A Jazz Guitar Legend: Alive, Live and 75

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

He's been called a velvet whip.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Kenny Burrell is one of the most recorded and celebrated jazz guitarists. He's performed with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington among others. His newest album, his 99th, is a celebration of another milestone: his 75th birthday. It's called "Kenny Burrell Birthday Bash Live!" Kenny Burrell joins me now from NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KENNY BURRELL (Jazz guitarist): Good to be with you.

ELLIOTT: And belated birthday wishes. We should note that your birthday was actually last year, when the CD was recorded.

Mr. BURRELL: Yes.

ELLIOTT: You were at a club in Oakland, California playing in front of family and friends and with friends as well.

Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, it was a great event. And the club was called Yoshi's, and they played a great celebration for us.

(Soundbite of song "Call It Stormy Monday")

Mr. BURRELL: (Singing) Well, they call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad. They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad. Wednesday's worse, Thursday I feel so sad.

ELLIOTT: You're playing here with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. You and Gerald both grew up in Detroit, and there was a very vibrant jazz scene there. This was back in the 1940s.

Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, that was before my time.

ELLIOTT: Can you describe it for us?

Mr. BURRELL: Well, the vibrant jazz scene was very much there, and Gerald was one of the early people involved in that jazz scene. There's others that I can mention, a few like Milt Jackson, for example, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan - the list goes on. And it was almost like being in a school, not that organized school, but we certainly have a lot of things going where we exchanged ideas and music and exchanged music itself, exchanged records and have a lot of rehearsals, a lot of jam sessions. So it was a very vibrant scene, which I feel prepared most of us for a career in jazz. And so when we went to New York and places like that, we didn't have too many problems.

ELLIOTT: I read an interesting story about you and Tommy Flanagan growing up.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: And how you all would try to get into the clubs that you weren't old enough to get into.

Mr. BURRELL: Well, yes, because we wanted to hear our heroes. We wanted to hear these great musicians who would come through Detroit, and Tommy Flanagan and I were best friends. And I remember there was one club in Detroit called the Club Sudan. We used to stand in the alley there and listen to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis through the door. And it was, you know, nobody knew we were there, but we didn't hear too well. And then eventually, we tried to figure out, well, maybe we could fake some mustaches and think we could get in. And sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. That's how enthusiastic we were about hearing and following - hearing the music and following the musicians that we really admired.

ELLIOTT: Is there anything that you could put a finger on that you would say would distinguish those of you who were coming up in Detroit at the time, the sound that came from there?

Mr. BURRELL: I would not do that. Some critics have said it's something called hard bop, which I don't understand that phrase, but I do feel that one of the things that I referred to earlier as a kind of a school, we certainly fairly learned harmony and what we call the chord changes and being able to improvise over these and with these chord changes, so that our improvised lines were fluid and, you know, were musical.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: And you mentioned, you moved on to New York. And like many of your peers at the time, you moved to New York to the club scene to launch your career. How did being in New York change your sound?

Mr. BURRELL: Well, I don't think it did. I think the sound was something that I had suddenly early on, knew what I wanted to get out of the guitar, and that is a warm, mellow sound. I loved the sound of the acoustic guitar - the natural guitar. But in order to be heard, you have to have the guitar amplified or loudly miked. The guitars are made with magnetic pickups, so it's difficult to get a - an acoustic sound through a magnetic pickup. My idea was to come as close to doing that as possible. The other parts of my style I think developed as I grew as a person.

ELLIOTT: Is there a selection on this "Kenny Burrell Birthday Bash Live!" that really exemplifies for you that nice and warm sound that you loved to capture?

Mr. BURRELL: Yeah, maybe Duke Ellington's composition "Sophisticated Lady."

(Soundbite of "Sophisticated Lady")

ELLIOTT: You have recorded several Ellington compositions on this new CD.

Mr. BURRELL: Right.

ELLIOTT: How does Ellington inform you as a composer today? Are there still things that you get from him that you might not get from other jazz standards?

Mr. BURRELL: Well, I would say yes. One of the things besides his just natural genius, is the fact that he was so unpredictable and so free in his thinking. Ellington had set his own standard in terms of what was good and what was not good. And he - one of his philosophies was that if it sounds right, it is right. And that may not be readily understood, but that can go against some of your legitimate theoretical grains, you know?

But the main thing that Ellington was interested in was sound, that if the music sounded good, then that's what he was going with, no matter how you might analyze it, and say well, this doesn't look right on paper. And so that kind of freedom, that kind of experimentation and allowing your spirit to flow, allowing your imagination to flow, which you know, allowing that to happen, is what I admire about Ellington, and it certainly paid off.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: In your long career, you've had an opportunity to play with some of the greats. Do you have a couple stories you'd love to share about one of those moments?

Mr. BURRELL: Well, I've got so many stories. It's incredible. I think I have enough for - at least half a dozen books of stories.

ELLIOTT: I guess a couple of the names that caught my attention - Billie Holiday. You played with Billie Holiday.

Mr. BURRELL: Sure. She was a - for some of us - an angel, because she had such a tormented life. I was happy to meet her, and I worked with her before I left Detroit. And then I went to New York, I was fortunate to make some recordings with her. I did her famous Carnegie Hall concert.

(Soundbite of "Lady Sings the Blues")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Jazz Singer): (Singing): Lady sings the blues. She's got 'em bad. She feels so sad. But now the world will know she's never gonna sing 'em no more. No more.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BURRELL: I remember unfortunately she did not have much hope and I remember once she came to see me performing. And she was really in a bad way with the drugs, and I said to her, why don't you go to England, because they have that -I think it's called a methadone program there - where they can help you and they won't keep throwing you in jail - because they were doing that in New York - and she sadly looked at me and said, well, I don't have anyone to go with, so I'm not going to go. To me, that was a tragedy, you know, and because she had so much talent and she never sang one note she didn't mean.

ELLIOTT: We should note that you're the director and sounder of UCLA's jazz program. It seems that jazz musicians coming up today are learning in a very different way than your generation did. You talked about sharing records with your friends, playing in bandstands. You had to show up, be able to play and cut it, or you didn't survive. Now it's a much different setting for these young jazz musicians coming up. College and universities have these serious jazz programs like the one that you oversee there at UCLA.

Mr. BURRELL: Right.

ELLIOTT: Do you worry, though, that something is lost? Does the music have the same fire that it had for you as a young man learning the craft in Detroit?

Mr. BURRELL: Well, I think there's a couple of things that are missing. One is the - there's not a sufficient amount of what we call jam sessions. I think that's when musicians freely exchange ideas. The idea's certainly based on what they've learned, but when - in doing that, you're exploring and trying to find new things. I think there should be more of that.

The other thing I think - it could be that some of the instruction may be too theoretical, and I think that's something we need to guard against because one of the things that I like to emphasize as a teacher and as a director here is that there is such a joy in making music, such fun in making it, and such a wonderful feeling of finding new things and experimenting.

ELLIOTT: Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. His latest CD is "Birthday Bash Live!" Kenny Burrell, would like to go out tonight with a much older recording - the song "Chitlins Con Carne."

Mr. BURRELL: Uh-huh.

ELLIOTT: This is a recording that was made in 1963. Thank you so much for talking with us today.

Mr. BURRELL: Oh, it's my pleasure, Debbie. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Chitlins Con Carne")

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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