Meet Charles Burrell

Honoring the Legacy of Charles Burrell, the first person of color to sign a contract with a symphony orchestra.

Charles Burrell Mural

In grade school, Charles Burrell excelled in music. When he was twelve, he heard the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under renowned conductor Pierre Monteux on the family's crystal radio. He resolved to play one day for an orchestra under the direction of Monteux, whom he began to idolize. He developed his skills on the bass at Detroit's famous Cass Tech High School, where eighteen of the principal musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra taught. Principal bassist Gaston Brohm agreed to teach Burrell if he would promise not to play the classics for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Burrell considers Oscar Legassy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra his best teacher and greatest influence. After high school, Burrell landed a job playing jazz in Detroit's Paradise Valley at a club called B.J.'s. (courtesy of thehistorymakers.org)

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1920, Burrell was raised in Depression-era Detroit, Michigan. His mother, Denverado, the daughter of an A.M.E. minister from Denver, Colorado, provided inspiration and direction despite the family's poverty.

He joined the Denver/Colorado Symphony in 1949, and did not retire until 1999 after 50 years of performing with the orchestra as well as with the Colorado Opera Orchestra and the Central City Opera Orchestra.  Not only did he play classical music, but he is renowned for being an outstanding jazz bassist .  He has performed with jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holladay and many more.  All his life, he would get up at 5:00 every morning and practice for four hours before going to his other work, rehearsals, and performances. In 2020, Charles turned 101.

When I was twelve [I got interested in music]. Through one of those--as I often say, a fluke. You know, I hadn't thought about taking up an instrument or anything, but one Friday afternoon at three o'clock in the afternoon in junior high, which was the seventh grade, the teacher came around whose name was Harrington. And he announced that they had a few more instruments left in the music room, and did anyone want to play with the band.

– Charles Burrell

Charles Burrell Portrait at Colorado Music Hall of Fame
Charles Burrell seated next to bench sculpture of him