Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"The Life of Charlie Burrell: Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music"

The Life of Charlie Burrell:
Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music
by Charlie Burrell
Mitch Handelsman

Music historian G. Brown writes:

The "Jackie Robinson" of Classical Music ~ Charlie Burrell
In a precedent-setting career, Burrell excelled in both the classical and jazz musical worlds and broke down racial barriers along the way.
Born in 1920, Burrell grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In the seventh grade, he gravitated to the contrabass, practicing classical music four to eight hours a day while also honing his skills as a jazz player. He developed his abilities at Detroit’s famous Cass Tech High School and had regular jazz gigs once he turned 17. In 1941, Burrell joined the Navy. Stationed at Camp Robert Smalls outside of Chicago, he was selected to join the first-ever all-black Navy band. Following his honorable discharge, he enrolled at Wayne State University, but was told by administrators that he would not find a job teaching music in the public schools. Burrell then moved to Denver and landed a job in 1949 with the Denver Symphony Orchestra (now the Colorado Symphony), making him the first person of color under contract with a major orchestra. In the meantime, he was a regular at jazz clubs in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood. When he was 40, Burrell became the first black musician to join the San Francisco Symphony—he was called the Jackie Robinson of classical music—and was one of the first black professors at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Burrell returned to Denver in 1965, rejoined the Denver Symphony and played until retiring with the Colorado Symphony in 1999. Throughout his career, Burrell was the top on-call jazz bassist in Denver, sharing the stage with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Lionel Hampton and many other legends. He mentored countless musicians and groomed his niece, Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves. He received a Martin Luther King, Jr. humanitarian award in 2015.

San Francisco Symphony video, just released:

Colorado Public Radio talking with Charlie Burrell in 2006:

2015 video feature done by Denver music historian, G. Brown:

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