Sunny Nash Writes Kenny Burrell Biography for the African American National Biography

Distinguished scholar, Sunny Nash, wrote article on jazz guitarist, Kenny Burrell, for The African American National Biography, a collaboration between Harvard University and Oxford University Press.
MAN AT WORK By Kenny Burrell
MAN AT WORK By Kenny Burrell
May 13, 2009 - PRLog -- The African American National Biography--a collaboration 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—includes a contribution on jazz guitarist, Kenny Burrell, by distinguished scholar, Sunny Nash, who developed an interest in Burrell’s music in 1966 with the release of MAN AT WORK.

“Burrell’s sound on MAN AT WORK was so mellow, it was hypnotizing,” Nash said. “I loved the album then and I love it now.” At the time, Nash was starting her own music career in Houston, Texas, and singing at jazz venues around the city like the El Dorado Ballroom on Elgin with notables such as the Conrad Johnson Orchestra. “In 1966 when I started singing professionally, I was still in high school struggling to find my style,” Nash said. “I listened to Kenny Burrell and tried my best to copy his phrasing with my voice. That’s how much his music moved me, 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 hynotic sound of skin on wood.”

Using her music knowledge and performing experience, Nash completed three assignments in the music categories of Jazz and Rhythm & Blues, among more than 4,000 articles in the eight-volume set of historical profiles of well known figures throughout the world, which included Kenny Burrell, Grammy award-winning guitarist, composer and jazz educator, born in Detroit, Michigan, on July 31, 1931.

“Just to give you an idea about the era in which Kenny Burrell was born,” Nash said, “The Great Depression gripped the nation at that time, causing families all over the world, including the Burrell family, to suffer after global financial systems collapsed; and the High Plains region of the United States was plunged into darkness in 1931 by black dust, deepening the Depression’s effects on families sinking lower and lower into poverty,” all of which changed the world forever.

Youngest of three sons, he was born Kenneth Earl Burrell into a poor family that enjoyed music as part of its daily life. Burrell’s mother played piano and sang in the choir at Second Baptist Church, Detroit's oldest black congregation, organized in 1836 and part of the Underground Railroad, an invisible route ushering slaves to freedom before Emancipation. A piano in the home became the first instrument Burrell played as a child, performing once before an audience in his school’s auditorium. Listening to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, saxophone was Burrell’s first love but his family could not afford the instrument,  particularly expensive due to the great demand for metal to manufacture military equipment and ammunition during World War II.

Burrell’s father played banjo and ukulele, which may account for Burrell and his brother’s fearlessness of stringed instruments. At age 12, Burrell settled for guitar, an inexpensive instrument made of  strings and a bit of wood, because his family could afford to buy the cheap instrument. He learned guitar technique watching his older brother Billy play guitar at small clubs around Detroit and listening to records by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and the Mills Brothers that his older brothers brought home.

In 1946, when Burrell was 15, Billy had switched to electric bass and played with the Willie Anderson Trio at Club Sudan. Influenced by his brother’s electric bass and Charlie Christian’s electric guitar on Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Harry James records in the early 1940s, Burrell liked the ability to solo due to the volume control that amplification gave formerly acoustic instruments. Following Billy to gigs, Burrell began sitting in with professional musicians at Club Sudan and other nightspots.

At Wayne State University, Burrell studied theory and composition, took private jazz and classical guitar lessons and spent evenings in clubs listening to saxophonist, Charlie Parker; and trumpeters, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Burrell’s style in his first group with Tommy Flanagan and Milt Jackson’s brother Alvin was inspired by The Nat King Cole Trio, but changed when Kenny became interested in hard bop, fast-tempo improvisational music that emerged from bebop, influenced by blues, rhythm and blues and gospel, especially in piano and saxophone playing.

In 1951 at age 19, while in college, Burrell played with hard-bop trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, and made his debut recording with Gillespie; bassist, Percy Heath; vibraphonist, Milt Jackson; and alto saxophonist, John Coltrane. Gillespie wanted Burrell to go on tour but Burrell wanted to finish school. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in music in 1955, he went on a six-month tour with Oscar Peterson. Moving to New York in 1956, he performed in clubs, in Broadway pit bands and on stage or in the studio with such artists as clarinetist and bandleader, Benny Goodman; vocalist and bandleader, James Brown; vocalists, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Tony Bennett; vocalist and pianist, Nat King Cole; tenor saxophonists, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, Yusef Lateef and Coleman Hawkins; organist, Jimmy Smith; and pianist, Tommy Flanagan, born in Detroit one year before Burrell.

In 1956, Burrell recorded Introducing Kenny Burrell, All Night Long and All Day Long with trumpeter, Donald Byrd, born in Detroit in 1930 and a Wayne State University graduate. This session was followed by sessions with John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Kenny Clark. In 1957 he recorded under the name “Kenny Burrell and His Four Sharps” for JVB. In 1960, Burrell signed with Columbia Records and released Weaver of Dreams, featuring Burrell's vocals and guitar, but did not attract much attention. In 1961, Burrell recorded four instrumental sessions that ended up staying on the shelf until nine of the tracks were released in 1983 on the LP, Bluesin' Around. Complete sessions were released in 2002 by Euphoria as part of Moten Swing, its jazz guitar re-issues. In 1963, he recorded Midnight Blue and in 1964, began a series of orchestral recordings, Guitar Forms, for Verve, which included a tribute to Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian, A Generation Ago Today.

Burrell moved to California in 1971 and recorded Round Midnight and Stormy Monday for the Fantasy record label. In the mid-1970s, he led jazz workshops at the University of Southern California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and, in 1978, taught a course on Duke Ellington’s music entitled, Ellingtonia, the first university course on Duke Ellington and 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. In 1985 and ’86, Burrell toured with the Phillip Morris Superband. In 1996, Burrell accepted the position as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he continues his teaching career today.

Beginning as a hard bopper, Burrell released 96 recordings; was featured guitarist on more than 200, including ones with Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones; and played on hundreds as sideman. His compositions have been recorded by artists such as Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith, Grover Washington Jr., John Coltrane, June Christy, Frank Wes and Stevie Ray Vaughn. As his career continued, his style achieved mellow richness. In 1997, he wrote and recorded a composition which the Boys Choir of Harlem that premiered at Lincoln Center; in 1998, wrote the Grammy award-winning Dear Ella, a Dee Dee Bridgewater performance; released Lucky So and So in 2001; received the 2004 Down Beat Jazz Educator of the Year Award; and was named an National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2005. Visit  for more information on similar historical subjects.

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Sunny Nash, author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, is an award-winning writer, photographer and producer. and a public speaker.
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