Denver resident and bass player Charlie Burrell has long been known as the “Jackie Robinson of music.” Though he may not have been the very first Black musician to play with a major American symphony, his employment with the Denver Symphony Orchestra in 1949 absolutely made him a pioneer in this country. He’s also one of the last living musicians who played Five Points’ Rossonian hotel, back when the neighborhood was a major jazz hub in the west.
Burrell turns 101 years old on Monday. To celebrate, his family organized five days’ worth of visits and reunions; COVID-19 made it hard to go anywhere for his 100th birthday celebration. On Saturday, they made a trip to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which inducted Burrell in 2017. It was his first trip to the hall of fame, so he finally had the opportunity to see his face on the display honoring him.
At the moment, Burrell’s presence in the space is limited to one side of the Red Rocks gift shop. Karen Radman, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, told us the organization is planning for a bigger exhibit that is set to open next spring. During his visit, Burrell brought one of his signature Kangol hats, some photos and a hand-made wooden bass stand to donate for the upcoming display.
Radman said Burrell’s impact on multiple Colorado music scenes and breaking the color barrier in classical music made him a “perfect match” when it came to selecting him as an inductee.
Burrell has a special connection to Red Rocks, which Radman said she only learned about in recent weeks. When he was young, Burrell played in an evening summer orchestra series at the amphitheater. The gig didn’t pay much, so he also had a day job to make ends meet. While many of his colleagues taught music, Burrell took a position painting Red Rocks’ benches.
“I used a paintbrush and painted 9,000 seats in Red Rocks, bottom to top. Took me three months, but I did it,” he said, sitting on one of the original wooden seats, which now line the Hall of Fame’s space. “This is definitely one of the benches. I think it still remembers me!”
Burrell may be over a century old, but his sense of humor is still firing on all cylinders.
Someone in the crowd surrounding him on Saturday asked if he had any love for “today’s” music.
“No,” he said emphatically. “That’s my philosophy about today’s music and yesterday’s music. I’m from yesterday and thank God.”
Here’s a short doc we did on Burrell in 2017: