Charles Burrell (musician)

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Charlie Burrell at home with his son Chuck. Shot for by Kevin J. Beaty.
Charles Burrell
Born (1920-10-04) October 4, 1920 (age 100)
Toledo, Ohio, US
GenresJazz, Classical
Years active1938–present
Associated actsSan Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Denver Symphony Orchestra, Don Ewell, Whiskey Blanket, Nellie Lutcher

Charles "Charlie" Burrell (born October 4, 1920) is a classical and jazz bass player most prominently known for being the first African-American to be a member of a major American symphony (the Denver Symphony Orchestra, now known as the Colorado Symphony). For this accomplishment he is often referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of Classical Music".[1][2][3][4]

Early life[edit]

Charles was born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in depression-era Detroit, Michigan. In grade school, he excelled in music. When he was twelve years old, he heard the SFS under renowned conductor Pierre Monteux on his family's crystal radio, and vowed to one day play as a member of the orchestra under his direction.[5]

Start of musical career[edit]

After high school, Burrell landed a job playing jazz at a club called B.J.'s in Detroit's Paradise Valley. At the start of World War II, he was drafted into an all-black naval unit located at Great Lakes Naval base near Chicago. He played in the unit's all-star band with Clark Terry, Al Grey, and O. C. Johnson,[6] and took classes at Northwestern University and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Career as an orchestral and jazz musician[edit]

In 1949, Burrell joined his mother's relatives in Denver, Colorado, and was soon hired by the Denver Symphony Orchestra,.[5] In 1959 he fulfilled his dream of playing for Pierre Monteux by joining the SFS and remained there until 1965.[7] According to the book "Music for a City Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony", he charmed his way into an audition with the orchestra after a chance meeting in the street with Philip Karp, the principal bassist for the Symphony, while on vacation in San Francisco.[8]

He was called the first African-American to become a member of such a prestigious orchestra, and thus has been referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of classical music".[1][2][3][8][9][10][11]

According to Jet Magazine and Indianapolis Recorder articles in 1953, he quit playing in the Denver Symphony to become the bass player in Nellie Lutcher's band.[12][13] He went on to become a prominent jazz player in the scene of Five Points, Denver, and was featured in the PBS documentary on the subject.[14][15] At that time, the Jazz scene in Five Points was the only one between St. Louis and the West Coast, so it became one of the most alive in the country, often being referred to as "The Harlem of the West". He played in the first integrated jazz trio in Colorado, the Al Rose Trio.[16][17] He rose to be a central player in the Five Points jazz scene by becoming the house bass player at the Rossonian Hotel, considered the "entertainment central" spot in Five Points during that era.[18] He shared the stage with jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Count Bassie, and Lionel Hampton [9] as well as Gene Harris.[19]

He is also noted as the teacher and mentor of bass player Ray Brown and multi-Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves (who is also his niece).[20][21] Keyboardist George Duke (a cousin) also credited Burrell for being the person that convinced him to give up classical music and switch to jazz.[22][23] Duke explained that he "wanted to be free" and Burrell "more or less made the decision for me" by convincing him to "improvise and do what you want to do".

Charlie Burrell at home. Shot for by Kevin J. Beaty.

He still performed well into his 90s, including playing live in the studio of prominent Jazz radio station KUVO,[24] and was recently one of the two grand marshals that led the kick-off parade at the Five Points Jazz Festival.[25][26]

Awards and tributes[edit]

  • In 2008, he received a Denver Mayor's award for excellence in Arts and Culture.[27]
  • In 2011, he received a Martin Luther King Jr. humanitarian award [28]
  • Prominent Jazz radio station KUVO broadcast a tribute concert to him on his birthday.[29]
  • Congresswoman Diana DeGette also led a tribute to him on the floor of the United States House of Representatives in honor of his 90th birthday, referring to him as a "titan of the classical and jazz bass"[10]
  • The Alphonse Robinson African-American Music Association named the "Charles Burrell Award" after him,[30]
  • On November 28, 2017, he was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame[31]


  • Don Ewell: Denver Concert (Pumpkin)
  • Marie Rhines : Tartans & Sagebrush (Ladyslipper)[32]
  • Whiskey Blanket: No Object
  • Joan Tower / Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop – Fanfares For The Uncommon Woman (Koch International Classics)[33]


  • Charlie Burrell, Mitch Handelsman, The Life of Charlie Burrell: Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October 29, 2014)


  1. ^ a b "Charlie Burrell, pioneer black musician in Colorado, releases memoir". Archived from the original on 2019-04-26. Retrieved 2016-12-20.
  2. ^ a b "Cover Story".
  3. ^ a b "Professor releases book on life of renowned local artist Charles Burrell - CU Denver Today". 1 December 2014.
  4. ^ "Charlie Burrell: A Denver Musical Legend". Urban Spectrum. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  5. ^ a b "Charles Burrell - The HistoryMakers".
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Rothe, Larry. Music for a City Music for the World: 100 Years with the San Francisco Symphony. Chronicle Books, 2011. p134
  9. ^ a b Porter, William. "Bass player Charlie Burrell lays foundation for classical, jazz followers",,
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ Prominent African-American classical musicians preceding Burrell by approximately a century include composer Francis Johnson, classical guitarist Justin Holland, and National Peace Jubilee grand orchestra members Frederick E. Lewis and Henry F. Williams.
  12. ^ Jet, Jul 23, 1953, p40
  13. ^ Indianapolis Recorder,Indianapolis, Marion County, 25 July 1953, p13
  14. ^
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  17. ^ Handy, D. Antoinette. Black women in American bands and orchestras. Scarecrow Press, 1998. p19
  18. ^
  19. ^ Harris, Janie, and Bob Evancho. Elegant Soul: The Life and Music of Gene Harris. Caxton Press, 2005. p90
  20. ^
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  22. ^ Coryell, Julie, and Laura Friedman. Jazz-rock Fusion: the people, the music. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2000. p192
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