Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kenny Burrell – Jazz Guitarist At Work

Kenny Burrell-- jazz guitarist, composer and educator--lectures and performs at 80-something.

Kenny Burrell, 2007
Kenny Burrell, 2007
Continues to Train Generations
of Jazz Artists for Stage
Studio, Film, Television & Beyond

Kenny Burrell’s sound on his album, Man At Work, in 1966 was so rich, so mellow, so smooth, it was intoxicating. 

I think I would have missed out on that music had it not been for my mother, who loved both jazz and classical music--the mellower, the better.

Some of my friends thought my mother was being a bit pretentious, but her love for this music was real. And that's what we listened to at home when I was child, while my friends listened to this new thing, called Rock-and-Roll, in their homes, either on radio if they could receive a signal from Houston's black stations, KYOK or KCOH, or a record player if they had one.

We had a beat-up second-hand record player my mother picked up at a used furniture store. She placed the contraption in a corner of our living room beside her reading chair in front of the bookcase. No one--not me, my father or my grandmother--was allowed to touch my mother's records or her record player. She was very careful not to let the needle that touched the records become damaged. Once when I dropped the needle arm by accident on one of her records, I thought I would be banished from the house.

"A damaged needle," she said, "will scratch the records and they will become fuzzy with loosened vinyl and look something like a woolen sweater and I don't want you trying to play a woolen sweater on my record player." The end of her patience with me came when she caught me playing a borrowed scratched Chuck Berry record on her record player. The condition of the record dulled her needle. That's when she found another used record player for me to play my collection. I didn't get to play my records much because she was always playing hers. I finally lost interest in anything but jazz, especially jazz guitarist, Kenny Burrell, and jazz vocalist and organist, Jimmy Smith.

Now, you've heard why my mother was fond of Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith recordings, such as their 1958, Softly as a Summer Breeze, and Blue Bash album in 1963. She said they met in a New York studio in the 1950s. That was about the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, initiated by Rosa Parks and lead by the emerging civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The following link leads to books on Rosa Parks, written for children about the age I was when the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred.

My mother read magazines like Jet to keep up with everything from civil rights issues to black entertainers. She wanted to know what was happening in our Jim Crow world, including the Woolworth's sit-ins, so we could protect ourselves. "If you don't read, you won't know," she always said, as she buried her face in a book. Education was very important to her. She went to college later in life but did not get a degree. Her goal was to see that I got a degree and I did. Out my generation of twenty-something cousins on my mother's side of the family, I was one of four of my cousins that I know about to receive a university degree--me, Annette, Finner and J.W.

Johnson Publishing Company of Chicago premiered Jet Magazine in 1951 as a publication focusing on African American stars in sports, movies, music, education, social activism and civil rights. Jet came after a number of other efforts, including Negro Digest in 1942 and Tan Magazine in 1950. After Jet Magazine, Johnson Publishing produced African American Stars and Ebony Jr. Jet remains the number one news weekly for African American readers.

I believe my mother harbored dreams of singing professionally. As I recall her singing her original songs to me when I was a child, she had the voice to have been a professional singer-songwriter, although her songs sounded more like country music than anything else. 

When my mother died I found her songbook of lyrics and melodies she had written throughout her life. The songs told of a time past, a young girl wanting to go places, love found and lost, unfulfilled dreams, very small stories, personal stuff, not great big anthems. And I was right, my mother wrote country music. In regard to music, my mother said, she needed to  calm me down with music after a day out in my very noisy world.

Littie Nash
My mother, Littie Nash, wrestled with Jim Crow laws while giving me the life of a little princess with imagination and without the luxury of having a lot of money...Littie did not waste compliments on me or anyone else. She reserved accolades to celebrate real accomplishments, not just because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made an 'A' on my report card. "Some things you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo."

To support my efforts, my mother sponsored piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth. It took a great deal of courage to live with dignity and raise me to have aspirations. About my upbringing, Littie got it right, although I took detours of my own along the way. Read more at: My Mother & the Thinkers.

Robert C. Weaver & President Lyndon Johnson
Robert C. Weaver
& President Lyndon Johnson
Buy Robert C. Weaver Books
Visit LBJ Library

As I recall, the world was a very noisy place in 1966 when I first began listening to Kenny Burrell. The year began with the Civil Rights Movement already raging in the Jim Crow South and splashing across television sets all over America and Stokely Carmichael introducing Black PowerIn 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the first black cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King questioned race relations in Chicago; the Vietnam War was cranking up; hippies became a movement with flowers as a mascot; hard rock and Motown fought for the airwaves; the mini skirt got shorter; drugs got easier; the pill caused a sexual revolution; and James Brown danced his way across the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show with I Feel Good!

I was there and my parents were wishing they were raising me in a different generation. They weren't. This was my time as I entered one of the most dangerous professions—the music industry--in a most dangerous time, a perfect storm, if you will, or at least it could have been for me and was for so many unfortunate others I met along the way.

Man At Work by Kenny Burrell, 1966
Man At Work by Kenny Burrell, 1966
In 1966, at the time of the release of Kenny Burrell's Man At Work, 45 years ago, I was 16 and starting her own music career in Houston, Texas, singing at jazz venues around the city such as the El Dorado Ballroom on Elgin Street with notables such as the 21-piece Conrad Johnson Orchestra, performing live on radio on Saturday nights, booked by Groovy George Nelson of KYOK. Yes, that's right. I picked up where my mother left off.

Musicians and vocalists, including me, loved Kenny Burrell's style and tried to copy and incorporate it into their own styling in some way, regardless of their instrument. Over the noise of the outside world, I listened to Kenny Burrell and tried my best to copy his phrasing with my voice. That’s how much his music moved me. Listening to this incredible musician, now, I still love his luscious sounds, 45 years later, with a special appreciation for the man who was then only 35 years old with so much of his life and career still to be explored.

Kenny Burrell, Classroom, UCLA
Kenny Burrell, Classroom, UCLA
Kenny Burrell MP3 Download Page
Kenny Burrell is a UCLA professor and Director of Jazz Studies, where he teaches jazz performance, jazz history, improvisation, composition, jazz combos, contemporary jazz ensemble, and ethnomusicology.

In 1978, Burrell developed a course on Duke Ellington, the first university course on Ellington in the United States. Burrell recorded a tribute, Ellington Is Forever, in 1975, one year after Ellington’s death in 1974. Known as Ellington’s favorite guitarist, although he never played with him, Burrell played banjo on Hot and Bothered by Ellington’s son, Mercer, in 1984.

Founder of the Jazz Heritage Foundation and the Friends of Jazz at UCLA, Burrell was named DownBeat Magazine Jazz Educator of the Year in 2004 and included in the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford in 2008. 

African American National Biography
African American
National Biography
I was honored when assigned Kenny Burrell's biography by the editors of the African American National Biography, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and to be among 1,700 scholars to contribute. The many categories include performing arts, business, education, medicine, government, literature, law, music, religion, science and many others. My category was music: Rhythm & Blues (R&B) and Jazz. Using my knowledge of music, performing experience, journalism education and understanding of the history of race relations in America, my biographies included jazz guitarist, Kenny Burrell; jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player, Clark Terry; and pioneer R&B singer-songwriter, Ben E. King.

According to Harvard, Gates and Higginbotham hope the books will be used by scholars and will have a place in schools, libraries, and in African American homes. “What better way to understand the richness, complexity, and depth of African American history than through biography, because people’s lives are so complex,” says Higginbotham. Review and purchase the African American National Biography, a compilation of more than 4,000 articles on the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States and the world. Also on the link, see other related titles on this subject.

Cowels Women's History Special Collectors Edition
Cowels Women's History
Special Collectors
I wrote music biographies of Marian Anderson, contralto,  and mother of the blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey in 100 American Women Who Made A Difference, for a special issue of the Cowels publication, Women’s History Magazine; edited BREAKING THROUGH Lighting the Way, a book of profiles on black women who made a difference in the history of Long Beach, California.

My articles on Kenny Burrell, Clark Terry and Ben E. King appear in the eight-volume African American National Biography with more than 4,000 other historical biographies, covering 500 years, dating back to the arrival of Esteban, the first recorded African explorer to set foot in North America.  The African American National Biography is a collaborative project between the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, the Oxford University African American Studies Center and the Oxford University Press.

I have followed Kenny Burrell's career for many years. When  discovered that the former State Department Cultural Ambassador is teaming up with John Hasse, a leading jazz historian from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, for a series of lectures and exhibitions to address jazz as a diplomatic tool to communicate to the world the importance of the art form as a ‘cherished aspect of American society and culture,' I thought it was worth bringing to your attention. The presentation is entitled Fowler Outspoken: Kenny Burrell and John Hasse on Jazz Diplomacy, at the UCLA Fowler Museum through August 14, 2011.

By the end of this series at Fowler, Kenny Burrell will have turned 80 years old, the new 60 by today's calculations. If I don't get to say it in person, I am saying it now, "Happy Birthday, Kenny! You have had a profound effect on my life and you changed the way I heard the world. Thank you."

Over all the noise, I heard the sound of his fingers gliding gently over the strings and striking sweet little chords among subtle harmonies fading slowly and disappearing into emerging and surprising resonance and, at the same time, emitting that hypnotic sound of skin on wood.

© 2011 Sunny Nash
All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

~Thank You~

Or take a look at the Kenny Burrell Amazon display below.

Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop 
at Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, chosen by the Association of American University Presses for its value to the understanding of race relations in the United States, listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center in New York and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

Sunny Nash has work in the African American National Biography by Harvard and Oxford; African American West, Century of Short Stories; Reflections in Black, History of Black Photography 1840 - Present; Ancestry; Companion to Southern Literature; Texas Through Women’s Eyes; Black Genesis: A Resource Book for African-American Genealogy; African American Foodways; Southwestern American Literature Journal and other anthologies. Nash is listed in references: The Source: guidebook to American genealogy; Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies; Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics; Ebony Magazine; Southern Exposure; Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places; and others.

© 2011 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
~Thank You~

1 comment:

  1. Just ran across this now (2/16). Nothing better in this world than the sound of Kenny Burrell (especially with Jimmy Smith - the Sermon, WOW!). Like yourself, Kenny's influence on my life has been profound and has been with me from the first time I heard him (1969). Thanks for reminding me. Peace.


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