Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Kenny Burrell

In the spring of 1978, announcements were made around the UCLA campus that guitar legend Kenny Burrell would be teaching a class on Duke Ellington entitled Ellingtonia. (The poster is shown above) Needless to say, I made sure I got a seat!
The class was being sponsored by the Center for Afro-American Studies rather than the Music Department. At the time, the Music Department had no use for modern classical music, let alone jazz music. Ironically, the Music Department is housed in Schoenberg Hall, named after the great 20th century modernist composer, Arnold Schoenberg [1874-1951], and at one time a teacher at UCLA. [A few years ago, the Music Department began to see the light (pun intended) and brought Mr. Burrell on as head of the Jazz Studies program. He’s brought people like Gerald Wilson and Harold Land onto the campus to teach.]
Kenny has a great knowledge of the music of Duke Ellington and a respect and awe that he is able to communicate to the students. One of the personal experiences he shared with us was having Ellington himself demonstrate some of the ideas he was working on for his Third Sacred Concert. (Ellington named Burrell his favorite guitarist). The classes were supplemented with guests like critic Leonard Feather, Ellington publicist Pat Willard and pianist/arranger Jimmy Jones. Informative and fun!
Not to brag, but I got an "A" in the class. After the quarter was over, Kenny called me into his office to ask me if I would like to be his teaching assistant for the subsequent classes. I don’t think I had to give that one any thought! So for my last 3 years at UCLA, I had a really cool job that added nothing to my engineering resume’. My duties consisted of lugging the record player and some of my albums to the class. I’d play music as the class walked in and during class play songs that illustrated the points Kenny was making. (It’s funny to think that I could do the same thing a whole lot better with my iPod hooked to some external speakers. I’d have access to a lot more music and wouldn’t have needed a dolly. Of course, I shouldn’t complain, it could have been stacks of 78s!) I was also available to answer questions for the students and did a little administrative stuff.
I also had the pleasure of meeting his mother. She came out from Detroit to see her son teach. It was amazing to see this woman, who was almost 90 at the time, climb 3 flights of stairs to a classroom with no effort.
Kenny is a genuinely modest guy. He’s played with literally every giant in the music business (John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, etc.) because he is a giant himself. He won’t go into this unless you ask him. As an example, rather than give me an autographed picture of himself, he gave me a framed picture of Duke Ellington and attached a note from himself to thank me for my efforts.
If there’s anyone that needs to write their autobiography, it’s Kenny Burrell. He has a great story to tell.

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