Faculty + Staff

Professor and legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell: 80 years young


“My inspiration comes from the message Duke Ellington gave: ‘You are unique, be yourself, put out that thing that is you, then use your work ethic and produce great music.’”

Kenny Burrell, distinguished professor of music and ethnomusicology and director of UCLA’s Jazz Studies Program, is quick to credit the Duke as a source of inspiration for his extraordinary career. The legendary jazz guitarist has been “putting out that thing” that is uniquely Burrell for more than 60 years. In 1951, while still a student in the music program at Wayne State University, he made his first major recording with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist John Coltrane, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Percy Heath.

Since then, he has recorded hundreds of albums as leader and sideman with some of the most influential musicians in jazz history, including Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Billie Holiday and Tony Bennett. He has been praised as a “virtuoso” and “master instrumentalist and composer,” voted “best guitarist” numerous times by music fans and critics worldwide, won Grammy Awards and been named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.

All this plus accolades in another arena altogether: academia, where, in 1978, he developed for UCLA the first full course on jazz ever to be offered on a college campus. To this day, he continues to teach “Ellingtonia,” based on his expansive knowledge of the life and music of Ellington, in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

To honor the man who has delighted audiences and students alike, a five-star tribute to celebrate Burrell’s 80th birthday rocked the house at UCLA’s Royce Hall Saturday, Nov. 12. Among the legendary artists contributing to this jazz blowout were B.B. King, Grammy-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and pianist and composer Lalo Schifrin.

A native of Detroit, Burrell was already a world-renowned performer and recording artist when he launched UCLA’s Jazz Studies Program in 1996. His albums for Blue Note and Verve, and creative collaborations with saxophonists John Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine and organist Jimmy Smith, were already at the top of the charts. The music they created seamlessly wove together bebop and blues, standards and soul jazz.

At UCLA, Burrell's appointment helped raise the profile of the jazz program to an international level. And for the guitarist, it was the realization of a goal he had set for himself long ago.

“When I was in college, I was disturbed by the fact that jazz was not getting legitimate attention like other forms of music,” Burrell recalled. “I made a pledge to myself that if I ever had the chance, I would try to do something to help solve that problem.”

So he recruited to the faculty names that helped grow the jazz program’s reputation and reach. Drummer Billy Higgins, saxophonist Harold Land, vocalist Ruth Price and pianist Billy Childs were among the jazz veterans who taught students — often on a one-to-one basis — and helped instill an inspiring sense of jazz legacy to the campus. Burrell also played a pivotal role in Herb Alpert’s $30 million endowment to the school in 2007, as well as in the school’s new partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit organization devoted to jazz education that will move from Washington, D.C., to Westwood next summer.

Burrell teaches classes in jazz history, performance, improvisation and composition. He also leads students in the Fusion Jazz Ensemble and several jazz combos. The founder of the Jazz Heritage Foundation — a four-horn and four-rhythm jazz tribute ensemble — and the Friends of Jazz at UCLA, he is recognized as an international ambassador for jazz and its promotion as an art form. Recently he helped curate the Fowler Museum exhibition, “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World.”

Burrell has drawn much praise for his leadership at UCLA. Musician and producer Quincy Jones, during a visit to the school, said, “Jazz is in very good hands at UCLA with Kenny Burrell.” In 2004, Burrell was named Jazz Educator of the Year by DownBeat magazine.

“Kenny Burrell is one of the most brightly shining stars in the universe of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music,” said Timothy Rice, the school’s director. “It has been an honor and a pleasure for our faculty, staff and students to work with him over the years. He provides a model of musician, composer, scholar and teacher to which we can all aspire.”

The ensuing years have not slowed Burrell down. Recently, he started a new group, the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. The 18-piece repertoire orchestra, which features many of the best musicians in Southern California, took a turn onstage at Royce for “Kenny Burrell: Turning 80 Years Young.” The Jazz Heritage Foundation and the award-winning UCLA Jazz Orchestra also performed.

Watch a 2008 interview with Burrell posted by the National Association of Music Merchants.

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