A jazz legend said he was in desperate need of money. His friends had questions.
Geoff EdgersLOS ANGELES —
Kenny Burrell, a hero to generations of guitarists and one of the few jazz giants still alive, was in serious trouble, according to a May GoFundMe campaign. Or was he? (Damian Tsutsumida/UCLA)
It had been more than two years since Jacques Lesure had seen Kenny Burrell, 87 , but the legendary jazz guitarist seemed okay on the phone in April. No mention of overwhelming medical bills or impending eviction. No suggestion that he feared that merely allowing a visitor into his home could lead to a fatal illness.
“I’ve never heard him sound like he’s on death’s door,” said Lesure, a fellow guitarist who has known Burrell for 25 years and had been delivering groceries to his door until recently. “And I’ve never had a financial conversation with Kenny.”
But on May 9, Katherine Goodrich, 50, Burrell’s wife, launched a GoFundMe campaign because, she wrote, the couple desperately needed help. Their medical expenses, a case of identity theft and a dispute with the homeowner’s association in their building made her fear they faced homelessness. “I can’t maintain Kenny’s health and safety in that kind of environment,” she wrote.
The great Kenny Burrell, a hero to generations of guitarists and one of the few jazz giants still alive, was in serious trouble. Or was he? When the UCLA police showed up on May 10 for a wellness check, they said Burrell assured them he was fine.
Lesure was mystified by Goodrich’s plea. He says Burrell’s friends and family — he has four adult children from previous marriages — would never let him end up homeless. Burrell also remains a professor at UCLA, where he has been on paid leave since 2017, according to the university. Sue Townsley, another friend who maintained phone contact, said she felt the same way.
“I didn’t know what to make of it,” said Townsley, a now retired UCLA administrator, of the campaign. “It didn’t ring true to me. As a bottom line, I haven’t given a dime and I care very, very much about Kenny.”
But more than 4,500 people have responded to Goodrich’s call, which also received an endorsement from the New York-based Jazz Foundation of America and JazzTimes magazine. Those donors include fellow guitarist Pat Metheny, Blue Note Records president Don Was, and the two remaining members of the Doors, drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robbie Krieger. The campaign cracked $244,000 this month and continues to grow. And while the Jazz Foundation called the GoFundMe results “inspiring,” the campaign has sparked a different response from some longtime friends and colleagues.
They are skeptical of the basis of the campaign, saying it is out of character for the obsessively private Burrell, and they worry it will tarnish his reputation. They also fear for his well-being. Tenants at the building on Greenfield Avenue say they haven’t seen Burrell leave his unit since at least 2018. His friends say the only way they can talk with him is on the telephone. In court documents and emails, Goodrich states that because of the couple’s “severely compromised immune issues” that “exposure to foreign chemicals, airborne or otherwise” could kill Burrell.
“Here he is, he hasn’t been out of the house in two years, his wife is telling him that he’s in danger if he sees somebody,” says Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, the now-retired UCLA vice chancellor who last spoke with Burrell in April and said she has wrestled with whether to say anything publicly out of respect for the guitarist. “It’s utterly bizarre, and when you see something this bizarre, you don’t expect a happy ending.”
Friends and colleagues are skeptical of the basis of the campaign, saying it is out of character for the obsessively private Burrell, and they worry it will tarnish his reputation. They also fear for his well-being. (Damian Tsutsumida/UCLA)
Burrell and Goodrich have not responded to multiple interview requests from The Post. Last week, JazzTimes published what it said was a statement from Burrell addressing what he called rumors about his well-being, the GoFundMe campaign and Goodrich. He took issue with claims that his children and an unnamed former UCLA colleague disapproved of the campaign and said that “the gossip caused my wife and I distress, because of false accusations and speculation and doubt without knowledge of or regard for the facts.”
In the statement, Burrell said that the couple’s financial crisis made the campaign “necessary for our survival.”
He also refuted what he said were rumors that Goodrich has isolated him from friends and family.
“My wife is not controlling me or my affairs,” the statement read. “She is managing OUR affairs as a married couple. She has worked hard to protect me, and manage a series of crises and very unfortunate circumstances, all while taking care of me 24/7.”
After the statement, three of Burrell’s four children — Maya, Eddie and Jocelyn — told The Post that they did not want to discuss their father’s situation in detail, though they said their relationship has been strained because of Goodrich. They did say they were “hurt and disturbed” by the JazzTimes statement.
“We love our Dad,” the children said in their own statement. “Always have and always will be here for him.”
(Kenny Burrell Jr., his fourth child, could not be reached.)
Burrell arrived at UCLA in 1978 to teach a course on Duke Ellington at the school’s Center for Afro-American Studies. By then, he was already a star, the silky-smooth guitarist with perfect tone who got co-billing with John Coltrane, played on Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and recorded with everyone from Aretha Franklin to James Brown. His 1963 album, “Midnight Blue,” is considered a Blue Note Records classic.
UCLA eventually promoted Burrell to professor in 1996 and had him create the school’s Jazz Studies program. He directed it until 2016. That’s also the last time he was spotted on campus.
On Dec. 3 of that year, UCLA held an 85th birthday celebration concert for Burrell. About 1,000 people came to Royce Hall to hear the guitarist, who wore a crisp blue suit and played his beloved Gibson Super 400 archtop.
Sometime soon after the event, according to Burrell’s JazzTimes statement, he had a fall that led to several surgeries due to bleeding in the brain. It is not clear what happened next. He was on medical leave from January 2017 through December 2018. Instead of returning to campus this year, Burrell went on paid sabbatical, according to UCLA.
“He’s always been close to the vest,” says Clayton Cameron, who played drums with Burrell for years and did not contribute to the GoFundMe because of his doubts. “It was just, ‘Hey, I’m getting better. I’m fine.’ ”
Goodrich, who met Burrell in the 1990s when she was a graduate student at UCLA, has been more open in sharing her description of her husband’s condition. But some of Burrell’s friends and UCLA colleagues have voiced doubts about the veracity of her reports.
The most detailed accounts emerged this year when the homeowner’s association at the three-story, beige and brown building near UCLA’s campus, sued Burrell and Goodrich when they would not allow workers into their 1,900-square-foot penthouse unit after a plumbing leak.
In a response to the lawsuit filed in May, Goodrich said that she kept outsiders from entering Unit 302 upon the recommendation of Todd Forman , a physician who she said in the court documents has treated the couple for “at least the past 20 years.”
“My husband and I have severely compromised immune systems as a result of chronic health conditions,” Goodrich wrote. “Mr. Burrell has a chronic brain hematoma that could progress if he develops an upper respiratory infection with a cough.”
“Dr. Forman,” she continued, “has informed us that the hematoma, or residual blood in the brain, can be exacerbated by anger, emotional distress, or stress.”
Goodrich also stated in the court documents that Burrell has kidney cancer.
Forman, reached by The Post, said he could not say whether he has treated the couple in person because of doctor-patient confidentiality. Forman said that he is a saxophone player, as well as a doctor, and considered himself a friend of the couple. He met Burrell in the 1990s when he attended UCLA’s medical school and played in the jazz band. He defended Goodrich.
“She loves Kenny and Kenny loves her and she’s nothing but 100 percent supportive,” Forman said. “And where she’s coming from is only from a good place, of a place of trying to protect him, of trying to keep him alive as long as she can.
Forman said he did not tell Goodrich that they could indefinitely not have visitors.
“They obviously have a healthy paranoia for disease,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s their decision. You might not agree with her take on health and wellness and getting out there, but it’s Kenny’s decision on how he might want to live his life.”
Nicholas Caplin, the couple’s attorney, said that he had not been authorized to discuss Burrell and Goodrich’s health.
GoFundMe takes pride in having raised more than $650 million for people with medical issues. While most of those cases appear legitimate, there have been some recipients accused of fraud.
A spokeswoman for GoFundMe said the company has paid attention to the Burrell campaign because of its size. She added that GoFundMe is not aware of any concerns, but “we do have a guarantee that in the event anything goes wrong, donors are always protected.”
The day Goodrich launched the effort under the site's "medical" category, Guy Eckstine, son of late singer Billy Eckstine, called the campaign "very fishy" on the JazzTimes Facebook page.
“Kenny is a tenured professor at UCLA for almost 50 years and there’s no way he does not have the best health insurance on the planet,” Eckstine wrote.
Tara Browner, a UCLA professor of ethnomusicology who has worked with Burrell, raised the same questions online. She says she remembers seeing the couple at a Whole Foods market about 15 years ago, when Burrell was in his early 70s and Goodrich was in her mid-30s.
“Kenny was pushing her around while she was in a wheelchair,” said Browner. “This is a longtime, ongoing thing.”
In May, UCLA released a statement noting that Burrell remained a full-time faculty member with health benefits. (In 2017, Burrell’s regular pay was $192,408, according to public records.)
After Eckstine and others began to question the GoFundMe, Goodrich spoke with the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization based in New York. The foundation then issued a statement that read, in part, that the organization had “reviewed documents attesting to the financial need described in the GoFundMe post.” The foundation also praised the couple for opening “up a world of such goodness and generosity, which they so richly deserve.”
JazzTimes magazine, quoting the Jazz Foundation, then posted that the GoFundMe page was “legitimate.”
“I actually felt kind of bad to even question it, knowing him and knowing what a class act he was in the course of his career,” says Eckstine.
But Robin Tomchin was alarmed by the Jazz Foundation’s statement. Tomchin, Burrell’s former daughter-in-law, managed the guitarist in the 1980s and 1990s along with her then-husband, David Burrell, the guitarist’s son. That relationship ended when she and David divorced, but she says they remained in touch before David’s death in 2006.
Tomchin called Jazz Foundation founder Wendy Oxenhorn.
“Their intentions are good,” says Tomchin. “But they didn’t do their research before they allowed this press release to come out. They didn’t call UCLA, they didn’t call any of his children, they didn’t call staff. They took Katherine’s word, and they just went with it.”
Oxenhorn declined to comment and Joseph Petrucelli, the foundation’s executive director, responded to multiple calls with an emailed statement. He said that the Jazz Foundation spoke only with Goodrich and that “we had reviewed documents provided to us by Katherine attesting to the Burrells’ financial need.”
Kenny Burrell performs at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3, 1969, in Newport, R.I. The jazz guitarist has performed with John Coltrane, played on Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and recorded with stars including Aretha Franklin and James Brown. (Tom Copi)
This month, JazzTimes editor Mac Randall said that Burrell called and told him that he wanted to send the statement. Burrell did not go into specifics on the phone, Randall said, and did not mention UCLA or issues with his family. But Goodrich, through a private Facebook message, wrote Randall that the guitarist’s children were unhappy about the GoFundMe, he said.
Randall said that the Burrell statement came from Goodrich’s email address.
“I was in touch with Katherine, and she says that it came from him,” he said. “I don’t really know if there’s any other way that I can verify that it came from him.”
He also said that he went “back and forth” about whether to publish the statement.
“I did it in a way to kind of wait and see who responds,” says Randall. “Clearly, there is a need. The question is what’s the money really going to?”
Burrell, who does not have any children with Goodrich, bought Unit 302 in 1999 for $379,000, according to real estate records. After he and Goodrich were married, Burrell changed the deed on the property, granting her co-ownership. In 2010, the couple refinanced by taking out a $468,000 loan.
On a recent weekday, nobody answered knocks at Unit 302. There was a printed warning taped to the door stating that: “This is a private residence that contains audiovisual recording devices, and entry is acknowledgment that one waives any confidentiality and privacy rights.”
In May, after the campaign launched, Burrell did return The Post’s call but declined an interview request. “I’m doing okay right now,” he said.
In early June, Goodrich said she did not want to discuss the details of the GoFundMe or the lawsuit.
“Enough has been printed about it,” she said. “We’re being helped by some very kind people, and that’s the end of it.”
This month, Burrell and Goodrich vacillated over several interview requests made through Caplin, their attorney. When asked if his clients would consider meeting in person, Caplin, who says he has not met his clients in person, asked if the reporter would wear protective gear. At one point, Caplin said the couple had agreed to take written questions. But they did not respond when a list of subjects was provided.
“We have two very private people, prideful, private people, who have been thrust into a situation that makes them very uncomfortable,” Caplin said. “It’s emotional, it’s heavy, they’re not enjoying themselves regarding any of this. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that intervention of the public and the press has resulted in further emotional degradation and, frankly, fear.”
Even before the couple's current dispute with the homeowner's association, some neighbors have complained to management about Goodrich, according to residents. Such complaints ranged from refusing to participate in a building-wide treatment for termites to, they say, muffling of a fire alarm with a rag because it made noise during a test.
“I don’t think there’s a rule she ever followed,” says Azra Hot, a second-floor tenant who has been a vocal critic.
Other neighbors have taken to photographing the stacks of delivery boxes piled outside the couple’s door that tend to disappear at night, they say, replaced by stacks of cardboard.
“What if they catch fire?” says Shiling Sun, a retired interior designer who lives across the hall. “I couldn’t even get out. The exit door is right there.”
Mitchell-Kernan, the former UCLA vice-chancellor, said that when she was last allowed inside to visit Burrell more than a year ago, the boxes were piled from “floor to ceiling.”
“I didn’t think of this at the time, but then when I realized this stuff has been around here for a while, then I began to speculate more about what was going on about her not letting people in,” she said. “I think she didn’t want anybody to see what was in there.”
In the GoFundMe, Goodrich states that if she and Burrell lose the lawsuit, the building has “the right to foreclose on our property.”
The front door of the Greenfield Avenue home of Kenny Burrell and Katherine Goodrich, Burrell’s wife. (Shiling Sun)
A more recent view of the front door. (Azra Hot)
There is no indication in the legal documents that the homeowner’s association is trying to force them out of the unit they own.
In the filings, the building’s tenants and representatives ask that Goodrich and Burrell let professionals in to inspect and repair any leaks.
In the JazzTimes statement, Burrell says that the couple chose not to discuss the lawsuit but that they have been forced to spend more than $40,000 on legal fees and that they “never anticipated that it would be such a long and expensive process.”
Also in the statement, he said that their unit requires “a lot of work, including remediation and repairs.”
“This will be very expensive,” says the statement. “Relocation is necessary during these repairs, and that is also expensive. I have to stay near the medical center because of my health issues. So, our relocation will be a necessary expense.”
The dispute at the center of the current lawsuit began Nov. 10 in the middle of the night, when Stanley Chua, who lived with his family in Unit 202, discovered water coming through their bathroom ceiling. Jenny Chan, his wife, says she knocked on Burrell and Goodrich’s door and Goodrich, while acknowledging she was there, refused to open it.
Over several months, building management made attempts to enter 302, but Goodrich refused. In court documents, Goodrich stated that she resisted inspectors to protect her husband’s health. In late December, when she finally agreed to let the building’s contractors in, she said they only found a leak by spraying water through cracked grout above a bathtub that she said the couple had not used in 20 years. As evidence, Goodrich offered a photograph of the tub filled with boxes and other materials that she said were medical supplies. In the court documents, Goodrich also complained that when the contractors were in their unit, they removed their face masks while speaking on their cellphones, which “exposed myself and Burrell to germs that our body cannot handle.”
The day after Christmas, Chua and Chan say they were told by inspectors that their home was unsafe because of mold and were ordered to move to a hotel with their two children, 2 and 5. In March, still unable to get access, the Parkview North Homeowners Association filed suit. In May, after the GoFundMe was launched, Chua and Chan filed their own lawsuit, accusing Burrell and Goodrich of negligence that they claim cost them $250,000.
Also in May, after a court order, an inspector entered 302 on the condition that he wear a Tyvek suit, mask, gloves and goggles. He found water leaking from areas around Burrell and Goodrich’s bathtub into Chan and Chua’s unit and recommended repairs, according to the inspection report.
The couple say it is too late. Their difficulties with Goodrich persuaded them to move out permanently.
One incident, from December, haunts Chan. She and a maintenance person hired by the homeowner’s association approached 302. Goodrich opened the door, snapped a photo with her phone, and slammed the door. She later sent an email stating that she and Burrell had contracted viruses from the exchange and that “if anything happens to my husband, all parties will all be liable for injury and/or death.”
“When I received that email, I was driving. I almost vomited,” says Chan, standing in the living room of her now empty former home. “It’s very scary. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The GoFundMe also upset the couple. They are carrying two mortgages until they can sell their Greenfield Avenue home. They fear that the money from the crowdsourcing campaign will go to prolong the case.
“They’re the ones who caused the issue; we are the ones who suffered,” says Chan. “But at the end of the day, we feel like she used this as a source to get money from people who don’t really know the story.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report