“Today is an historic event because we are celebrating the centenarial, or 100th birthday, of one of the most preeminent musicians who ever played,” Purnell Steen said as friends, family and strangers gathered to celebrate Charlie Burrell outside of his home in Lowry on Sunday. “He is known as the Jackie Robinson of music. He broke the barriers in classical music and was the first visible African American to play with a symphony orchestra when he came to Denver in 1949.”
Steen is Burrell’s cousin, one generation removed, and a prolific musician in his own right. He’s told us before that Burrell helped ensure he and other Black artists had a place in American symphonies as they honed their crafts. In addition to his long career playing the stand-up bass with orchestras in Denver and San Fransisco, Burrell was also a member of Five Points’ historic jazz scene. Steen said his cousin is the last surviving musician to play the Rossonian hotel on Welton Street, where he performed for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
On Sunday, Burrell was treated to a drive-by, socially distanced celebration.
We spoke to Burrell and Steen a few years ago. In our interview, Burrell remembered he fell in love with music as a small child. He picked up a bass when he was just 12 years old – 88 years ago – and begun practicing for hours a day.
“I didn’t take a vacation from the bass until I was 20 years old,” he said. “That was for two days, and I almost went crazy. I’ll never forget.”
He recalled seeing his first symphony as a child. Watching the musicians walk onto a stage, dressed in black ties with gleaming instruments, sparked a desire deep inside him. He wanted to be like them. Though Black musicians were mocked for similar aspirations, or told behind closed doors that joining a symphony was impossible, Burrell never doubted he could achieve his dream.
But his eventual hire to the Denver Symphony did not mean life would be easy. Burrell recalled taking a summer job washing the benches at Red Rocks to feed his family. In the evenings, he’d don a tuxedo and join his colleagues at the famous stage there to perform.
Steen said Burrell has dealt with some medical issues in the last few years. Though he recently spent nearly two and a half months in the hospital, he was upbeat and smiling during his birthday celebration.
“He’s very tough,” Steen said. “He’s very resilient.”
Burrell, for his part, was delighted to see so many people come to wish him well. They glided by in cars, yelling “happy birthday” and handing cards as Burrell and his wife, Melanie, watched and waved back.
“I cant believe it! I’m shocked with all these people here,” he said.
And when asked what he’s listening to these days, Burrell said something unexpected: “Nothing. I’ve had enough music in my lifetime. After 85 years of music, that was enough.”