Born Kenneth Earl Burrell, July 31, 1931, in Detroit, MI. Education: Wayne State University, B.M., 1955; studied classical guitar with Joe Fava. Addresses: Office-- Tropix International, 163 Third Ave., #206, New York, NY 10003.

Kenny Burrell is among the most outstanding guitarists to emerge from the progressive jazz scene following World War II. With a career spanning over 40 years, Burrell's artistry has withstood commercial trends and popular vogues. Distinctive and easily recognizable, his guitar work explores new harmonic possibilities while retaining a strong swing approach. Music critic Lewis McMillan, Jr., described Burrell in Down Beat as "a man with a mission," an individual whose "role as a jazz musician was not unlike that of an evangelist."

Known for his musical devotion and versatility, Burrell has won acclaim from musicians and listeners throughout the world. His guitar style is representative of soulful blues, traditional swing, Latin forms, bebop modernism, and classical techniques. His extensive repertoire extends from classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach to maverick jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Whether on nylon-string acoustic or electric hollow-body guitar, Burrell has advanced his mission to expose audiences to the true essence of jazz.

Born on July 31, 1931, in Detroit, Burrell belonged to a family of talented instrumentalists. His father played banjo, mandolin, and ukulele; his two older brothers, Billy and Donald, were guitarists. At an early age, Burrell's mother, who was a pianist and singer, insisted that the young man receive piano lessons. Despite his mother's urging, Burrell found playing the piano an unpromising venture.

Soon afterward Burrell turned his attention to the saxophone, an instrument that, unfortunately, his parents could not afford. His financial constraints led him to acquire a guitar instead at the age of 12. Under the instruction of his brother, Burrell learned the basics of the fretboard. But it wasn't until his introduction to the recordings of Charlie Christian that Burrell began to take a serious interest in the guitar. The amplified sounds of Christian's smooth horn-like phrasing inspired Burrell to devote himself to the study of his instrument.

At Miller High School in Detroit, Burrell's music advisor, Louis Cabara, furthered the young man's knowledge of composition and theory. Aside from offering first-rate instruction, Cabara furnished valuable advice concerning the philosophical aspects of music. Taken by the sounds of jazz, Burrell, although still underage, began to search for music in downtown nightclubs. One evening he and pianist Tommy Flannagan painted moustaches on their faces to get into an establishment where the legendary saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker was performing. As Burrell told Down Beat contributor Zan Stewart, "Bird was wonderful, and so gracious."

By 1948 Burrell had become a respected member of the thriving Detroit jazz community. His musicianship also impressed nationally known bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jaquet, both of whom asked him to join their bands on the road. But Burrell's parents discouraged him from leaving Detroit until he had completed his musical education at Wayne State University. During his stint at the university, Burrell founded the New World Music Society, a private musicians collective that included local greats Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams.

A significant boost to Burrell's career came in 1951, when he made his recording debut on Dizzy Gillespie's Detroit-based Dee Gee label. Before earning his bachelor's degree in music from Wayne State, Burrell spent a year and a half studying classical guitar with Joe Fava. These lessons helped him develop a formal fingerstyle technique. Burrell's devotion to jazz, however, overshadowed his interest in classical forms. "I always wanted to change the notes," explained Burrell in Jazz Journal International. "Improvisation is the essence of jazz and I have to play the way I feel." After graduating from college in 1955, Burrell spent six months on the road with the Oscar Peterson Trio. A year later, determined to pursue greater career opportunities, Burrell left for New York with Tommy Flannagan.

Within several months of his arrival in New York, Burrell recorded his first LP, for the Blue Note label. As one of Manhattan's most sought-after studio musicians, he appeared on countless sessions for Prestige and Savoy. Between 1957 and 1959 Burrell played with Benny Goodman's band, filling the chair once occupied by his early idol, Charlie Christian. Over the next decade he performed with such jazz giants as John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Thad Jones, and Stanley Turrentine.

In 1965 Burrell collaborated with arranger Gil Evans to record the critically acclaimed Guitar Forms. Complemented by Evans's brilliantly orchestrated scores, Burrell demonstrated his ability to perform musical styles ranging from classical and bossa nova to the blues. During this period, Burrell also made several recordings with organist Jimmy Smith, including the classic LPs Organ Grinder Swing and The Sermon. Since 1971, Burrell has occupied an academic position at the University of California, Los Angeles, teaching "Ellingtonia," a course dedicated to the music of legendary bandleader and composer Duke Ellington. Burrell continues to appear at seminars and concerts in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Each year he returns to Detroit for an always hotly anticipated engagement at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, one of the oldest jazz clubs in the country.

Bluesy bends, horn-like slurs, and tastefully inventive chord patterns are the hallmarks of Burrell's sound. His refined guitar work produces intensity and command without excessive volume. For Burrell, like most great jazzmen, the blues remain essential to his musical approach and sensibility. Ever since he heard the recordings of blues singer Muddy Waters and seminal blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, Burrell has looked to the blues for artistic and spiritual inspiration. "In my case, jazz and blues are inseparable," Burrell commented in Down Beat. Jazz guitarists from Grant Green to Pat Metheny have praised Burrell's bluesy sound and versatile musicianship.

Burrell has also been idolized by a legion of modern electric blues guitarists. Texas bluesman Albert Collins admitted that his original ambition was to play jazz in the Burrell style. Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan often cited Burrell as one of their favorite guitarists. In fact, a cover version of Burrell's steamy blues classic "Chitlins Con Carne" appears on Stevie Ray's last LP, The Sky Is Crying. With such a widespread following there is little doubt that Burrell will have an enduring impact on guitarists for years to come. A serious and committed musician, Burrell is a performer, arranger, scholar, and above all, one of jazz guitar's greatest practitioners.

by John Cohassey

Kenny Burrell's Career

Began playing guitar c. 1943; founded private musicians collective New World Music Society, early 1950s; made recording debut on Dee Gee Records, 1951; toured with Oscar Peterson Trio, 1955; recorded debut album, Blue Note Records, 1956; studio musician, New York City, recording for Prestige and Savoy labels; played with Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1957-59. Concert performer and seminar participant throughout the U.S. and abroad, including yearly engagement at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Teacher at University of California, Los Angeles, 1971--.

Kenny Burrell's Awards

Winner of Down Beat critics and readers polls, 1968-1970.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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