Charlie Burrell, The First Black Person To Have A Contract With A Major Symphony In The US, Celebrates His 100th Birthday


October 9, 2020

A celebration fit for a king!

The first Black person to have a contract with a major symphony in the United States, Charlie Burrell, celebrated his 100th birthday Sunday, Denverite reports.


Burrell is known as the Jackie Robinson of music; he is a trailblazer who opened a path into classical music for musicians who’d be otherwise ostracized. He made history as one of the first Black people to play in a major symphony when he joined the Denver Symphony Orchestra in 1949. 

He was born in Ohio, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and moved to Denver to be with family in 1949. That the same year, he joined the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which is now the Colorado Symphony, and made history as the ensemble’s first Black member.


“I didn’t take a vacation from the bass until I was 20 years old. That was for two delays, and I almost went crazy. I’ll never forget,” Burrell said.

He realized his affinity for the symphony when he was young after seeing a performance, becoming enamored by the musicians and their instruments. From that day forward, Burrell knew what he wanted to do, and he held onto that dream until he got the opportunity to make it happen, despite doubts from those who thought a Black musician could never join a symphony. 


After he joined the Denver Symphony, Burrell was still met with his share of challenges, taking odd jobs like bench washing to help make ends meet and continuing to play on stage at night. He continued to hone his craft, playing the stand-up bass across Denver and San Francisco. He performed for major acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole and became an integral part of the Five Points’ jazz scene.

Purnell Steen, Burrell’s cousin, helped organize the historic musician’s birthday celebration, complete with a caravan of bands, friends, family, and fellow musicians.


Steen spoke at the event, saying, “Today is an historic event because we are celebrating the centennial, or 100th birthday, of one of the most preeminent musicians who ever played…He broke the barriers in classical music and was the first visible [Black person] to play with a symphony orchestra.” 

For 85 years, Burrell has played music, paving the way and holding the door open for many after him. He and his wife Melanie watched the caravan of people from in front of their home, waving and accepting cards as they passed by. Although he doesn’t listen to much music anymore, saying he’s had “enough…in [his] lifetime, he was overjoyed to see all the people that showed up for him. “I can’t believe it! I’m shocked with all these people here,” Burrell said.




Happy Birthday, Mr. Burrell! 


Photo Courtesy of Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite/Colorado Symphony 

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