Celebrating Denver’s Charlie Burrell, The ‘Jackie Robinson’ Of Classical Music

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Charlie Burrell in the CPR Classical studios Friday Nov. 1, 2019. Burrell began his orchestral career with the Denver Symphony in 1949, becoming the first African American to sign a permanent contract with a U.S. orchestra.

Baseball legend Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in professional sports. Double bass player Charles “Charlie” Burrell did the same thing for classical music.

Burrell was the first African-American to sign with a U.S. symphony orchestra. That was in 1949 with the Denver Symphony, but we know it today as the Colorado Symphony.

Burrell, who will turn 100 this year, wanted to be a classical musician after he heard a Tchaikovsky symphony performed on the radio when he was a pre-teen growing up in Detroit. He talked to his mother about his plan. Burrell said her reply was, “Son, you can be anything you want to be. Just dedicate yourself night and day and don’t look back.”

Apparently, that’s what he did. After 10 years with the Denver Symphony, Burrell joined the prominent San Francisco Symphony and performed there until the mid-1960s. Then he came back to the Denver Symphony for 30 more years!

But all that time, Charlie Burrell wove his love of jazz into the mix, a genre in which he was equally skilled. He played in the Al Rose Trio, the first integrated jazz trio in Colorado, and he’s been on stage with jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday.

Burrell was still performing into his 90’s.

On Oct. 4, 2019, the Colorado Symphony honored Burrell with a concert to mark his 99th birthday. The concert ended with Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, the same piece Burrell heard on the radio in 1932 that inspired his career.  He said, “I could not believe it. I think it was the first time in my life I really shed a tear because it was so beautiful.”  

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