At 86, Charlie Burrell begins every day in the company of his tall, curvaceous bass. Together, they sway and swing through Bartok or Strayhorn, Ricard Strauss or Erroll Garner. A sonata first, a ditty second. Or vice versa, depending on the morning and mood.
For much of his eventful life, Burrell (BME ’65) has lived, as he puts it, “with one foot in each pond.” On the left, the jazz pond; on the right, the classical. In both worlds, one predominantly black, one predominantly white, he has hokey-pokeyed with soul and waltzed with grace.
Historians know him as the Jackie Robinson of classical music — one of the first black artists to overcome the color barrier. He did so when he joined the Denver Symphony Orchestra in 1949, though the press made slight mention of it at the time. Ten years later, Charlie Burrell became the first black musician to play with the renowned San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a breakthrough that earned headlines in newspapers all over the country.
Jazz aficionados, meanwhile, know him as the cigar-smoking sideman who could, and did, groove with the best. With bassist Milt Hinton and pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. With trumpeter Clark Terry and trombonist Al Grey. With, in fact, every legendary headliner on the dance club circuit.
That Burrell could straddle the two art forms so successfully made him an anomaly for most of his career, says DU psychology Professor Arthur Jones, a friend of Burrell’s and founder of the Spirituals Project, a DU-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the religious songs of African-American culture.
Today, jazz and classical musicians cross genres all the time, Jones explains, “but in Charlie’s generation, it was extremely uncommon. Most jazz musicians did not even know how to read music. They played by ear.”
Not only that, Burrell adds, but few blacks were afforded access to orchestral concerts, and most considered the realm of Mozart and Wagner both alien and unfriendly. His own aunt, he remembers, could barely fathom his interest in classical music and would ask him how he liked working with the “Denver Sympathy Band.”
As it happens, he liked it just fine. Relaxing in a green easy chair in his North Denver home, nattily dressed in ivory and brown, Burrell mulls over his dual citizenship in jazz and classical music — the prevailing themes, the high notes that now seem downright preordained, and even the low notes that ultimately sharpened his resolve.
The high notes could shatter crystal: five glorious years with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; sharing a stage with classical guitarist Andrés Segovia; backing up Billie Holiday at Denver’s Club Algiers; partnering with a gem of a bass, snagged for a mere $500 and affectionately nicknamed Black Beauty.
The low notes could curdle bile: the music teacher who asked him if he’d considered taking up the shovel and pick; the doctor who treated him for a run-of-the-mill infection with a smart-aleck “do you think it’s syphilis or gonorrhea?”; the bass instructor who began his first tutorial by asking Burrell to play “Old Black Joe.” “He sure has his damn nerve, I thought. But I got from him what I needed,” Burrell recalls.
That ability to counter racism with practicality, to focus on the positive and dismiss the negative, has sustained Burrell’s sunny outlook. “Honey, I enjoy life,” he says. And the signs of deep contentment are all around him: boxes of sheet music, stacks of records, piles of CDs, shelves of mementos, photos of his family — of Melanie, his wife of 38 years; of their combined offspring, “four black kids and four white kids”; of the miniature horses they raise in a spread outside of Berthoud, Colo. “I have my little castle here, and I have a marvelous time,” Burrell says.
To hear Burrell tell it, he’s always had a marvelous time. Born in 1920 in Toledo, Ohio, Burrell grew up in Detroit with six siblings and a formidable mother. His neighborhood, he recalls, was a “quasi-ghetto” — quasi because it was racially mixed and family focused. The real ghetto, the bleak ghetto, loomed a few blocks away.
“I was fortunate to go to well-integrated schools,” he explains, noting that his mother wanted her children to be comfortable with white people and their culture. “My mother was never a racist. She was one of the most anti-racist people in this world,” he says. In fact, he says, the fierce Mrs. Burrell protected her children from any environment, black or white, that she deemed “infested with illiteracy, ignorance and intolerance.”
In 1932, when Burrell was 12 and in the seventh grade, the school music teacher walked into his classroom and asked if anyone wanted to play in the orchestra. Ever game for a new experience, Burrell raised his hand. When it came his turn to claim an instrument from the storage room, the pickings were spare. “All we have is this big brown aluminum bass,” Burrell says, mimicking the orchestra director. “And I said, I’ll take it.”
Thus began Burrell’s lifelong love affair with bass and bow. “I had had no music before,” he recalls. “We didn’t even have a radio.”
Curiously, a radio played a defining role in his life just a few weeks later, when his family acquired a crystal set. Young Burrell took to scanning the airwaves for the sounds of faraway worlds.
“I lucked upon this station and this music I had never heard before,” he says. “It was the San Francisco Symphony playing — I’ll never forget this — Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The conductor was Pierre Monteux. The next day, I told my mother, ‘I think I would like to play with the San Francisco Symphony.’”
That chirp of budding ambition was music to his mother’s ears. Burrell remembers her exact response to this day: “She said, ‘Son, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are honest with yourself and don’t give up.’”
Animated by his new goal, Burrell began supplementing his music instruction at school with outside lessons he paid for himself. At 25 cents per session, they weren’t cheap. “I was selling milk bottles,” he recalls. “I was a hustler, a real little hustler.”
During the following years, Burrell studied under several renowned bassists, including the principal bassist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Although many instructors didn’t take on black students — why waste time preparing a protégé for opportunities that simply didn’t exist? — Burrell was consistently able to study with accomplished musicians. At the same time, he was developing a taste for the music of the neighborhood, the jazz of small combos and big dance bands. In seventh grade, he and some friends formed their own garage jazz group and jammed whenever possible.
Burrell’s progress and promise secured him a place at Detroit’s prestigious Cass-Technical High School, where he was required to study piano, drums and all the instruments of the orchestra. At the school’s ensemble hours, he witnessed live performances by world-class artists, including Ignacy Paderewski, a celebrated composer, pianist and one-time prime minister of independent Poland. “That was one of the biggest thrills of my young life,” he says.
While at Cass-Tech, Burrell rose at 4 a.m. for four hours of practice. Then he’d immerse himself in music for two hours at school, returning home late afternoon for another two to three hours of practice. Once he turned 17, he extended his day by signing on for gigs at local jazz clubs, where he’d play until closing. Even as a youngster, he was backing name acts, including Lionel Hampton’s big band. What’s more, he was having a blast.
“We were peddling love in those days,” he remembers, recounting the feel-good scene at Detroit’s Club B&C and Club Encino. People came to dance — together, Burrell emphasizes, deriding the isolated gyrations that infiltrated the dance floor with the advent of bebop. In fact, he maintains, by fostering joy and happiness among people of all colors on the dance floor, the jazz bands of the 1930s and 1940s did much to pave the way for desegregation.
Despite the late-night fun of the jazz clubs, Burrell never lost sight of his No. 1 goal. “My prime interest was to play classically. By the time I was 18 or 19, I realized that playing for the black dudes was limiting because you could only play in clubs,” he says. And Burrell had set his sights on the concert hall. By then, he also knew he wanted to blaze a trail, to make the elite world of classical music accessible to black musicians.
In 1941, just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Burrell joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Camp Robert Small outside of Chicago. Burrell played with the newly created all-black Navy band, which was rich in jazz talent. Burrell used his spare time to advance his classical studies under a prominent bassist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
When he returned to Detroit after the war, he enrolled in classes at Wayne State University thinking he could use his degree to teach music in the public schools. Just days before graduation, the school system’s music administrator congratulated Burrell on his accomplishment. “But in the same breath, he said, ‘As long as I am with the system, there will be no black music teachers in Detroit,’” Burrell recalls. “He’s lucky Mother had supplied me with great restraint.”
The following Monday, a thoroughly disgusted Burrell said a permanent farewell to Detroit and boarded a bus for Colorado. His mother had relocated to Denver several years earlier to join other members of her family. Within days of hitting town, Burrell landed a job at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital emptying bedpans. His big break in classical music came a few weeks later.
“I got on the streetcar — in those days Denver had streetcars — and I noticed this fellow with a long case, a bow case. His name was John VanBuskirk, and I said, ‘Is that a bass bow?’ And he said, ‘How did you know?’” In the conversation that followed, Burrell learned that VanBuskirk was a bassist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Eager to resume his studies, Burrell asked VanBuskirk if he could study with him.
A lesson or two later, VanBuskirk realized he was working with a serious musician, and he arranged for Burrell to audition for the symphony’s conductor, Saul Caston. Burrell remembers every minute of the big event, most of which was devoted to determining whether Burrell would prove compatible with the other musicians. “[Saul Caston] talked to me for 55 minutes. Then my audition lasted five minutes. I started playing the G scale, two octaves in whole notes. When I finished the scale up and down, Saul said, ‘How would you like to play with the symphony?’”
Burrell’s ultimate date with destiny — his stint with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra — also grew out of a chance meeting, this one with one of the organization’s bassists. After auditioning before world-renowned conductor Kurt Adler, Burrell took on the job of his childhood dreams. It was everything he had hoped it would be: demanding, challenging, exhilarating.
“But I couldn’t stand San Francisco,” he says, shuddering. “Earthquakes.” Seeking stable ground, he left the Bay Area and returned to Denver. Over the next three decades, he kept his feet firmly planted in his two favorite ponds, playing with the symphony and at jazz clubs around town. He also came to DU to finish the music education degree he’d started at Wayne State. Although he never taught, Burrell says that the degree was a way to keep his options open.
Burrell retired from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in 1999, but he can still be enticed to join a jazz combo or play for appreciative audiences.
Jones, for example, often asks him to perform for a DU course — the Cultural Dynamics of African-American Music. “He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of all things jazz,” Jones explains, noting that students are delighted to meet someone who can relate personal stories about Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. In addition, Burrell models an old-fashioned gentility and humility that are increasingly rare in today’s celebrity musicians. “He’s a very warm, generous, down-to-earth person who is not particularly impressed with himself,” Jones says.
Good gracious, no. “I don’t have an ego,” Burrell admits. “None. Mother taught me that 72 years ago. NO EGO. She used to say, ‘Don’t let your latitude get in the way of your attitude.’”
And though his latitude is undeniable — Burrell and his bass stand upright and proud in the music history books — his attitude is conditioned every morning by his encounters with Bela and Billy. As in Bartok and Strayhorn.