The first question was why Kenny Burrell, the guitar master who recorded with John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin, and released many of his own albums during Blue Note’s golden age, found himself in such a crisis that his wife had to start a GoFundMe campaign.
“It saddens and embarrasses me to desperately need and request help, but it is necessary at this point,” Katherine Burrell wrote in launching the crowdfunding effort last week.
And yet there he was, the 87-year-old jazz legend smiling and holding a guitar above a tale of medical and financial disaster. This, in a world where a washed-up first baseman can make $30 million and a Hollywood star twice that for a single movie.
According to his wife, Burrell had an accident two years ago that left him unable to perform. There’s also the identity theft that created a tangle of credit and savings issues.
“It’s so outrageous,” said John McLaughlin, the British guitarist famous for his work with Miles Davis and his own Mahavishnu Orchestra. “What happened to humanity?”
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Don Was, the bassist, producer and president of Blue Note Records since 2012.
Both Was and McLaughlin have donated to the campaign, as have many other musicians, including guitarist Pat Metheny.
“He’s one of the greatest improvising musicians of the past 100 years or so,” Metheny said before a show in Maine earlier this week. “It’s horrible to think it has come to this.”
The Detroit native has played on at least 100 records, which is probably a conservative estimate. Burrell made his recording debut with Dizzy Gillespie in 1951, teamed up for a record with Coltrane in 1958 and spent the 1960s doing not only session work — with everyone from Louis Armstrong to James Brown — but also starring on organist Jimmy Smith’s smash Blue Note records, including The Cat and Organ Grinder Swing, both of which cracked the Billboard Top 20.
“He was a killer,” McLaughlin said. “We all imitated Kenny. Who else are you going to imitate? Coltrane never recorded with a guitar and yet he recorded with Kenny.”
“He’s always had this clarity in the way that he plays,” Metheny said. “People talk about blues guitar and you kind of have this image in your mind of B.B. King and Son House, and Kenny is connected to that in a very deep way but in a very different kind of way. The cleaner kind of sound. There’s not really any string bending going on.”
Trumpet player Joey DeFrancesco also contributed to the campaign. “I think the biggest thing to speak to is what a wonderful human being he is,” DeFrancesco said. “He’s always so nice to everybody. A wonderful cat. And as you can see, that’s why everybody jumped on the case.”
By that, he means the 2,831 contributors who responded in the first six days. By Wednesday, the campaign’s goal of $100,000 had been surpassed by $50,000. Donors include former Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger and drummer John Densmore, pianist Ahmad Jamal, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and guitarists Smokey Hormel and Jimmy Vivino, not to mention a slew of fans who have given $10, $15 and $20.
“Fans need to understand it’s only the rare stars that make enough money that they’re set,” said Hormel, who has recorded with the likes of Johnny Cash, Beck, Joe Strummer and Jenny Lewis. “Musicians have to work their whole lives. That’s just how it is. And somebody like Kenny Burrell, I’m sure on a lot of those records it was just a day rate, session fee, and probably didn’t get any residuals.”
Burrell didn’t just play. He’s been a music professor at UCLA, establishing the first college course on Duke Ellington there, and he was named an NEA jazz master in 2005. But last week, his wife revealed that the unresolved mess — and Burrell’s medical bills — made her fearful that they might be left homeless.
Burrell isn’t the first musician to seek help through crowdfunding. Drummer Alphonse Mouzon raised $61,000 after he was diagnosed with cancer. (He died in 2016.) And New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, who has cancer, is in the midst of a campaign.
Was said that what’s happening with Burrell is a larger problem that extends beyond music. He watched it with his own father, who died last year at 93.
“I’m not surprised that anybody who is nearly 90 years old has problems surviving,” he said. “Whether they’re musicians or teachers or flight attendants. So I’m not shocked. Kenny’s had an exceptionally bad series of unpredictable events that no retirement plan could really anticipate.”
Blue Note Records had a special relationship with Burrell, who recorded for the label during his prime (1956-1963) and returned in the 1980s. Even though Burrell is contractually no longer tied to the label, Was said he was working with the family.
And Burrell? He returned a pair of phone calls earlier this week but said he didn’t want to do any interviews.
“I’m doing OK right now,” he said. “Listen, let me just say that.”