LAST week I wrote a story about the jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, who celebrates his 80th birthday with a concert at Royce Hall on Saturday. In the course of it, I corresponded with music historian Ted Gioia about Burrell and some related issues concerning the past and future of the art form.
Younger jazz players pride themselves on their skill in mimicking different styles or approaches, but Kenny Burrell embodies the jazz tradition. He is a master of the blues. He understands Ellington, bop, hard bop and cool at a very deep level. When I hear him, I feel as if the best of the music’s past is channeled effortlessly through his guitar.
Burrell has made outstanding recordings in every decade. His early albums, such as Guitar Forms and Midnight Blue, are probably the best known, and rightly praised. But check out his 75th birthday album, which shows him still at the top of his game. And don’t underestimate the poise and self-confidence Burrell demonstrated during the fusion period and after, serving as a champion for the jazz heritage even while his peers imitated the theatrics of rock. With his mastery of the guitar, Burrell would have been forgiven for watering down his music in exchange for a taste of rock auditorium fame, but he stayed true to his own core values.
The African-American tradition in the development of jazz guitar is much stronger than Collier’s comments may suggest. No one had greater influence on the role of the guitar in jazz than Charlie Christian, and the whole blues guitar tradition — which strongly shaped the jazz sensibility — is almost entirely the contribution of black players. The more interesting change happened later. With the rise of rock music, the electric guitar entered the mainstream as a default instrument of Middle American teenagers and the defining sound of popular music. Burrell came of age during this period, but he held firmly to his own tradition, his own approach, his own set of values. In any era, jazz artists earn praise by channeling their own personal vision through their instrument, but Kenny Burrell did this at a time when there were many, many ways for a jazz guitarist to go astray.
You need more than great players to create a vibrant jazz scene, you also need the right institutions. People who only know Kenny Burrell as a guitarist probably aren’t familiar with all the work he has done off-stage to support and advance jazz on the West Coast. His vision of a LA-based counterweight to JALC is very much in accord with his other efforts over the years. I hope he succeeds.
If I can compare the jazz scene today with the situation when I was coming of age during the 1970s, most of the conditions have worsened. There is less jazz on the radio today, less jazz on TV, fewer jazz clubs and less visibility of jazz in the broader culture — but the single area that has changed for the better is the growing support of jazz from universities and arts institutions. Many complain about jazz turning into an academic discipline. But those of us who remember what it was like when jazz was excluded at universities find it hard to see this as a negative trend.