and performing with a galaxy of jazz legends like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, he's twice been named the No. 1 Jazz Guitarist by the Jazz Times International Readers Poll in recent years.

In analyzing the musician's inimitable style, respected jazz critic Nat Hentoff trumpeted that "Kenny Burrell may well be the most consistently lyrical guitarist in all of jazz — one of the reasons he was Duke Ellington's favorite improviser on that instrument."

This morning, however, Burrell makes it clear that he doesn't want the spotlight on him. Rather, he's here to promote the legacy of his mentor and friend, the late Duke Ellington, whose genius and uncompromising integrity forever changed the texture of American music and whose 100th birthday falls on April 29.

Duke Ellington (right). Ellington (far right) shares a laugh with fellow musicians and friends at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1949. Surrounded by fans(bottom), the maestro relaxes in his dressing room after performing at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit in 1947. elling2bandegirls

"Ellington has emerged worldwide as one of the most important musicians of this century," said Burrell, a thoughtful man who chooses his words as carefully as he might a phrase on his guitar. "Ellington took the sounds that were born in this country — a fusion of African, European and American elements — and created an incredible body of music, using that sound in a conscious, purposeful and consistent manner. No one else did that."

Aside from his love and admiration of the composer and bandleader, Burrell also happens to be one of the foremost experts on Ellington. In 1978, after being invited by the Center for African-American Studies to teach "something in jazz," the guitarist came up with "Ellingtonia," a course encompassing the music, culture and life of Ellington that was the first such college offering in the world. The class has become a model for others devoted to the American composer at more than a dozen universities.

Burrell first met Ellington in New York in the late 1950s, outside a popular restaurant called the Hickory House. Burrell was there talking to one of the bandleader's publicity agents when the famous musician stepped out of a cab. When the two were introduced, Ellington not only knew Burrell's name, but had even declared the young guitarist one of his favorite musicians.

"It was a thrill, of course," recalled Burrell, of that surprise encounter with Ellington, whose recordings he had listened to on the radio growing up in Detroit. "He had been one of my heroes since I was in college. He was a true success doing the music that I loved."

The two musicians performed together only a few times, including Ellington's last public appearance before his death from cancer in 1974. But their friendship touched Burrell indelibly.

"As an artist, one of the most important things he showed me was to be yourself," said Burrell. "That's where your real strength is and that's where your uniqueness is.

"The other thing is treating people decently. He was very positive."

While many associate Ellington with the Big Band sound of the 1930s, Burrell noted that the composer's repertoire was far broader, embodying a range of musical forms including ballet music, film scores, symphonic orchestra works and sacred music. Among other breakthroughs, the prolific composer of such timeless hits as "Satin Doll" and "Mood Indigo" was the first bandleader to combine a jazz band with a symphony. "This was significant not only in terms of the ensembles, but the many diverse musical elements that he put together, and it worked. Today, more and more composers are using this idea."

Burrell set out to organize the UCLA tribute to Ellington a year ago because of his conviction of the composer's pervasive influence and enormous musical contribution. "And it would be appropriate if UCLA takes the lead," he said.

Despite a daunting array of professional commitments, Burrell managed to persuade dozens of artists to adjust their schedules so they could join in the birthday festivities. "It was no trouble," he shrugged, "because there is so much admiration and respect for him."

As Miles Davis once said, Burrell offered: "Once a year, all musicians should get on their knees and thank God for Duke Ellington."

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