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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Guitarist Kenny Burrell stands as a key figure in Detroit's jazz ascent

Guitarist Kenny Burrell directed the UCLA Jazz Studies program from 1996 to 2016.
Elena Zhukova
Guitarist Kenny Burrell directed the UCLA Jazz Studies program from 1996 to 2016.

Now 92, Kenny Burrell’s passion for music led him to record more than 90 sessions as a leader and hundreds more as a sideman. In addition, he's dedicated the latter half of his life to preserving and instilling the music for future generations.

Jazz had been simmering in Detroit since the 1920s. By the 1940s, the clubs in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the city's Black neighborhoods, were boiling over with talent.

Burrell and other Detroiters, such as Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef and the Jones brothers (Elvin, Hank and Thad), would become some of the era’s most renowned leaders and sidemen.

Born in 1931, Burrell was a pre-teen during the early 1940s. He started playing guitar inspired by his older brother Billy, who played guitar and brought home jazz records to share. This introduced Burrell to the music of Charlie Parker on saxophone, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

Burrell picked up his first guitar, a shabby acoustic, from a pawn shop that he played until it was worn out.

Soon, Burrell and his friends were transcribing solos by ear, jamming and playing around town whenever they could. In addition, Burrell soaked up music lessons, played percussion in the concert band in high school, and went on to study music at Wayne State University.

Fellow Detroiter Milt Jackson, who was about a decade older than Burrell, helped him land his first recording in 1951 with a traveling Dizzy Gillespie. The session featured John Coltrane and was an early recording of Gillespie's adventures into Latin jazz.

In 1956, Burrell was fresh off a tour with Oscar Peterson, filling in for Herb Ellis, when he and his best friend Tommy Flanagan moved to New York City and burst onto the world’s leading jazz scene. Soon they were playing with rising stars and established veterans around town.

Burrell played, recorded, and led bands at an astonishing pace and with an equally incredible list of collaborators.

Just one year after arriving in New York, Burrell released his debut Introducing Kenny Burrell — and in the same year released six more albums as a leader on Blue Note and Prestige records. He also contributed to about 15 other records released that year.

Burrell had arrived. He was the guitarist with Billie Holiday for her 1956 record Lady Sings the Blues and for James Brown’s debut album in 1958, before co-leading an album with John Coltrane. And as a member of Benny Goodman’s orchestra, he played in the former chair of Charlie Christian.

Burrell’s bluesy picking and full chords fit perfectly as a component of the organ, guitar, and drums trio. He partnered with organist Jimmy Smith for 14 records including Smith’s super hit “Organ Grinders Swing” in 1965.

Burrell stayed close with other Detroiters who also made the move to New York City.

He and Flanagan recorded with John Coltrane for Flanagan’s The Cats in 1957. And he connected with Jackson again for a pair of records with Ray Charles in 1958. Plus, Burrell played with trumpeter Donald Byrd for his spiritual album A New Perspective in 1963.

Burrell’s Midnight Blue in 1963 is considered among the best Blue Note sessions of all time. Without a piano in the group, Burrell’s guitar takes center stage for note after note of soul, swing, and blues.

In a 2018 NYU JazzCast interview, Burrell said Midnight Blue was his top-selling album, and a favorite two folks who heard a lot of records: Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lions and famous audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

In 1965 Burrell collaborated with the great orchestrator Gil Evans; recording the dramatic ensemble album Guitar Forms. Burrell played acoustic and electric guitar backed by horn ensembles, string arrangements and cinematic movements.

His playing left its mark on revered guitarists. Jimi Hendrix said that he loved Burrell’s tone and both Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan covered Burrell’s classic “Chitlins Con Carne.”

Over his prolific career, Burrell has amassed more than a thousand performance credits.

Burrell created the first permanent college course on Duke Ellington in 1978. In 1996 he became the founding director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, where he's taught some of the brightest stars of modern jazz including Kamasi Washington, Gretchen Parlato, and Kiefer.

He was named a NEA Jazz Master in 2005.

Justus arrived from KBEM FM Jazz 88.5 in Minneapolis, and the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations (AMPERS), in the fall of 2023. For nine years he held many roles including Jazz Host and Production Director, producing a variety of programming highlighting new jazz artists, indigenous voices, veterans, history and beyond.