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Wayne State gives honorary degrees to virtuosos of jazz and opera

May 1, 2012

DETROIT (May 1, 2012) - At Wayne State University's 2012 commencement, the first ever held at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, the university will bestow honorary degrees upon jazz great Kenny Burrell and operatic tenor George Shirley. Both are renowned musicians, music educators and alumni of Wayne State.

Wayne State's commencement ceremony is scheduled for 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, May 7, 2012, at Ford Field, 2000 Brush Street, Detroit, Michigan 48226. For details about the event, visit

Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, WSU '55, was a music student at Wayne State in the early '50s when he made his recording debut as a member of Dizzy Gillespie's sextet. He has since recorded more than 95 albums under his own name and hundreds with other music superstars including Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins and James Brown. Duke Ellington once singled out Burrell as his favorite guitarist.

Burrell is not only an accomplished performer but also excels as a producer and composer whose work has been recorded by many well-known artists. His recordings include A Night at the Vanguard (1960); Midnight Blue (1963), Sunup to Sundown (1990), Then Along Came Kenny (1993), Lotus Blossom (1995) and Be Yourself: Live at Dizzy's (2010). He won a Grammy Award in 1988 for his Ella Fitzgerald tribute album Dear Ella.

 In the 1970s, Burrell began leading university seminars about music, and went on to become founder and director of the jazz studies program at UCLA, where he holds the rank of professor. In 2005, Burrell was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and received the Jazz Educator of the Year award from DownBeat magazine. His many academic honors include a Doctor of Humane Letters from William Paterson College, the Ellington Fellowship from Yale University and the 1988 Wayne State University Arts Achievement Award in Music.


Operatic tenor George Shirley, WSU '56, was a member of Wayne State's Marching Band, Concert Chorale, Choral Union and Men's Glee Club. After graduation he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he became the first African American member of the Army Chorus. Following his military service, Shirley entered and won the Metropolitan Opera's 1961 national auditions, becoming the first African American tenor to be offered a Met contract, and appeared in 28 roles in 26 operas over the next 11 years.

Shirley has recorded for RCA, Columbia, Decca, Angel, Vanguard, CRI and Philips. He won a Grammy Award in 1968 for the role of Ferrando in the RCA recording of Mozart's Così fan tutte. He received the 1981 Wayne State University Arts Achievement Award in Music and the 2007 Wayne State CFPCA Ovation Award for Career Achievement in Music.

On three occasions Shirley was a master teacher in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Intern Program. He taught music as a member of the faculty of University of Maryland's School of Music and the Aspen Music Festival and School. He now is Joseph E. Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice at University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre and Dance.

Wayne State University, located in the heart of Detroit's Midtown Cultural Center, is a premier urban research institution offering more than 400 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 32,000 students.