Charles Burrell (1920–) is a classical and jazz musician who first joined the Denver Symphony in 1949 and played bass with the group for decades before his retirement in 1999. Sometimes called the “Jackie Robinson of classical music,” he was not actually the first Black classical musician in Denver (a distinction that goes to Jack Bradley). His life demonstrates the many obstacles to Black participation in classical music—many of which still exist today—yet his talent and determination led him to a long, successful career, including a stint with the San Francisco Symphony in the early 1960s. Also a sterling jazz bassist, Burrell performed at the Rossonian Lounge in Five Points and played gigs with local notables such as George Morrison as well as national names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Billie Holiday, and Fats Waller.
Charles Burrell was born on October 4, 1920, in Toledo, Ohio, as the third of Denverado and Ruben Burrell’s seven children. The family soon moved to Detroit. Burrell’s father was often absent, but his mother, whose father had been a minister at Denver’s Shorter A.M.E. Church, emphasized the importance of education for her children. Burrell joined his school’s orchestra in seventh grade, picking the bass because it was the only instrument left.
Soon afterward, Burrell heard the San Francisco Symphony playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 on the radio and declared that he wanted to perform with the orchestra someday, even though no major American orchestras employed Black musicians at the time. Aspiring Black classical musicians faced widespread educational disparities and cultural messages pointing them toward other genres instead of classical music. In fact, when Burrell went on to Cass Technical High School, the Detroit Symphony’s principal bass player agreed to teach him on the condition that he play jazz and blues, not classical.
After graduating in 1939, Burrell’s mostly white classmates at Cass Technical—one of the top arts schools in the Midwest—were hired to play in radio orchestras. Because of his skin color, Burrell was not; instead, he played jazz at bars and other local venues. He also played some classical music (Handel’s Messiah) at Detroit’s Ebenezer Church and spent the summer of 1940 studying bass in Boston.
After the United States entered World War II, Burrell joined the navy. Stationed at the segregated Camp Robert Smalls in the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, Burrell played in the Navy Band and studied bass with a member of the Chicago Symphony. He spent the final year of the war closer to home, at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile near Detroit.
Denver Symphony, 1949–59
After the war, Burrell played jazz in Detroit while attending Wayne State University on the GI Bill. He hoped to become a music teacher. Shortly before his graduation in 1949, however, the head of the Detroit school system told him that he would never hire a Black teacher. Burrell promptly moved to Denver, where his mother’s family lived. Taking a job at Fitzsimons Army Hospital, he happened to meet the Denver Symphony’s principal bassist, John Van Buskirk, on the streetcar. Burrell arranged to take lessons with Van Buskirk, who soon encouraged him to audition for the symphony.
The Denver Symphony’s conductor, Saul Caston, had a history of hiring Black musicians. In 1946 he had hired the symphony’s first Black musician, violinist Jack Bradley. But Bradley left after three years, discouraged by the ongoing discrimination he saw in American orchestras. When Burrell arrived for an audition later in 1949, Caston talked to him for nearly two hours to gauge his character and his ability to survive in the almost entirely white world of classical music. Only at the very end of the audition did Caston ask him to play a two-octave G scale. Burrell got the job, becoming the Denver Symphony’s second Black musician. He stayed for a full decade. Although he always felt supported by Caston and business manager Helen Marie Black, he sensed that he was merely tolerated by his fellow musicians, from whom he received “a very cool reception” and occasionally heard racist remarks.
Because the Denver Symphony had a short season and low pay, Burrell took extra jobs to make ends meet. He worked for the city, helping to clean venues at which he performed, such as Municipal Auditorium and Red Rocks Amphitheatre. He also continued to play jazz, often with local band leader and violinist George Morrison, and he served as house bassist at the Rossonian Lounge in Five Points. In the mid-1950s, he joined Colorado’s first integrated jazz band, the Al Rose Trio, before forming his own group a few years later.
San Francisco Symphony, 1959–65
In the summer of 1959, Burrell got a position with the San Francisco Pops Orchestra. Principal bassist Phil Karp asked him to audition for the regular symphony—his dream job since he started playing music. He got the position and joined the orchestra, where he felt fully accepted for the first time in the classical music world. While in the Bay Area, Burrell became one of the first Black teachers at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He also continued performing jazz on the side, this time in the band of legendary pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Return to Denver
In 1965 an earthquake in San Francisco convinced Burrell to return to Denver, where he quickly rejoined the Denver Symphony. He soon achieved an old goal by earning his teaching certificate from the University of Denver. He also married symphony cellist Melanie White. As before, he had to take extra jobs to supplement his symphony pay; this time, he worked as a skycap at Stapleton Airport. He also was elected to the board of the local musicians’ union, where he helped symphony musicians navigate a series of contentious contract disputes and other financial problems.
The Denver Symphony went bankrupt in 1989, when its musicians left the organization to form a new orchestra called the Colorado Symphony. Burrell played with the Colorado Symphony until 1999, when he resigned owing in part to the ongoing discrimination he experienced. After his retirement, he continued to perform jazz with his Charlie Burrell Trio.
Now 100 years old, Burrell is recognized as a Denver-area musical treasure. In addition to being one of the first Black classical musicians to play with a professional American orchestra, he is at least as well known locally for his role in the Five Points jazz scene. He is believed to be the last surviving musician who played at the famed Rossonian Lounge, and over the years he also mentored Dianne Reeves, a Grammy-winning jazz singer; George Duke, a pianist who played with Frank Zappa; and Purnell Steen, a Denver-area jazz pianist.
In 2017 Burrell was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame and the Blacks in Colorado Hall of Fame. In October 2019, the Colorado Symphony celebrated his ninety-ninth birthday by performing the piece that first inspired him to pursue a career in classical music, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. A year later, a crowd of well-wishers gave Burrell a drive-by birthday parade in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite this recognition of Burrell’s achievements, some of the barriers that he faced during his career remain in place for Black classical musicians, particularly the popular identification of classical music with wealthy whites. Even today, more than seventy years after Jack Bradley and Burrell broke the color barrier with the Denver Symphony, only 2 percent of musicians in American orchestras are Black.